Saturday, March 26, 2005

Whatever Happened To? (Number 4 of a series)

Whatever happened to programming for children in the after school period?

Don't tell me, I already know the answer but it is a point worth illustrating and it follows on from yesterdays rant about the Parents Television Council. The Council, as you will recall, has focused its ire on network TV programming, supposedly in early prime time period (although they don't restrict their complaints about indecency to programs airing in that period), in an effort to make TV more "family friendly". The problem is that if they are really concerned about what children see on TV shouldn't they also be interested - perhaps even more interested - in the late afternoon period when kids are coming home from school or in the morning period before children go to school?

I was a kid in the 1960s and the standard programming for the afternoon was either a local children's program host (the one that sticks in my memory was a guy named Jeff "Smokey" Howard who was with CFQC in Saskatoon for at most three years) or a national program fed from CBC in Toronto, usually followed by some old program stripped into the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. slot. I haven't been able to see afternoon TV Guides from places in the United States, but I suspect that programming in this period was similar, although possibly with a greater addition of syndicated programming. There were continuing efforts to produce programming for children and teens into the 1970s - in the United States this was the period of the "After School Specials" - but from what I can recall it tended to dwindle into the 1980s and by the '90s programming was almost entirely adult oriented. This can be "blamed" (if that is in fact the right word) on the rise of cable networks such as Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel and The Cartoon Network in the United States. In Canada there wasn't the same corresponding rise in children's programming on cable. Family Channel, which started as a Canadian version of The Disney Channel, was a premium channel well into the 1990s while YTV is 17 years old and Teletoon, the Canadian answer to The Cartoon Network is about the same. Treehouse TV the station for pre-school and early school age children is 8 years old. All three are owned by the same company, Corus Entertainment which is a sister company of Shaw Cable (literally, since the Chair of Corus is the sister of the President of Shaw Cable).

The rise of the cable stations in the United States coincided with a decline in programming on over the air stations that was aimed at children or at least child-friendly. That's fine if you have cable but not so good if you can't get it or don't want it. The same trend occurred in much of Canada even without the competition from cable although the presence of the CBC, which offers over-the-air service to over 90% of Canadians, takes up some of the burden. In North America there are only three networks that make a serious effort at kid-friendly programming in two hours after school - say 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. local time: PBS, CBC and The WB which has its Kids WB mix of animated programs combined (at least in the two stations I see, WPIX and KTLA which are both Tribune stations) with reruns of older programs like Sabrina The teenaged Witch and Fresh Prince of Bel Air. From the other stations, there's a mix of "court shows" (Judge Joe Brown, The Peoples Court) talk/psychology shows (Maury, Dr. Phil) and local news programs, some as long as an hour and a half.

The fact is that it isn't this way in other countries. In Britain, the publicly owned BBC1 and the private ITV have a solid schedule of children's shows in the afternoon and while Channel 4's programming isn't directed at children it isn't objectionable either. Australia's ABC has a full range of children's programs and the commercial networks have at least a half hour of shows for children on weekdays. The same thing applies with both of the publicly owned TV New Zealand networks and the privately owned TV3. The point being that programming in the after school period in other countries represents something of a priority that it apparently doesn't in North America.

I'm not saying that we should go back to the days of local kid's shows or after school specials. I think that boat has long since gone. I do think however that if groups like the PTC are sincere about improving programming for children and not in grabbing headlines, they should show more concern for what is being shown on their local stations in the after school hours and less concern with programs that are airing in late prime time, when the children who are most likely to be affected by violence, language and what passes for sex on American television should be in bed. Of course this would mean working locally with broadcasters rather than nationally against them, so I doubt that anything like this will occur.

No comments: