CBeebies the hugely successful channel aimed at 0-6 year olds, is ten this year. Although not directly a New Labour Project it still perfectly reflects the government’s cultural agenda of the time.
Culture not economy
At the height of the Blarite Years in the early 2000s a conservative commentator perceptively wrote that:
‘all the lefties that forged their politics in the 1970s and made it into power as New Labour have been told that they’ve lost the economic battle – capitalism has won and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’ve put all their reforming energies into cultural change, where they believe they can do something.’
The stream of equalities legislation through the New Labour years bears out this analysis. Rights for people who are disabled, gay or part of a racial or religious minority took a huge leap forward.
However, although I frequently agreed with Labour’s aims, I was often uncomfortable with it’s rigid top down approach and it’s technocratic style which squeezed the heart and values out of what it was trying to do.
CBeebies – Ticking all the boxes
When the controllors of CBeebies were planning the content of the channel I imagine them sitting down with a huge grid laid out in front of them:
“Right, we need to make sure we have at least one presenter from every minority group: Black, Chinese, disabled, gypsy/traveller, gay.”
“…And one programme for each regional accent, including Birmingham, Carribean and Geordie”
“…Oh, don’t forget that needs to be combined with one programme on each subject – music, gardening, cooking, environment, languages, oh and do you think we could find someone that knows something about science?”
“Have we got everything covered? Right don’t forget if it doesn’t fit into one of the boxes it’s not going in.”
Cbeebies is great
Let’s be clear – I think CBeebies is basically great.
It hasn’t got adverts and there’s not many channels around the world that can say that. The BBC is one of the UK’s finest institutions and I would happily pay double my licence fee to protect it.
I happily let my three year old watch any part of CBeebies knowing that she’s essentially being told to be nice to people whatever they look and sound like. It also encourages her to take an interest in the world around her.
However, given it’s audience share (half of the target group watch it weekly – quite what the other do I’m not sure) and the amount of time our children spend watching it CBeebies is incredibly culturally powerful. And there’s two things in particular about CBeebies that leave me cold.
1. The Branding
My daughter doesn’t ask to see ‘Mister Bloom or ‘The Octonauts’. She wants to watch CBeebies. It’s got to the point that she’ll resist watching even her favourite videos (yes we still watch videos) because they’re not CBeebies.
The brand is incredibly strong.
Shops are full of branded merchandise from the channels’ stars (Mister Maker craft kit anyone?) and there’s even regular slots between programmes with children explaining why they ‘love CBeebies’.
In a world where companies go out of their way to incorporate brands into young people’s identity I’m not sure I want my daughter having such a strong affinity with a brand, even a basically positive one, as a toddler.
2. Its lack of heart and soul
Maybe it’s because of the way that the channel was put together, but for all it’s well meaning messages about respecting and being kind to each other CBeebies lacks heart and soul. It’s attention-seeking hyperactivity disguises a shallowness that’s not quite right. Its overt moralism means that every snippet, every sentence has an agenda and a point.
There’s no room for story telling for its own sake and so problems are all resolved in the same stereotyped fashion. It assumes that children don’t have the attention span for longer narratives that allow character to develop and more eccentric personalities to emerge. The Winnie the Pooh movies capture something of what CBeebies is missing. The quirkiness of the storylines and characters allow for an exploration of themes around friendship and fear that CBeebies never come close to.
For all that Third and Bird sing that ‘everyone’s different, but different is good’ in a strange way the channel seems to push children towards a dull regulated conformity where the answers are all the same.
A perfect child
CBeebies is the perfect child of a New Labour government that thought it could put all the answers for us in the same neat, indentikit box, but forgot that life isn’t that straight forward.
I won’t be switching over from CBeebies any time soon, but given the significant influence it has on our children I’ll be keeping a close eye on the messages it sends.
So time to reopen the impromptu parenting forum from Christmas. What’s your feelings about CBeebies? What do you / did you let your children watch? What Cbeebies influence do you see in your children?
Plus - vote in the exciting poll below!