Britain has a long and grand tradition of children’s storytelling and, ever since the BBC’s Children’s Hour was first broadcast in 1946, television has been part of it. From the remarkable strangeness of Lewis Carroll’s Victorian Wonderland to the psychedelic wit of Hey Duggee, our culture has been lit up by creative people telling tall tales to the young.
This week’s debut by a new presenter, George Webster, on the BBC’s CBeebies channel was a reminder of the role that a public service broadcaster can play in making this culture an inclusive one. With disabled people seriously underrepresented in public life, including entertainment, Mr Webster, who has Down’s syndrome, is a pioneer. With another star presenter with a disability under its belt in Cerrie Burnell, CBeebies has done more to boost the profile of broadcasters with disabilities than most other media organisations put together.
Given the importance of teaching children to respect other people’s differences, few would argue against such casting choices. Combined with the strong attachment many people feel towards children’s television, this pedagogical aspect gives this part of the BBC some protection from public service broadcasting’s opponents. But there is no escaping the commercial threats. Where a few decades ago there was a strictly limited menu of options for young viewers, today streaming services compete for their attention. Declining audience share among younger viewers (although not preschool children) is a concern for the BBC. And while most parents probably approve of CBeebies’ habit of switching off at 7pm with a bedtime story, there is no denying that in the era of on-demand, it also seems somewhat quaint.
Earlier this year, the BBC spun off children’s production into its commercial arm, allowing it to make content for other broadcasters. Such efforts should bring rewards, although there is no BBC monopoly on success: Peppa Pig was made by Nickelodeon (its creators having been inspired by an old BBC hit, The Magic Roundabout). But in a world where Amazon, Netflix and Disney are ever-more dominant (with Netflix’s acquisition of Roald Dahl’s works a vivid illustration), it has never been more necessary to support homegrown content.
That’s not narrow-minded or incurious. Only by taking a stand on behalf of “distinctively British” 素材, as the BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, said this week, can we ensure that programmes about England, スコットランド, Wales and Northern Ireland keep on being made. It might not seem an obvious point when it comes to animations for preschoolers, which often have more to do with make-believe than reality. But if the stories that we tell to the youngest children matter – and they do – it also matters that some of these are made for them by adults who know something about their lives.