With attention to technology, audience expectation and interaction, what are the forthcoming key industry and broadcast trends that you see shaping your chosen specialism and why? : Children’s Television
Television programmes that have been made specifically for children continue to be a vehemently debated subject within the academic community as well as by media commentators and critics (Hendershot, 2002, p.80). Some of the arguments within this debate include whether television generates violent, stupid or complacent and docile behaviour in children (2002, p.80). In addition, critics of children’s media argue that, “television is hopelessly tainted by commercialism”, and has failed to fulfil the medium’s potential in favour of commercial profit (2002, p.80). Watching high levels of television has also been accused of reducing a child’s intellectual capabilities and interfering with progressive social engagement (Anon, 2014, p.2). Finally, media debates have also raised questions about the educational value of children’s television, and if television can be used for educational purposes, then what “exactly should television teach children?” (2002, p.80) Furthermore, the extraordinary recent growth of the Internet has led to increasingly diverse ways in which children can access television and similar media. This paper will examine how media broadcasters are attempting to meet the challenge of new digital media and the ideas and technological innovations that producers of children’s television programmes are planning to implement in order to ensure their services remain commercially viable.
In 2007, Ed Balls the Secretary of State for the newly created Department of Children, Schools and Families, pointed out that because of new technologies and new ways of communicating were creating innovative and unique broadcasting opportunities, it was important to recognise the “risks and challenges” posed by such changes (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2007, p.i). The Department’s initial report on the wellbeing of children referred to the need to introduce ways of closing the gap in educational achievement for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and noted how children from socially deprived environments were less likely to perform well at school (2007, pp.48-57); however, the report failed to offer any recommendations regarding the use of new technology to aid social and educationally mobility. Instead, the report only highlighted the probability of an increase in cyber-bullying and parents’ concerns about access to online pornography and other unregulated websites (2007, p.27; p.30). In spite of the report establishing that “over four in five 5-15 year olds had access to a home computer and almost three-quarters were able to access the internet at home” (2007, p.11) the department’s plan for the future of children’s education did not include using the Internet. Although schools have greatly increased their Internet capabilities since 2007, there has been no significant movement by governments to take full advantage of the educational opportunities offered by new technology. Furthermore, lack of government funds for state schools has led to a reduction in the capability of schools to use the Internet effectively for educational purposes (Wakefield, 2014, no pagination).
Nonetheless, as this paper will demonstrate, despite the UK governments lack of interest in the educational opportunities of the Internet, and their increasing concern over the dangers of digital technology (Department of Education, 2015, no pagination) there are significant changes in the way that media broadcasters have attempted to adapt to changes in the way that children have embraced the opportunities that digital technology has given them.
Children’s Television and the Challenge of Changing Technology
In his prediction over the changes that will take place in the children’s entertainment market, Dylan Collins the chief executive of children’s marketing and research network SuperAwesome has argued that, “there will be two types of companies over the next three, four, five years. There’ll be the big ones, who can consolidate and create economies of scale. And then the niche companies who can make and craft beautiful things and charge a premium price” (Dredge, 2014, no pagination). Furthermore, Collins has pointed out that if media companies fail to modify their marketing and digital infrastructure and find new ways of making money then they will not survive (2014, no pagination). Collins viewpoint was reinforced by Keri Lewis Brown, the managing director of the media consultancy firm K7 Media. Brown has observed that, the market for children’s television has become more competitive and “audiences are increasingly hard to reach” (Binns, 2015, no pagination). Therefore, Brown has argued that it has become increasingly important to recognise the way other competitors around the world are retaining child consumers (2015, no pagination). This is a major challenge for media companies who continue to use traditional methods of making and programmes for children.
It would be a mistake to argue that children are no longer interested in watching television programmes. In the UK, children spend an average of two hours per day watching television, DVDs or videos (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2007, p.3) and in the US, although the amount of time children spent watching programmes on a television set has decreased, the amount of television they consumed on other media has increased to four and half hours a day (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010, p.3). In 2013, the children television broadcasters Disney and Nickelodeon recorded an average of 1.7 million viewers per day, which was a figure larger than any other cable channel at the time (Luckerson, 2013, no pagination). Moreover, episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants (Nickelodeon, US: 1999-present) were watched by an average of 5 million viewers (2013, no pagination). In response to the on-going demand by children for media content targeted specifically for them, Netflix has recently entered into a production agreement with DreamWorks to make 300 hours of “brand-new cartoons based on the company’s film franchises like Shrek and The Croods” [italics in the original] (2013, no pagination). This business arrangement demonstrates the importance of maintaining a synergistic link between traditional media broadcasters and organisations that utilise digital technology. Furthermore, the continuing popularity of children’s television broadcasting is not confined to the US and the UK. In 2014, studies in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK found that children were watching on average two hours and six minutes of television per day, and even though this represented a small drop over the same period in 2013, the fall did not prevent broadcasters such as the Disney Channel in Germany, and France Télévisions from rebranding France 4 as a youth channel (Karsenty, 2014, pp.1-2).
In recognition of the growing value of digital communication, the BBC’s CBeebies Storytime app, which has been made available for free on iOS and Android devices, is intended to strengthen and enhance the link between the broadcaster’s television channel and new technology. Moreover, as Patrick Healy, the BBC Children’s Head of Product announced, the Storytime app provides “educational and entertaining content for our audiences [and] brings storytelling into the digital era in a safe and trusted environment” (BBC, 2014, no pagination). The value of adapting traditional entertainment into digital formats has also been recognised by other companies. For example, the Brighton based animation studio Ticktockrobot has pointed out that storytelling is an important component of producing a successful children’s television cartoon, and that traditional 2D illustration can be just as effective as 3D and computer generated imagery (Burns, 2012, no pagination). The educational value of children’s television has shifted on from programmes such as the ground breaking Sesame Street (PBS, US: 1969-present), and includes Wonder Pets (Nickelodeon, US: 2006-present) which has been referred to as “witty and emotional, with themes recognizable from modern notions of child development: the emphasis is on teamwork, empathy, and working through frustration, rather than on self-esteem” (Nussbaum, 2012, no pagination). In addition, Wonder Pets has also made use of a new technique called photo-puppetry, “in which real photographs are manipulated, broken down, and rigged for animation” (2012, no pagination).
The technological shifts within the broadcasting industry have led to an increase in new educational opportunities to be developed between the media and children. As mentioned earlier, the critics of television and the effects it has on children have argued that the “experience of television itself (regardless of content) [distorts] a child’s perception of reality” [italics in the original] (Winn, 1977, p.67). Although there is evidence to support the argument that viewers who are pre-disposed to violent acts watch violent programmes, there is no substantive proof to support a causal relationship between watching television violence and the committing of violent acts (Gunther, 1985, p66). As recent studies have clearly demonstrated, the link between television and the viewer is a great deal more nuanced. As a report by the media educational research centre Joan Ganz Cooney has pointed out, digital media saturates the lives of millions of American children “shaping what and how they think [nevertheless]. Rarely has a phenomenon affecting children been so pervasive and so powerful yet so poorly understood” (Shore, 2008, p.7). With this in mind, educationalists were asked to evaluate the educational possibilities of digital media. Their report established an overwhelming support for educational specialists regarding the effectiveness of using digital technology for improving the learning experience of children (2008, p.9).
In conclusion, it is clear that in order to retain a presence in the increasingly competitive broadcasting market, media organisations will need to embrace the synergistic opportunities available from incorporating traditional media platforms, such as television, into new forms of digital media, such as online streaming, interactive learning centres, educational gaming, etc. If media companies fail to take advantage of new ways of, not only making children’s programming, but also ensuring that those programmes are made available on a wide variety of broadcast formats, then they will see their competitiveness gradually erode.
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