Children’s Television


Children’s Television, the historical development of broadcasting aimed at younger viewers. Children’s television in the United Kingdom owes much to the public service ideals of the BBC, where John Reith, as the first director-general, made a commitment to provide programmes for children on the new “wireless”: “It is not to be like school. They’ve been at school all day. You will need to devise something to entertain and inform children and, if possible, to delight them. Children’s programmes must become a wonderment.” The daily radio programme Children’s Hour became a popular tradition in many households at teatime as it provided a carefully planned mixture of information and entertainment. When television became available throughout the United Kingdom after World War II it was a natural progression to build on this legacy. The new visual medium attracted even the youngest children to string puppets, such as Muffin the Mule and Andy Pandy, and many other programmes became firm favourites.

Despite the criticism that television might distract children from more worthy activities such as homework, Sunday school, or sports, in 1950 the BBC founded a television department of seven producers dedicated to serving the whole population under the age of 13. Until then, children’s programmes in the United Kingdom had been made as offshoots of adult departments, and in some countries, the only provision continued to be the occasional cartoon, puppet series, or advertising magazine. The BBC, however, believed that, after school, children needed a mixed diet of different kinds of stimulating entertainment, including storytelling, drama, natural history, current affairs, the arts, music, religion, history, comedy, and audience participation. During school hours, educational programmes were directed at specific age groups, with notes for follow-up work by teachers. As in radio, two separate departments covered these needs—Schools broadcasting and Children’s Programmes.


In the early 1950s, programmes were transmitted live from one small studio using four cameras, and simple factual magazines and entertainment magazines such as Whirligig rubbed shoulders once a week with ambitious drama serials such as The Railway Children, with a repeat performed live again on Sundays. Children were encouraged to join in games and competitions and All Your Own demonstrated their skills and achievements.

For pre-school children, the Head of Children’s Programmes at the BBC, Freda Lingstrom, devised the daily series Watch with Mother which used puppets and simple animation in a coherent mixture of entertainment and information. Directed at different aspects of a young child’s life, it involved action games and songs, imaginative fantasy, and learning about nature and family relationships. To critics who disapproved of television for children under the age of five, Lingstrom maintained that, since even impressionable two-year-olds were fascinated by television, they deserved their own programmes as much as any other viewers. Techniques in the 1950s may have been comparatively primitive, but some of those early programmes still work their magic with children today, as reissues of Andy Pandy and the remake in colour of Bill and Ben The Flowerpot Men in 2001 have proved. Crackerjack, with its slapstick comedy and banana skin jokes, began its long run in 1955.

Until 1955 the BBC was the only provider of television in the United Kingdom, but the coming of commercial television brought competition for all programmes, including those for children. The Independent Television (ITV) companies bought popular American Westerns and adventure serials, such as Lassie, shows that attracted large children’s audiences, as did the British-made Adventures of Robin Hood. The ITV schedule varied from region to region, but, as with the BBC, children’s programmes were usually transmitted after school and provided a gradual build-up of viewers until the early evening news. Financial investment in off-peak programming has always been low, and, although children’s programmes often cost more than programmes for adults because of their high visual content, budgets have always been restricted. Commercials between programmes on ITV are carefully monitored for suitability, but their costly production values sometimes expose the poverty of some of the children’s programmes they punctuate. Animated series, films, and dramas are expensive to make and purchased material from the United States and Japan was used to supplement original home-grown programming by both the BBC and ITV. Blue Peter, still popular in 2002, began its life in 1958 with a weekly 15-minute slot.


The foundations of the BBC’s public service for children were shaken in 1962 when producers of expensive drama and light entertainment were moved into the adult departments and others combined with Women’s Programmes to become a new Family Programmes unit. This led for a time to a devaluation of the children’s output and, in concentrating on the older members of the family, younger children were sometimes ignored or scared by the content. However, the children’s department was re-established in 1968 and the expertise of a group of dedicated producers led to an enriched schedule. Blue Peter (twice weekly since 1964) awarded badges for children’s achievements, interesting letters, and programme ideas. Its competitions empowered the audience enabling, for example, children as young as four years old to design the nation’s Christmas stamps or new carvings for the roof bosses for the fire-devastated York Minster. Blue Peter was the first programme to encourage children to collect scrap commodities, which could be recycled to provide money for charitable causes at home and abroad. The ITV magazine Magpie also encouraged children to help others, but through appeals for money rather than scrap materials.

In 1964 a daily live Play School was transmitted on the new BBC2, with male and female presenters who spoke to the individual child at home and encouraged participation. From its early days, the programme format was sold to other countries, which made their own versions of this embodiment of the ideas of good nursery education. It continued until 1988, by which time 5,000 programmes had been transmitted. On ITV, Romper Room and Rainbow also entertained the youngest viewers.

IV THE 1970S AND 1980S

In 1972 the glossy American children’s programme Sesame Street, with its fast pace, endearing Muppets created by Jim Henson, and superb animated sequences, teaching letters and numbers, eventually arrived on ITV. The BBC was criticized for not buying it, but at that time its creators, the Children’s Television Workshop, were not prepared to sell it as segments for use in a British setting, and the cost of whole programmes would have entailed the BBC losing all its own pre-school programmes made for British children.

During the 1970s, the number of programmes for older children expanded, with increased resources and larger audiences, whose members were respected as actively involved partners in the shared experience of television. The storytelling series Jackanory invited children’s stories and poems; Vision On, which began in 1955 as a series for deaf children, included a gallery each week to exhibit children’s paintings and crafts; during school holidays children showed their own activities in Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead?

The world’s first daily news bulletin for children, the BBC’s Newsround, began in 1972, followed by the documentary series Newsround Extra. In 1974 ITV produced an anarchic and innovative comedy called Tiswas on Saturday mornings, and 1976 saw the first Saturday morning participation series—the BBC’s Multicoloured Swap Shop—with its phone-ins and swaps. Children’s own lives were reflected in new BBC drama serials, such as Grange Hill, about the children of a comprehensive school, which began in 1978. Other contemporary series followed, such as Children’s Ward (later, The Ward) and Press Gang on ITV. Popular series, for example, Belle and Sebastien and Heidi, were bought from European countries and dubbed into English; others came from the United States, Australia, and East Asia.

Although explicit education was confined to schools’ programmes, many educative series made in entertaining forms for the non-captive audience were part of the daily mixture. Series on religion, archaeology, mathematics (Johnny Ball’s Think of a Number was an unexpected hit), music, natural history, sport, and the arts all aimed to stimulate interest and imagination. An understanding of children’s lives around the world was encouraged through a film. New styles of zany comedy were pioneered following ITV’s Do Not Adjust Your Set, while in 1977 the animated Plasticine figure of Morph appeared for the first time in the BBC’s Take Hart. Puppet and animated characters such as the BBC’s Basil Brush, Sooty, Postman Pat, Paddington Bear, and Dougal and Zebedee from the Magic Roundabout became favourite companions alongside the pets who were part of life in the Blue Peter studio. Exploration of the natural world continued in many series, such as Animal Magic, and, later, The Really Wild Show.

V THE 1990S

The television landscape in the United Kingdom began to change from the straight competition between BBC and ITV during the 1970s and 1980s when audiences peaked at 9 million viewers for favourite series. During these decade audiences fragmented as a result of the proliferation of cable and satellite, the popularity of videos and computer games, and the availability of breakfast shows and family soap operas, such as the Australian Neighbours or Home and Away. Competition for children’s attention is fuelled by advertisers and merchandisers who seek to increase sales of toys based on television series. The early ideals of the BBC pioneers who sought to provide high-quality, life-enhancing material are harder to maintain in the frantic commercial marketplace. American cartoons were regular features of cable and satellite channels such as BSkyB, and some of the new cable channels—including Nickelodeon, the Children’s Channel, the Disney Channel, and Fox Kids TV—are dedicated entirely to the young audience. The pace, pop music, and bright visual style of the new networks were designed, like commercials, to grab attention and provide instant gratification.

The well-established terrestrial channels responded to the competition with an increase in their own specially produced programmes for different age groups and time slots. The BBC has extended its popular children’s dramas, such as Byker Grove, The Biz, The Demon Headmaster, The Queen’s Nose, and Juliet Jekyll and Harriet Hyde. ITV’s series Woof and Matt’s Millions and Channel 4’s soap Hollyoaks also targeted the young audience. The BBC’s classic serial was reinstated on Sunday afternoons, with co-productions with the United States such as Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Prince and the Pauper. Other co-productions were made with Australia, and with a group of European broadcasters in the animated series The Animals of Farthing Wood.

In March 1997, the BBC introduced Teletubbies, a radical new children’s series—the world’s first to be aimed at children as young as 18 months. Controversially, characters speak in a “baby” language and use extensive repetition: these elements have been shown particularly to appeal to the pre-school age group. The Teletubbies’ world is a technological one—they have television screens in their tummies and aerials on their heads, for example. The success of this series has been phenomenal and it currently airs in over a hundred countries worldwide.


The choice of material for children’s television is governed by guidelines established for home productions. These include an emphasis on high-quality writing and presentation and the need for a clear distinction between reality and make-believe. Care is taken to avoid gratuitous violence, bad behaviour by role models, racial stereotypes, drug-taking, smoking, consuming unhealthy food and drink, the use of knives, ropes, or criminal techniques, cruelty to children or animals, explicit sex, swearing, and product advertising. Discussion of the possible ill-effects of violent action programmes led to the BBC’s first guidelines on violence, which concern all programmes, especially those before the 9 p.m. “watershed”, which ITV also adopted as the time when some programmes may be unsuitable for children. The guidelines do not ban all violence, but they stress that the consequences of violent behaviour should be shown and that news producer should consider the ages of the audience in the early evening. Alarmingly, a report from the BSC (Broadcasting Standards Commission) in January 2001 found violence, sex, and swearing on television had reached record levels. More than a quarter of incidents of swearing occurred before 9 p.m., the worst offenders being satellite broadcasters, who regularly breached the watershed guidelines. The Family Focus organization commented that “the people that lose out by watching this kind of filth are children who are highly influenced by what they see. Parents need to make a stand and take televisions out of their children’s bedrooms.”


These guidelines may well prove more difficult to maintain in the expanding digital age where problems with the uncensored Internet are already causing concern.


As emphasized by the influential Voice of the Listener and Viewer, the future of public service broadcasting for children is under grave threat as the UK market, already the most competitive in the world for young viewers becomes even more crowded.

Twenty channels will soon be broadcasting to children in Britain, only five of which bear any positive public service programme obligations in regard to the quality, diversity, or source of their programming. The pressure this puts on programme-makers and schedulers to deliver bigger audiences at less cost threatens the future of many live and original programmes, despite their popularity.

Too many working in the field, the future for both children and programme-makers looks grim without the introduction of imaginative fiscal measures to support the industry. Cutting the budgets of children’s programmes, they argue, is a shortsighted policy: there could be no better investment than funding programme-making of the highest quality for the adults of the future.

In 2002 Children’s BBC transmits over 30 hours a week on BBC1 and BBC2. It strives to maintain a high-quality output and diverse schedule with its pre-school programmes such as Bob the Builder, Teletubbies, and The Tweenies for three- to six-year-olds; factual series including The Really Wild Show and Short Change; entertainment shows such as Chucklevision and Steps to the Stars; and drama such as Grange Hill, Byker Grove, Pig Heart Boy, and The Magician’s House, plus Newsround and Blue Peter. Children’s ITV is mandated under the ITC licence to transmit a minimum of ten hours a week. There is a varied pre-school schedule including Mopatop’s Shop and Dog and Duck, plus animation like Kipper and Hilltop Hospital. The information strand includes Art Attack and How 2, and entertainment programmes include Jungletots and Twister. Its drama schedule has been strengthened with the popular Worst Witch and My Parents are Aliens. Fungus the Bogeyman will air shortly. For the first time in 12 years, ITV had a huge autumn rating success on Saturday mornings with SM: per centtv Live hosted by Ant and Dec.


More percent of children currently live in multichannel households and this figure is expected to rise rapidly over the next few years. The BBC believes children and their parents should have the option of choosing advertising-free programmes made in the UK for UK children. In February 2002 the BBC launched two dedicated children’s services—CBeebies for two- to five-year-olds and CBBC for six- to thirteen-year-olds. Both channels are supported by interactive services and the pre-school channel carries support information for parents and carers. Children’s ITV has plans for a dedicated digital channel but there is currently no fixed launch date.

Channel 4’s educational service launched the Hoobs in January 2001—the first pre-school programme designed to encourage three-to-five-year olds to use the Internet. The theme of each 25-minute episode is learning about the world.

Contributed By:
Monica Sims

Reviewed By:
Biddy Baxter

Credited images: yesstyle