Children’s TV: memories old and new
What are children watching now? A look back into the fast-receding past shows that there are many differences between then and now. Perhaps a reminder might serve to point up the contrasts and a few similarities. My children (two sons) are Gen X & Y and were brought up on a steady diet of Sesame Street, Humphrey B. Bear, Play School and video-tapes of Star Wars. They were too busy playing yard cricket to watch TV sports, whether Test matches or Packer’s predigested. Footy sometimes got their attention: the mid 80s were the Bombers’ heyday, untouched by any whiff of scandal and when there was an Essendon game on, then there was concentrated attention. To listen to my boys sagaciously debating kicking techniques and deploring umpires’ decisions was to be in that kind of parent little-heaven, when your beloved little ones display judgement and maturity, in that nirvana time of childhood before Cyclone Puberty hits your household.
We watched an average amount of telly: some watched more and others watched much less. For a time, my younger son went to Steiner school, where he flourished in that cultured and unconventional environment. But he was one of the minority when it came to TV; most Steiner kids weren’t allowed to watch it. There were many great things about Steiner education, but my husband and I weren’t alone in thinking that the system was being somewhat Amish in its approach to the modern (indeed postmodern) world of the fast-closing 20th century. Still, however, we all cherish the memory of the winter of 1990, when we decided (before our son went to Steiner school) to switch off the telly and instead embarked on a family project: reading the whole of The Lord of the Rings aloud. The boys were grumpy at first, but by the end of the first session they were hooked. Every night, they reminded us to do it. It was an after-dinner treat.
I’ll never forget it: sometimes the boys had friends or cousins on sleepovers and they got into it too. The younger ones would (absolutely silently) play sword-fights and derring-do, listening all the time often acting out what they were hearing. The older ones would just listen. By the time we reached The Two Towers I got hold of art materials and they drew fantastic pictures as they listened. We collaborated on a large map of Middle Earth that is now carefully packed away in a trunk in the garage, waiting one day to be brought out and framed. They sometimes ask about it. There might be a problem when it comes to dividing the estate: they might have to toss for it.
TV could never create such family memories. It still doesn’t. Even though as they grew, they appreciated terrific programs such as Dr Who and Buffy, there were always the lesser programs, the Jackass, Pimp My Ride, Cribs and Big Brother type of stuff that they also watched. And I often watched too with them, mostly with a kind of awful fascination, sometimes getting sucked in – the second season of Big Brother is a shamefaced case in point, (mea maxima culpa…). The rise and rise of reality dreadfulness seemed (and still seems) to have no base line too low, no pond sludge too murky for it to delve into. There is nothing too empty, too dire or too shallow for the TV faux-reality business to exploit.
As my sons came to manhood and maturity though, something good happened. They stopped watching programmed TV and started choosing to watch whole series that they hired, bought or shared. That was how I discovered The West Wing. Dumped by Nine in an unwatchable near midnight timeslot, it had escaped my notice until my son told me it was good, even important, to see. He was right about that, as he was about The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Buffy and Angel, The Wire, Treme and many others. It seemed that they were able to recognise everything that was of the best in our culture.
So their childhood TV and non-TV diet had a good result: our two lads, independent thinkers and certainly not afraid to express their views, became wise and discerning in their choices.
So how do their experiences differ from that of today’s children? Routinely, children are now offered an enormous, unprecedented amount of entertainment. Whereas my boys loved Bugs Bunny and the early Simpsons, the array of kids’ cartoons and dramas is now quite endless. And if Star Wars in the past had milked its franchise with themed toys, the toys of today are often marketed before the show even goes to air. Cable TV has Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr, Boomerang, Kidsco, The Cartoon Network and even some BBC stuff.
The BBC has produced some stupendous children’s programs in the past: my boys remember The Wombles and Worzel Gummidge, but never quite got into them. Way back when I was a child in England, Andy Pandy and Bill & Ben the Flowerpot Men were the standard fare, and I do remember the thunderbolt of sheer comic stimulation when the American programs reached British shores: Popeye, Huckleberry Hound, Top Cat. Cartoons were the acme of childish entertainment then. With The Simpsons cartoons became adult and edgy; my boys as teenagers liked Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead. These were rude but often funny and showed some art that went beyond mean-boy bullying humour. But regarding that, all innocence and taste have gone, as far as I’m concerned, with the horrible advent of South Park and Family Man: sexist, misogynistic, gruesome without compassion, cruel without reason.
In the meantime, the third TV generation has now emerged. As a grandmother, I sat with my little darling as she clamoured for ‘Pig! Pig!’. Sofia is 21 months old and already keen to grab the remote from her daddy so she can try to switch on her beloved Peppa Pig. Her little cousin demands the same entertainment with an eloquent ‘Oink!’ mimicked straight from the cartoon’s intro. But I dunno about Peppa. The babies adore her but sometimes she is such a bossy, spoilt little brat. The five-minute episodes do often have a moral in them and Peppa is allowed to make her own mistakes: everyone is loving and gentle to her. The length is perfect for toddler attention spans and they seem to be rivetted by the recurrent themes: Jumping In Muddy Puddles being the main delight. It’s not exactly brain food for this grandma.
Yet when Sofia and her parents returned to Britain (they are planning to come back here to live, thank God!) I found myself wandering onto ABC’s Iview and turning on Peppa Pig again. There were at least fourteen new episodes on site and I found myself sniffling as the theme tune played. But I can’t wait until she’s old enough to understand Narnia, the Hobbit and Harry Potter… She’ll be living just down the road by then, please God.
Juliette Hughes is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.