Tuesday, August 28, 2007

New-look CBBC

The new term for CBBC programmes starts next week. Jana Bennett, Director of BBC Vision spoke about children's television in an invited keynote speech to the Showcommotion children's media conference last month. Ms Bennett claimed: We help children understand themselves and their relationships in all their rich complexity and in particular, understand their world – begin to fathom their navigation of relationships, their situation, through the experience of others whom they can relate to. In the conference overview, the speech was described as "Jana Bennett’s evangelic keynote."

But the truth of Jana Bennett's claim is somewhat different. In May last year Richard Deverell was asked to explain the axing of Byker Grove, which annoyed many older kids who felt it was exactly the type of programme they wanted - see blog dated 13 May 2006. Max, a CBBC viewer, said then: surely the BBC needs more shows that relate how hard teenage life is, not less. A year later, on 15 May 2007, Mr Deverell said that CBBC was looking at a modest increase in funding for the children's department, not a decline in funding. We should begin to see the results next week.

The BBC may take the view that things like web videos and YouTube are partly responsible for its difficulty in holding onto audiences. But the reason is also down to the fact that CBBC is starting to lose its sense of purpose, and is moving more and more into a world of fantasy. The success of books like the Harry Potter series may have something to do with this, but despite Potter's popularity millions of kids still appreciate the stark difference between fantasy and reality.

There may be a place for an 'M.I.High', but there should also be a place for the reality of a 'Grange Hill' where some kids starve themselves to look thin, some self-harm or take drugs, families break up and friends fall out. However in the BBC's attempt to impose more rigid age limits on children's programmes as part of the 'Creative Future' strategy, it will inevitably lose that second option of dealing in reality - both the positive and negative sides of reality. Hear no evil and speak no evil seems to be the attitude of mind at CBBC. But will Ofcom even consider such fundamental issues as part of its ongoing review into public service broadcasting? Ofcom say they are looking at the content of kids TV, so we should find out soon enough.

The BBC has pointed out that Blue Peter never set out to cheat its viewers - and I think that's accepted by most fair-minded people. It was, as Ms Bennett says, "a case of bad judgement under pressure of a live programme rather than deliberate attempt to deceive viewers." But the same cannot be said for the BBC's approach to Newsround's viewers. (see eg blog 16 July 2007).

CBBC 'Your Life' Header
Jana Bennett claimed to "help children understand themselves and their relationships in all their rich complexity." However just yesterday I noticed that CBBC's "Your Life" webpage section is being axed. At the top of the page it says "Your life ... everything you need to know about growing up" and now, under that, there is a notice saying "Bye bye for now. Your Life is closing on September 3rd. Aaron will be sticking around, so you'll still be able to get his advice and find the helpline information."

It isn't clear what exactly is going on, but CBBC's web "Your Life" section has dealt with many children's problems recently, and if anything you might think it should be expanded rather than shut down. Yet another example of CBBC retreat from reality, when life issues such as depression and relationship breakdowns are at least as great a problem as they ever were.

Richard Deverell replied in a panel discussion at Showcommotion that CBBC will launch in September with a more simple and coherent brand in response to feedback from children who said ‘There are great fireworks but no display.’ I wonder what that means. We'll get to see very soon now, but on recent form it looks like it's going to be a damp squib.

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