It was a time of innocence, of compassion, of playfulness. A time before the Nanny State, rampant gang culture and too many road accidents caused parents to forbid their children from “playing out.” Before the web became everyone’s favourite distraction, before video games conquered the home and before Toy Day was brushed aside by schools for being “too childish.” It was the golden age of children’s television, and I never imagined I would feel such an attachment to it.
During my school days in the 90s and very early 00s, children’s TV was unmissable entertainment for me and the rest of my generation. The faces of children’s TV were the studio presenters. Engrained on so many memories, these affable souls, who weren’t afraid to have a laugh at themselves, had the enthusiasm to make every show feel like a treat for those watching. And with the daily dose of cartoons, factual entertainment shows, dramas and game shows filling the terrestrial schedule at breakfast and after school, why wouldn’t they be?
There was an unspoken sensibility to children’s TV programming from the 80s to the early 00s. It wasn’t merely an after-school saviour for busy, working parents, it was a destination for children to be entertained, educated and inspired. Watching CBBC, CITV or Milkshake! made you part of a nationwide community that was far more inclusive than the rest of life at that age.
Tuning into the familiar faces of presenters was akin to seeing mutual friends. Though it didn’t become apparent to me until much later, the multiculturalism in children’s TV presenters, especially during the 90s, was a pioneering step for television media. Andi Peters, Josie D’Arby, Angellica Bell and Michael Underwood were heroes for breaking through the dogma that said ‘people of a different ethnicity can’t feature in or present positive media’. Studio breaks with a presenter humanised children’s TV and gave it continuity that’s nonexistent today. Audience interaction was a huge part of the formula (that grew to ridiculous proportions during the peak of Saturday morning television). Birthday messages and audience contributions were regularly unveiled on-air by presenters, and competitions were also a staple.
Furthermore, before the internet, children’s TV was often the first place I became aware of concepts, people and new technologies outside of family and school life. You had occasional show biz interviews and studio presenters struggling to get their heads round email and minidiscs (yeah, remember those!), but programmes like Blue Peter, It’ll Never Work, The Really Wild Show, Short Change and Newsround brought the vivid intricacy, the variety and, sometimes, the harsh reality of life home to its young audience. (I could literally write a whole other post about Blue Peter, the appeals, the presenters, the adventures, the makes, the cookery, the controversy…)
Inevitably, parts of the schedule didn’t appeal to everyone. Back then, Grange Hill and Byker Grove, soap-style dramas aimed at a teen audience, were of zero interest to me. I told myself: I’ve just come from school, so why do I want to see glum-faced teenagers at school too? Nevertheless, the measure of how good children’s TV used to be can be judged by the number of shows my generation have fond memories of. Timeless cartoons, such as Rugrats, Spider-Man: The Animated Series, Tom & Jerry, Beast Wars: Transformers, ThunderCats, Hey Arnold!, The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Timon & Pumbaa, Dexter’s Laboratory, Mona the Vampire, Arthur, The Wild Thornberrys… the list goes on and on. I could spend another week writing about Hanna-Barbera, Looney Tunes, Cartoon Network, Nicktoons and Disney cartoons alone!
Popular sitcoms and dramas from overseas – Goosebumps, Animorphs, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, That’s so Raven, Even Stevens, Smart Guy and, my favourite, Kenan & Kel – and home-grown programmes – Mr Benn, Brum, Danger Mouse, Mr Men, Postman Pat, Paddington Bear, The Wombles, Thunderbirds, Dennis and Gnasher, Rupert, King Arthur’s Disasters, SMart, Zzzap!,The Demon Headmaster, Stitch Up!, The Ghost Hunter, The Basil Brush Show, Jeopardy, Bernard’s Watch, Sooty, Xchange, Kerching! and My Parents are Aliens (see a load more in this list of BBC children’s programmes, CITV programmes and cult TV shows) – meant children’s TV was never sort of catering to its increasingly diverse audience.
Saturday mornings especially used to be without doubt children’s time, with eight hours or more of cartoons, magazine shows and children’s programmes from as early as 6am. The battle for viewers between CBBC’s The Saturday Show and ITV’s SMTV Live grew to fever pitch in the 00s (as did the targeted advertising, which affected CITV’s funds for original programming and syndication rights). Every Saturday was a party chocked with special guests and never short of a screaming live audience.
The decline of children’s television is a tragedy. No more studios, no more cheerful presenters, no more competitions, no more imagined community for this generation of children to be part of.
Nowadays, terrestrial children’s TV is a ratings graveyard. Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and other cable TV channels haven’t preserved what was lost. Disney Channel is unrecognisable from what it was 10 or even five years ago. Their stable of original cartoons and film spin-offs, like Kim Possible and American Dragon, have been set aside in favour of Hannah Montana, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and Wizards of Waverley Place – live-action sitcoms forged from the same tired template of multi-talented, popularity-obsessed US teens, and the suggestion that inside everyone lies a performance artist waiting to blossom. Yeah, right.
Branding and merchandising is the reason Disney has been so quick to fill their channel with this uninspired live-action muck. After all, they’ve got millions of children hooked on High School Musical and Hannah Montana; think how may CDs, toys, books and stationery they must sell? This ideal, this false dream that western media have been selling for the last decade, that anyone can be famous, anyone can be a ‘celebrity’ is sickening. I’m positive it’s having a serious effect on the aspirations of children and young people because of its prevalence – especially girls. How many girls look up to female role models in fields like science or engineering or aviation? This is opening up a wider debate, but back to children’s TV.
What caused children’s TV into such a steep, nigh irreversible dive in the last seven years? Unlike my usual conclusion to the colossal changes to media during this period, the internet can take less responsibility than usual. Much of the blame lies with collective production burnout and, crucially, not reinventing with enough verve or broad appeal. Management at the BBC and ITV slashed budgets, advertising shrunk, studio broadcasts were scrapped, schedules were shifted, talent wasn’t replaced and producers retreated from original programming. The pull of seemly unending digital channels and audience fragmentation that increased choice resulted in are factors, too.
I could give a thousand-and-one reasons why children’s TV has begun to fade, but, much to my disappointment, that won’t save it. Children’s TV was a huge part of childhood for my entire generation, and I know I’m not the only one who looks back nostalgically at its memory. Of course, children’s TV has to change with the times, but when I look at it now, with its minuscule timeslots, its reluctance to buy-in cartoon classics both old and new, and its lack of true presenter-audience relationships, I can’t help but feel today’s children have missed out. TV is still a massive part of many children’s lives, and entertaining and enriching programming is what they deserve.
From the archives
Angellica Bell (CBBC, 1997-2003)
Kirsten O’Brien (CBBC, 1996-1999; SMart, 1999-2009)
Michael Underwood (CBBC, 1999-2002)
Konnie Huq (Blue Peter, 1997-2008)
Simon Thomas (Blue Peter, 1999-2005)
Barney Harwood (CBBC, 2002-2007)
Nick Baker (The Really Wild Show, 1996-2006)
Michaela Strachan (The Really Wild Show, 1993-2006)
Lizo Mzimba (Newsround, 1998-2008)
Ellie Crisell (Newsround, 2003-2008)
Andi Peters (CBBC, 1989-1993; Live & Kicking, 1993-1996)
Josie D’Arby (CBBC, 1994-1997)
Reggie Yates (Smile, 2002-2004)
Kate Heavenor (CBBC, 2002-200?)
Diane-Louise Jordan (Blue Peter, 1990-1996)
Jamie Theakston (Live & Kicking, 1996-1999)
Zoë Ball (Live & Kicking, 1996-1999)
Ant and Dec (SMTV Live, 1998-2001)
Paul ‘Des’ Ballard (Diggit, 1998-2002)
Ana Boulter (CBBC, 1998-2001)
Images: BBC (SMart, Blue Peter); Hanna-Barbera (Top Cat); Nickelodeon (Kenan and Kel)