Concern about children and the effects of the media on them has a long history, ever sinnce widespread literacy brought a fear that children would be reading 'unsuitable material' (given the Victorians' appetite for pornography, this could have been a real fear). Children’s cinema raised the same sort of fears, as (Staples X) points out. The industry reacted in a number of ways -- by adopting the famous British system of censorsdhip (lightly disguised as film classification combined with licensing legislation, officially devised as safety regulation), and by attempting to encourage the habit of 'family viewing', ensuring adult supervision. In fact, such adult supervision sometimes led to children being present at 'adult' films, of course, and there have always been ways of gatecrashing adult films (I used to stay behind and hide in the cinema after children's films had finished).Soon, inevitably, there were special children's matinees, usually on Saturday mornings, showing material deemed especially suitable for kids -- simple adventure stories and westerns with strong moral messages, serials, cartoons. Even these had to be regulated, though, since kids used cinemas as 'sites of disorder' and were often unruly as audiences (and there were substantial tragedies, once or twice, as the result of overcrowding and panic).
One solution was to attempt to regulate cinema attendance by establishing a 'club' for the child audience. The rival cinema chains had different ones -- I was an ABC minor. We had to attend for three consecutive weeks, then fill in a form with our names and addresses, and pay 1/3d (about 6 pence, or 15 cents). Then we received a badge, and a rule book.We sang a club song, following one on-screen (sung by an adult choir with beautiful middle-class 1930s charm school accents, I recall). Even so, the cinema in our area of Portsmouth was sometimes a dangerous place where you might be challenged to a fight outside, or where you might be made the target of kids at the back throwing orange peel or be tripped in the dark as you walked by. Later, as a teenager, fights were still common, and sometimes cinema seats would be slashed (a strange pastime associated with Teddy Boys and early rock'n'roll movies) -- and a major reason for going then was to encounter the opposite sex, or to take your girlfriend somewhere warm quiet and dark for a while (terraced houses were far too crowded and cold, and we didn't own cars then).
These undesirable moral connotations of the cinema (later to be associated with the video arcade too, perhaps) arose because of the associations of cinemas with 'rough' kids' or youths' culture. Football grounds, video arcades, fairgrounds, school playgrounds, and later, package holidays had the same sort of associations, of course. But there was something specific to cinema as well -- films especially were supposed to have an almost magical effect on kids. Theorists like (X) have pointed out the structural power of cinema -- you enter a dark room with a huge illuminated moving image showing at one end, complete with 'realistic' sound. There is nothing else to look at, and no real escape except to leave -- the screen commands attention, while viewers sink into a dream-like state of receptivity. Whether TV viewing takes place in the same circumstances is doubtful now, but when it first appeared in Britain, the whole family would settle down to watch that screen too in darkened rooms and with full attention.
In these circumstances, watching films or TV was seen as uniquely threatening to childhood. Of course, there were specific assumptions or ideologies about 'proper childhood' involved here, often disguised as an eternal view of children's 'nature' (for a history of childhood, and a thought-provoking description of very different assumptions about what was 'natural' for children see Aries (X)). Wagg (X) summarises the ingredients of this ideology --
children were naturally active and outgoing (and unsuitable cinema watching made them passive and introverted),As you can see from this sort of collection of ingredients, children and their viewing habits can serve to organise a number of more specific themes -- about families, their tensions and the rights of kids and adults, about sexuality and innocence, about social and cultural change, including commercialism, about education, and so on. For sociologists, this can lead quickly to the emergence of a 'moral panic', a series of linked public campaigns (run by 'moral entrepreneurs') designed to introduce some legislation or moral reform (or new repressive measures) (see Hall et al 1980?). This concept helps explain the tremendous, often heated, public interest in children and media -- there are always stories in the press about spectacular children's crimes or misdemeanours, falling literacy rates or whatever, and how the mass media are to blame. This sort of story focuses our anxieties about a wide range of matters, and helps us reassert our own values, even if only 'symbolically'.
These themes occur again and again in the contemporary discussions of TV or video games too, as we shall see. They figure in the justifications of the makers of specific children's media products, from the Children's Film Foundation (see Staples 19XX), to the defenders of Blue Peter (a UK children's programme), to the producers of Sesame Street, and now Teletubbies and Tweenies. They also inform the huge amount of work done researching the 'bad' effects of TV and video games, which often assumes that kids are 'naturally good', so that the violence, aggression or sterotypes they display must be alien and thus introduced by something like the mass media.
In what follows, we attempt to take a cool and critical look at some of these assumptions and whether any research can be based upon them.. Is there a real cause for concern here, as many people think, or is the whole issue merely a moral panic? Can research help us clarify these issues, what sort of research has been done, and what sort of methods might be best?
You might find your own moral sensibilities engaged by this too. I have taught this topic to many parents and some teachers, for example, who find it hard to doubt that electronic games have had bad influences on their kids, whatever the research suggests. On the other hand, some real enthusiasts for electronic games can find it hard to grasp what all the fuss is about and find it hard to take seriously that research which does argue for some undesirable effects. I shall myself be following the ususal approach of arguing in favour of whatever I happen to be teaching about that day, on this impeccably balanced course!!
Topic 2: Schools Broadcasting
Schools in Britain were quick to
use broadcasting (well beginnning in the 1950s), first of all via radio
and the BBC. These days, television broadcasting for schools takes place
on a large scale, with much of the morning output of BBC and Channel 4
devoted to it. The potential of broadcasting as an educational resource
relies on some familiar arguments (for those arguments applied to teaching
adults at university level, at the UK Open University, see my
file). In brief:
A particularly influential approach to the learning processes of young children arose from the work of Jean Piaget. I mention him here because he is also cited in Kinder's critique of 'postmodern' children's TV which we will encounter below. I am no psychologist, and I have only a nodding acquaintance with Piaget's work, but he seems to offer an account of the natural growth of cognitive capacity in children, which takes place in distinct stages, from 'sensori-motor' to 'conceptual' stages. Gradually, kids acquire concepts which are powerful enough to help them categorise the world, but this develops slowly (and is not finished until early adolescence, on average). To facilitate this process, teachers are best to let kids develop at their own stage, and to provide suitable educational experiences at each stage -- for very young kids that might involve lots of things to touch, feel and move around ('sensori-motor'), while older ones might require more complex but still concrete objects, whileonly the older ones might be in a position to deal with concepts directly. To take a layperson's example, teaching maths to infants would involve them in lots of work piling up play bricks, or playing with sand and water, so they can directly interact with objects, piles, quantities and volumes. Later, they might try some measurements of immediate objects, or try counting with blocks or rods (Cuisenaire rods in my day -- little wooden rods cut to scale and of different lengths, so that kids could see, concretely, that two rods of 5 cms each added up to one rod of 10cm). Much later, they might be taught the concept of addition of numbers to different bases with no reference back to direct experience. This is laughably simple, but I hope you get the idea -- it helps us solve the problem of what material and what approach is suitable for kids of different ages,and justifies nicely the 'hands on' approach for the very young.
It is worth mentioning another implication for Kinder especially. Piaget argued that children develop their mental apparatus via two key processes -- first they try to assimilate new experiences into the frameworks and experiences they already have. Eventually, this leads to a lack of fit, as more and more complex experiences are encountered. This in turn leads to accommodation, where more abstract frameworks have to be developed which will embrace more diversity (I hope I have got this the right way round!!). These kinds of 'trial and error' experiences are crucial -- kids have to be left to test out to their own satisfaction the experiences they encounter. Kinder argues that this has to be carefully managed, so kids are not exposed to too much complexity too early -- and this is where postmodern TV has definite anti-educational effects, since it offers a constant diet of complex and shifting images, standpoints and unstable objects (like 'transformers').
Let us use an example of educational TV broadcast in Britain to illustrate Piagetian principles. There is a TV programme called Fourways Farm which is widely admired, and which comes form the same company as Sesame Street (apparently). In the episode we viewed, a number of comic animals were playing with various objects, some of which floated in water, and some of which did not -- a turnip kicked into a pond floated, while a stone (painted to look like a turnip, as it happens, for incidental comic effect) did not. This programme was designed to assist schools to approach a key stage in the understanding of science according to the National Curriculum -- the national test that year was to ask kids to explain why some things floated and some did not. Now as all infant teachers know, children will reply with a variety of suggested answers to this question -- that the material from which the object is made,or its weight, will affect the result is the usual first reply. Teachers then offer examples to test these views and invite further thought (eg by asking children to explain how iron ships float). In fact, I have demonstrated this sort of thing myself with plasticine -- roll plasticine into a blob and throw it into a bowl of water and it will sink, take the same piece of plasticine and make it into a boat shape and it will float. That puzzled the little blighters -- perhaps too much. This is teaching by optimal challenge, and Fourways Farm did not get as far as this -- but at least it got kids interested (perhaps). I must say the programme also had pleasures for adults too -- like jokes about turnips and football (referring to the tabloid press description of an England football team as 'turnips' after they lost to the Swedes [geddit?]) -- and this is quite common in kids' TV these days as we shall see.
There were existing practices in television and film which seemed to mesh quite well with these educational techniques. Thus TV programmes already knew about how to sequence a narrative in a drama, how to provide just enough material to keep the viewer at the right level of familiarity and puzzlement. Similarly, TV programmes were already able to 'involve' viewers, by offering them a familiar and recognisable world where they felt at home and able to participate immediately. I have described both sorts of practices in my file on realism , and have noticed the parallels between realist techniques (and debates) and pedagogical techniques specifically in distance education (click here).
Schools broadcasting is clever and fun, kids usually like it, and it acts as a major relief for hard-pressed teachers -- but does it actually work? Let us apply the strict test we outlined earlier -- does it actually teach? I am not sure if anyone knows, since the evaluation of schools broadcasting usually relies on teachers' opinions, and they welcome it as I have said. There are reasons to doubt its effectiveness, in fact. It is quite expensive to produce, and that raises the question of whether it would not be better to spend the money directly on teaching in schools -- of course, that is not really an option, since TV companies finance schools broadcasts with their own money (and often try to sell their programmes too).
The other problem is that educational broadcasting can be too entertaining, too familiar, too much like regular TV programmes (quiz shows, Star Trek, and news formats are all commonly borrowed). As a result, viewers can view them as if they were just entertainment, watching in a kind of warm fug of uncritical familiarity, not noticing the specifically educational elements. We shall see this argued by critics of Sesame Street later, but there is also an excellent piece by Thomson (19XX) on the use of case-study material to teach adults at the UK Open University. Such material can lead to a focus on the 'wrong' themes, Thompson argues. Thus a programme on unemployment tried to challenge the view that unemployed people are inadequates who only have themselves to blame, but the programme makers selected as case-studies classical stereotypes (as popular TV often does, in order to communicate quickly and effectively via standard representations), of unemployed people in this case. Thompson suspects that many viewers will have 'read' this programme as entirely confirming the view of the unemployed as inadequate after all. Less clear examples abound in many schools broadcasts in my view (have a look at some and see if you agree) -- teachers are still naive, odd or eccentric, even if nicely so, science is still done by 'boffins', and religious studies by 'creeps', all pupils are 'nice kids', all schools are clean and tidy -- and so on.
These non-educational readings are sometimes called 'distractors'. We might see them as inevitable, given what we know about the inherent ambiguity of 'signs', and the potential for 'active viewing' in any programme. Some people have celebrated this sort of active viewing as a form of cultural resistance to the nasty ideological messages of soap operas, melodramas or James Bond movies (and we shall see this argument below with video games). The educational work inverts this celebration, I suppose -- educational TV is also 'resisted' by stereotyping and cultural intolerance, so that people come to learn nothing. This is 'bad' intertextuality, if you want to use those terms. I once interviewd an Open University student on the effects of an excellent broadcast involving a Geography field trip to an obscure location -- but all he noticed, and disapproved of, was that the presenter was an Australian! Small wonder that the overall tone of work on educational broadcasting is pessimistic (if I can risk a huge generalisation) as in Bates's (19XX) 'one-third' rule -- one third of the audience finds them useful, one third finds them totally useless, and the middle third finds them mixed! Perhaps the same sort of weak effect is found in nasty TV too?
This topic therefore introduces a major theme for the rest of the course too -- how might we do research on the specifically educational goals of schools broadcasting? Just run through this in your minds for now -- we would have to be clear about these goals, and define them so they could be measured or noticed unambiguously, then we would have to choose some sort of methodology to research them, and then try to interpret the results so that we were able to focus down on the results of the TV programme alone (and not the welter of other things that affect kids's learning, from home background to peer pressures, to teacher expectations, to test biases, to school resources -- see file). Tricky, isn't it? Incidentally, I think this sort of recognition of the impossibility of isolating the effects of educational TV is also demonstrated in its use -- we teachers use it as part of our routine 'shotgun' approach (keep firing a lot of different things at the punters and hope that some of it will work -- TV programmes, booklets, exercises, games, readings, the lot).
Topic 3: Sesame Street
Sesame Street was conceived in a particular context -- a growing American concern for the underachievement of its poor kids and ethnic minority kids in the US public school system. There had been some classic research in the 1960s which located that underachievement in the 'cultural deprivation' of such kids. I have discussed this approach, and a similar concern in Britain in several files on this website (file 1 , file 2 , and file 3 , for example). If the home backgrounds of these uinderachieving kids were 'cultural deprived', lacking in adequate stimulus material, impoverished in terms of the social roles kids could see enacted, bereft of rich linguistic interchanges among adults and kids (and all these are highly debatable), then why not use TV to provide these cultural enrichments and stimuli? Better still, why not smuggle them in, unobtrusively, so to speak, disguised as advertisements, clips from movies -- or just as play and fun? If kids are interested in popular culture, why not use popular cultural themes to educate them (a standard assumption of all educational TV I would argue)?
Thus was Seasme Street conceived, and, unlike many other kids' programmes, the whole series was designed on the basis of educational research and educational policy -- the programme makers were to bear in mind definite educational objectives suitable for the pre-school child -- encourage counting, the naming of objects and the listing of similar objects, teach the alphabet, introduce and illustrate or demonstrate concepts (such as 'near' and 'far') (I paraphrase the precise objectives, but you get the idea). More generally, Sesame Street might also pursue some 'affective objectives' as they are known -- like raising motivation, or encouraging respect and tolerance for others. We have clear echoes of the goals of the comprehensive school movement in Britain in the 1970s -- raising ambition and minimising status differentials by 'social mixing' (see file ). There was one difference at least, though, between the USA and the UK -- the US did not pursue the same kind of 'progressive methods' endorsed by the Plowden Report in the UK. Thus the teaching on Sesame Street is pretty traditional by UK standards -- lots of drills and repetitions, beaming lots of information at an audience that was expected to remain watching pretty passively.
Nevertheless, Sesame Street would offer an effective means of introducing cultural stimulation, or some kind of 'Head Start' (the name of a well-reourced US 'compensatory education programme) for the most deprived kids, so they could commence their schooling on a far more equal footing. (NB the whole 'Head Start' programme has been extensively researched -- and so was Sesame Street). In the research that emerged, and in some of the critical commentaries on the programme, some important issues are raised for the whole project of educational TV, we shall argue.
First though, what of the methodological issues. Did Sesame Street actually work? It is still a controversial matter, this. It seemed easy enough, and at least the programme makers tried the risky business of actually measuring their own effectiveness (pretty rare this) -- they outlined their goals in nice specific measurable terms, so you would think it quite easy to measure kids, say on their counting abilities before and then after the programme, and see if there is any difference. In brief:
This is the tradition followed by Mattelart in her critique of Sesame Street (well, suitably modified, pretty common in Cultural Studies). Mattelart wants to use this theoretical tradition to examine modern TV especially (never really explored specifically by the Great Men) -- and her work is intersting in its own right as an attempt to do this. For example, she identifies the main technique of TV as not 'hailing' or even 'positioning' but 'seduction' (developed a good deal since, with the recognition that TV has to win and then keep the attention of its audience, which is quite unlike the viewing conditionsof cinema which we saw above).In brief, Mattelart notes that Sesame Street uses the same techniques to seduce its audience as do TV commercials (quite deliberately so, of course), but asks whether this does not mean that education is reduced to consumerism, with kids being offered little bites of knowledge tied to pretty limited objectives. It is such a nice piece (but a fairly obscure one), that I have included a fuller summary of it in an aside -- click here to get it
This undesirable meshing of the educational and commercial worlds is a theme taken up in other pieces too -- Kinder (see below),or, rather differently, in Tulloch's critique (XX) of quiz shows and the views of knowledge they embody. It is a contribution to the more general work on consumerism as a mode of individuality that is entirely compatible with capitalism that you find elsewhere --eg Gottdeiner on the shopping mall (see file).
Ellsworth's article is similar in a way. She argues that the forms in which education are delivered can have effects of their own, and critially examines the use of popular forms of communication to convey educational ideas. This is a popular technique across the spectrum, really, in the drive to make education 'fun'. Yet it can have bad effects too, since popular forms are also 'knowledge forms' and can contradict liberating educational intentions. Melodrama, for example, offer sentimental or emotional resolutions to problems, whereas educators might be more interested in cognitive ones. Popular narratives usually focus on individuals and their struggle, which can help conceal the very non-individual, collective or structural forces we are trying to teach about -- and so on. Again, there is a fuller summary of this major piece of work if you click here
Ellsworth offers another reminder of unintended and undesirable consequences of using popular TV as an educational device, in other words, to add to ones already voiced by Bates, Thompson (and for that matter Eco (XX) who also suggests that popular TV needs special cues or moments to break viewers out from a 'normal' and passive mode of viewing into a critical, 'educational' mode).
In fact, I have now recognised this approach as part of a familiar marxist project to warn about the 'commodity form' and the way it reduces the critical impact of cultural materials. This is a major theme in the debates between Adorno and Benjamin on the 'reproduction' of art via paperback books, cheap copies of music recordings or prints of paintings, for example (see gebhardt and thing 19XX). It is also a major theme in discussions of using cinema to convey radical and critical insights, as in the debate about Days of Hope (a famous attempt to use costume drama and soap opera conventions to introduce a Trotskyite view of British industrial and social history) or 'critical realism' (see file). I suppose, thinking aloud for a moment, it might even be possible to consider implications for some classic propaganda pieces that also use popular conventions (biopic, historical drama, soap opera equivalents, epics) to make propaganda fun. For notes on Marx's line on 'commodity fetishism', which is the inspiration for much of this, see this file
Topic 4 Children's Media and ‘Informal Education’
It has long been known that kids are influenced by factors outside of official schooling. Indeed, these 'influences' are apparent to anyone working with kids too. For a long time, and still today, these were seen as undesirable influences with negative effects on what schools were trying to do -- the anti-school values of the (working class or ethnic minority home and family) played a major part in early educational research trying to explain the underachievement of those groups (try my file on this). Other undesirable influences were seen to emanate from the 'peer group' ( the fear of all 'respectable' parents was that their child would 'fall in with the wrong people', or 'mix with a bad set'' and be influenced away from study and reasonable behaviour into truancy, smoking, drinking, premature sex, early leaving, without any school qualifications, and an unskilled 'dead end' job). As we have seen (Topic 1), early kids's comics and even children's cinema were soon associated with these fears too - and now, of course, the TV and the electronic game are the most prominent candidates for blame. No matter how hard teachers and parents try, it is believed, kids still undergo 'informal education' from the media, still acquire 'unwelcome' knowedge (about sex and drugs, or violence or dubious politics),and, above all, 'unwelcome' or deviant values.
We know that this concern has driven the attempts to use popular forms for educational means, to try to integrate informal eduaction with the 'good' educational goals (learning school knowledge and acceptable or 'functional' values). We have also seen that for marxist or femininst critics, such integrated informal education is 'ideological' -- that it participates in the costruction of 'bad' subjectivities', or modes of adaptation like consumerism. We pursue these themes in later topics via the work of Kinder or the controversies over video games.
For this section, I had some other work in mind. We might begin with reminding ourselves of the work of Wagg, for example (Strinati and Wagg 1992), describing the dominant themes in the notions of childhood deemed to be 'natural' in our society -- predominantly that children need both 'imagination' and 'activity'. Kids are supposed to be naturally imaginative and innocent, and naturally democratic, forming communities with no social divisions yet apparent among them. These values were used to condemn those characteristics of undesirable (and very often American) popular cultural activitites like sitting in cinemas watching 'formulaic' Hollywood 'B pictures', hanging around in coffee bars listening to repetitive and banal pop music, wearing the standardised 'uniforms' of youth styles, 'abusing themselves' in their bedrooms while scanning dubious popular magazines, and hanging out on street corners smoking, instead of going out to get cold and wet in a proper recreational activity ( any students of recreational studies will spot the allusion to the 'rational recreation' movement). Thus policy towards kids involved encouraging their natural qualities, protecting them from premature exposure to the nasty aspects of life, and the careful regulation of their access to inappropriate areas. The same values are still there behind many of the anxieties about video games and the hours spent in private playing them or watching TV.
The same values influence the work of the peculiar British tradition of 'children's TV' too, we argued -- the 'Children's Hour' of the BBC when mother was able to spend an hour with the children at teatime (i.e. 4 o'clock') before Nanny took them off again for bath and bed,or at lunchtime before their afternoon nap. Kids would be exposed to a number of programmes based on puppetry, nursery rhymes, and simple songs,.sometimes with a little memory test (like Muffin the Mule or Andy Pandy).Later, the tradition evolved into a new schedule as well -- kids's programmes after school and before tea, around 3:30 until the adult schedules began with the BBC news at 5:30 or 6:00. The classic programme here was the magazine format -- a series of comedy sketches (rather like a pantomime really, without the double entendres), games with audience participation, features on people of interest, songs (later pop songs) and light entertainment of the 'variety' type (like my favourite -- Crackerjack). In Crackerjack, incidentally, the audience was allowed to participate by encouraging the contestants, and shouting the name of the show -- even more daringly, they were even shown on screen from time to time).
Much has changed recently, of course, to the chagrin of various pressure groups wanting to retain that special format for that special audience. childrens' TV is much more centred around commercial popular culture, you could argue -- pop songs and bands, football, video games, and, above all, imported animations (from Rug Rats to Count Duckula and Scooby Doo). Many of these fall under Kinder's critiques as what we will call 'bad' postmodernism.. However, some elements of tradition remain and the values of imagination aand activity survive - I have seen traditional renditions of Blyton's The Famous Five, for example (five nice kids go off and have adventures involving catching smugglers or other traditional villains). Currently, there is also the Australian series Round the Twist -- a nice family living on a remote island have adventures, some of them involving magic.
The work to be considered under this topic insists that these traditional values embedded in classic British TV for kids are also harmful. The programme I have chosen to illustrate this is Blue Peter, a long-running kids' magazine programme, first braodcast in 1958, familiar to just about any British viewer. You may find this difficult, especially if you are a Blue Peter fan, but some writers have seen the programme as deeply ideological. Let's see how:
Ferguson's work will do as an example here. He has written two short pieces on Blue Peter in fact (19XX) both summarised in Wagg's chapter as well. Fergsuons' complaint is a classic one -- certain values are masquerading as universal ones in BP. They are the values of a dominant elite, and they have a deeply-rooted effect. Indeed, they form the very discourses of BP, the organizing principles:
'Discourse has to be understood as a set of informing principles which permeates the construction and articulation of media messages. It is seldom direct in identifying its own origins, but rather works to efface or naturalise itself. This is the ideological function of discourse...highly specific modes of conceptualising the world are made to seem general or universal. Much of this generality is attained by offering an apparent plurality of messages within children's television...[but]...different views or comstructions of the world are always presented from within the framework of the dominant discourse' (Fergusson p.48).Fergusson uses this notion to analyse BP in a way which he admits is 'polemical' but still important -- because BP and an number of other kids's TV programmes (including pop music programmes) have real effects. They close off 'the universe of discourse and action', or, less techniucally, 'there is a danger that programmes made for children can inhibit their capacity for thought and intellectual development' (p 47). This discourse becomes 'cumulative, organic...[and]...develops a life and a power of its own' (p.50). 'There is never any chance for the viewer to discover alternative discourses by watching television' (p. 48), no chance whatever of a 'Red Peter ... a programme presented...by two women and one man...campaign[ing] against any government that could tolerate poverty, degradation, poor housing or [poor] health care...openly anti-royalist, anti-racist and anti-sexist' (p.52)
BP's discourse (as with other dominant forms of childrens' TV) is ' Anglo-centric, often racist, sexist, royalist, pro-capitalist, ostensibly Christian, and ... generally arguing that the best way to deal with social problems is through benevolence'. Thisleads to more specific analysis of items in BP programmes such as the patronising nature of items about black people, with no mention of colonial history, 'outrageous stereotypes' of boys and girls and ther interests, an unthinking nationalism: '... the Union Jack (the last gaudy signifier of an Empire best forgotten) is the symbol of "what it means to be British"' (p.49).
Now I don't know what you will think of this idea of ideology. On the one hand, it seems very powerful, and it helps us criticise the usual claims for the 'good' aspects of BP. BP's fans like the annual charity appeals, for example, which help the underprivileged (raising funds for poor kids in Britain, or the blind in Malawi, or for lifeboats) -- but Fergusson would see these as politicallly conservative, linked to royal patrons conspicuously doing 'good works', offering only 'benevolence' and charity rather than political action. I must say the images used to illustrate the appeals do run the risk of blaming the victims -- depicting Africans as 'primitive' or ineffective in solving their own problems,for example (as in the Thompson example above). BP tries to deal with racism and sexism, for its supporters -- but again only with the risk of deploying even more subtle racism and sexism for Fergusson. Thus a 'black prince' was shown on an episode of BP, but in the exotic and ahistorical manner he deplores. And when women do appear in strong or unconventional roles (undertaking parachute training), or men in domestic ones (cooking), there is always the risk of being patronising, heavy-handed or 'preachy' (or self-conscious and mockingly ironic, I suspect these days). Fergusson argues that dominant discourses are not challenged by merely showing 'various points of view on television' (or various ways of life for that matter) -- 'A plurality of viewpoints [or images, say of men and women] reduced to the terms of a single discourse merely strengthens that discourse' (p. 50)
So -- what of the problems? We mention some below with the Belson study. There are difficulties with concepts which involve unconscious or hidden forces which are claimed to be able to affect people: how do we know they are really there? Belson is in trouble with his notion of unconscous effects because he is so committed otherwise to the careful measurement and assessment of definite and conscious factors. Fergusson's position is less clear -- he argues by appeal to authority really (by citing in support the great thinker H Marcuse). He also chooses a polemical style, doubtless to try and raise our critical awareness by the use of powerful terms and thought-provoking comparisons (the BBC with the Jesuits, for example).Perhaps, as a marxist of the 1980s, he would not support or trust empirical evidence anyway (which was often thought in those days to be a mere reflection of the 'surface forms' of reality, not the real forces which constructed those surface forms).
As a result, this is almost too powerful an approach that, rather suspiciously, can explain everything, and thus never be really challenged. Some bits, especially of modern examples of BP, do not seem to fit the main charges (of sexism and racism say) -- the programme has made a real effort to prevent the early 'outrageous stereotypes' ( Fergusson's example dates from the very first BP in 1958!) -- yet this only leads to a more subtle kind of ideology for Fergusson, where 'alternatives' are presented only to strengthen the dominant discourse by making it look tolerant. What of the anti-commercial elements noted by Wagg -- the incitement to resist commercialism and make your own versions of commodities like greetings cards or popular toys? In about 1989 (?), BP showed viewers how to make their own home-made versions of Tracey Island, for example, an expensive item then being hyped by the Christmas toy trade and selling in vast numbers for more than thirty pounds each. BP was deluged with enquiries and despatched many thousands of instruction leaflets, and the hype faltered. Fergusson does not mention this example, although I suppose he could deal with it of course -- he would probably argue that this exercise still delivered kids into the commercialised world of the Traceys and Thunderbirds, that kids still went on to buy Thunderbird toys to put in their home-made base, and that parents were now actively involved in providing commercialised toys for their kids, as commerce finally invaded the middle-class home.
I dare say that all such counter-examples could be managed like this. To take one of my own, I was much impressed as a child (yes, I have been one) by one of the most famous BP presenters, John Noakes, as my model of an ideal man. John Noakes tackled serious physical challenges like climbing to the top of naval masts, parachuting, rock climbing and power boating. He did these things to the accompaniment of a self-deprecating commentary. He wasn't afraid to say he was scared or to admit to failure, yet he still did it. He coped and endured, with a combination of stoicism, disdain for his own comfort, and unfailing good humour (while he was on screen at least). He was a thoroughly nice and communicative man, able to talk to a wide range of people. He was equally cheerful in the kitchen and once, with his fellow-presenter, he undertook a programme of childcare with a baby borrowed specially for the series. Compared to other media depictions of manhood, he was complex, reflexive and insightful into the problems of being a male, and an excellent role model, I still think, for kids like me. No doubt for Fergussson, this would be insufficient to rescue BP from the charge of 'crass sexism', however -- Noakes would be seen as one of those 'ideological alternatives' that still strengthen the system,or perhaps as an example of what his inspiration (H Marcuse) once called 'repressive tolerance'?
But this is the problem -- nothing can shake Fergusson's analysis. The scheme is flexible enough to explain anything -- crude sexism, sophisticated sexism, commercialism, anti-commercialism as sophisiticated commercialism. It all depends on this mysterious deep or organising discourse,which may either be truly there, so to speak, or a convincing construction designed to support Fergusson's world view -- how could we tell the difference? Ironically, this is precisely what Fergusson says about the 'closed universe of discourse' in kids' TV!
Fergusson is on even shakier ground when he appeals to supposed effects of this discourse on kids. At one level, it simply must have effects because no radical alternatives have appeared and, by and large, conservative ventures like the Falklands War were indeed popular. The assumption here,of course, is that, left to themselves, most people would be radical and anti-conservative, and only a powerful and sophisticated discourse prevents them from seeing the light. This is a standard (and rather romantic) tenet of faith of marxists of the period, and, again, it is clearly debatable. It is also circular if we are not careful -- there is no protest about war because the media do not permit a suitable discourse of protest and we know this because there is no protest!
On more specific matters, Fergusson depends on rhetoric and polemic (he is quite justified to do so, of course, but a little calm discussion of evidence might also be welcome). So he argues that:
'...certain young people...do reject the values implicit in the discourse of children's television. But their rebellion is often short-lived. The pull towards ideological containment via the smile of Terry Wogan or the inanity of many of the presenters of Top of the Pops is very strong.' (p. 49)But I would like to know how Fergusson knows this, or how we might try to find out if it were true. Surely this must be testable? What sort of acxtual young people did Fergusson think of when he made this statement? How typical were they? How exactly does Terry Wogan's smile offer a new containment? What actual experience is implied here?
On the same page he argues that:
'One of the clearest ways in which children's television can close off the universe of discourse can be demonstrated through a closer look at Blue Peter'But, curiously, he goes on to analyse a book about the programme, not an actual programme, and this is a popular account given by the first producers of the programme of its early days. This account mentions the sexist stereotypes we have encountered already -- for the first programme ever, it was believed to be appropriate if a female presenter, and 'blonde beauty queen' at that, would show dolls, since 'girls were keen on dolls', while the male presenter would 'run trains on a layout in the studio [for the boys]'. Fergusson is incandescent --
'there is no hint of the vaguest notion of critical consciousness. It reads as a parody...But it is not a parody. It is as urgently real as the stereotypes it set up in the first programme. The book is written twenty-five years later and the writers are celebrating the institutionalisation of the crassest sexism without turning a hair...They are celebrating one of the discourses of children's television.A discourse with the power to define the world and our place in it by naturalising that which is a social construct' (pp 49--50).Well we could just mutter 'Right on, Bob! Let's march on the BBC!', or we could try to discuss this view:
Topic 5: Postmodern Kids' TV?
There are several ways into this topic. You might want to get hold of some sort of general work on postmodernism -- how about my own very wonderful file? Earlier discussions in this section also provide clues, such as the work of Mattelart or Ellsworth on the construction of subjectivities and the operation of desire as a mechanism. These readings were very sceptical about certain anti-educational trends inherent in current popular forms -- they were focused on surface appearances in theoir nmodes of address, over-concerned with commercial signs, over-eager to blur the boundary between education and melodrama or other genres, and they involved individuals in some immediate and uncritical way.
This kind of critique can easily be extended to some of the debates
about postmodernism and its cultural effects. Let me begin by trying to
summarise, very quickly, some of the apparently agreed characteristics
of 'postmodern' film and TV:
According to Featherstone (1991) the term 'postmodernism' refers to:
Characteristics of Film and TV
We now turn to the work of Marsha Kinder to accompany us through this. Kinder begins her book by telling us that TV is now some sort of master text, the dominant form used by kids to understand their cultural world including the other elements used by TV -- fragments of films, music, books -- and educational knowledge. Video games, she predicts are becoming the new master text (and we'll get on to them below). The integrating roles of TV and video games occur because they are placed at the heart of whole 'supersystems' of the manufacture and marketing of cultural goods. Commercial pressures install TV as a master text -- especially as other forms of integration are being destroyed. Are these changes and characteristics I have listed above likely to have good or bad effects on educational knowledge and on the development of the child (especially the steady accumulations of expereince and periodic reorganisations of conceptual frameworks cited by Piaget above)?
Kinder derives other insights from Freud, especially as applied to children's development by Applebee. Clearly, families, parents and kids are represented in particular (usually very conventional) ways in kids' TV, but there is more of interest.Kinder uses Freud to explain the peculiar fascination of kids for repetition and serial structures. This fascination originates in the attempt by children to control and prolong conversations with adults, especially as part of the nightly 'sleep bargaining' rituals (themselves based on childish thoughts about sleep and death). In other words, deep anxieties are involved in the infantile mind. This mechanism is much exploited in kids TV (marvellously clearly in the repetition sequences in Teletubbies, of course), but here it delivers kids only into endless consumption of TV images.
Let's take narrative and its apparent decline or abandonment. This may be witty and amusing -- but kids depend on narratives in order to structure and arrange the information they are accumulating as they develop conceptually. The disordered flux of images and information kids witness on TV DOES help kids accept similarities and differeces and allows them to develop some increasingly sophisticated systems of ordering information. Yet this flux and disorder can become excessive. The resulting confusion delivers kids into the hands of the commercial 'supersystems' mentioned above. To put it another way, TV does foster new ideas of subjectivity as infinitely malleable and changeable, and this 'postmodern self' can be quite a liberating one for repressed adults. Less so for kids, perhaps,and anyway, sustained social life is not possible as a process of constant change and shift. Commerce provides some sort of integration and stability. Complexity and subjectivity is released in postmodernism, but (to steal a phrase from Horkheimer) it is 'simultaneously eclipsed', patterned and ordered by some commercial entrepreneur telling kids how to behave amidst all the complexity (when we get to Kinder on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all might become clearer).
Let's consider intertextuality. In some writers, the ability to interpret texts by reference to other texts 'called to mind' became one of the main guarantees of 'active viewing'. Even the most ideological text could not close the universe of signs enough, could not prevent members of the audience thinking of other contradictory texts they had encountered --for every attempt to represent Prince Charles as dignifed and sage, there would be a text to recall which showed him as a silly upperclass person who talked to plants or boogied in a dinner suit. However, the media themselves soon began (or maybe even originated) the habit of doing intertextuality for themselves, deliberately introducing references to other texts for various reasons (including providing the illusion to the audience that thery were sophisticated 'active' viewers, perhaps). As usual, professionals do intertextuality very well indeed (probably better than the rest of us),and now much of the critical potential is reduced, Kinder thinks, and we are reintegrated back into the managed universe of signs. Professionals 'add value' to their products by making them as 'spin offs' from succesful films, for example, transferring some of the 'magic'of a Disney movie on to the highly-priced stuffed toy of one of the characters.
The same argument applies to cross-genre pieces for Kinder. The stability of genres (probably partly already commercially underpinned by studio marketing,as we know) is equally undermined by postmodern experimentation. No doubt there are creative aspects -- the collision between national generic traditions as Japanese animation met Hollywood animation produced one of my favourite new products -- anime or manga. I also think that erasing the boundaries between humans and machines cqan be insightful, as in much recent writing on 'cyberculture' or on women as 'cyborgs' (foreshadowed, in my view, by Kids' TV programmes like Transformers).But there are the usual 'bad' sides'
As any viewing of any episode will reveal, Muppet Babies can be read nicely as a kind of postmodern stage of Sesame Street, with similar characters (only rendered as animations). This time, though, the educative role is much less prominent -- Babies is entertainment. The episodes routinely feature a great deal of intercut material from other TV programmes and films (in the ones we watched, lots of bits of old Star Trek, Star Wars, and the Jetsons) -- the scenes shift and move at a rapid pace, and the characters constantly shift between watching events on TV in their nursery, and entering the action as they move around on space stations etc. Kinder wants to read these features as good and bad as we saw. The good bits are that creative play and 'objective perception based on reality-testing' are encouraged. The bad bits stem from the confusing and hectic shifts of genres and viewing positions: Kinder suspects that kids are being taught to read old films as mere fragments of signs. She also thinks that kids will have to rely on the characters themselves as guides through tthe confusion,or possibly on Nanny, who appears at the end to restore calm (incidentally Nanny's headlessness can be explained in several ways, says Kinder -- expressing castration anxiety or deliberate indifference to the 'hired help'? -- I saw her as a suitably flexible intertextual refererence to the earlier, politically incorrect, 'black Mammy' in Tom and Jerry).
Case Study 2: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
As we all know, this was a very successful venture and example of commercial intertextuality, with massive spin-offs in terms of toys, fabric goods (like duvet covers), posters, video games and full-length films to complement the original TV episodes (or the even more original teen comic book stories). The venture had multiple audiences in mind form the beginning (not just the under-10s but teenagers and even adults with the ironic references and 'hip' scripts, says Kinder). The very flexibility of the characters permitted this successful marketing.
In cognitive terms such flexibility is two-edged, though.There are themes of growth and transformation, but mostly this is managed as a means of coping witih differences via consumerism, Kinder insists. Consumption is the mark of an adult individual -- hence the all-important individual differences between the characters (much studied and obssesively learned by kids), celebrated in many a challenging trivia quiz, at least in the Harris household at the time ( which Turtle wore the red head band? Which one liked parties? Which one used swords as his main weapon?). All these details can be assimilated without much challenge, in Piagetian terms, but nothing is heard of accommodation, except as fantasy transformations (a very odd way to encourage cognitive growth). There is much transformation and generic confusion -- the Turtles are both human and animal, American and Japanese, contemporary US teenagers with classical Italian Renaissance names -- Leonardo, Donatello and so on (as mockery of the past?)
Politically, Kinder finds the Turtles rather conservative again. Consuming is the way for kids to behave as adults and becomes a way of coping with a rather threatening and violent modern society. April O'Neill is a very conventional if modernised female --she may be a dungaree-wearing trainee journalist, but she is weak and helpless in most situations of danger and the Turtles have to rescue her. The series is full of old Freudian themes about how to relate to powerful fathers, both good and bad fathers (Splinter and Shredder), and the need for family discipline. No mothers are mentioned, conveniently, thanks to the unusual genesis of the Turtles as mutants. There is some flexibility in gender roles though,since the Turtles often have to philosophise about becoming men - after long training and some early experimentation, for example.
I want to cover a number of goals in this section:
Week 10 Review
Developing Subjective Understandings
(Inter) subjectivity -- problems and prospects
Empathy/taking the role of the other/ ‘slippery pronouns’ (in Fiske?)
Observational techniques (incl.p/o)
Studying ‘spontaneous’ talk and discourse (e.g. Buckinhgham)
A Checklist for the Future
Is there any empirical evidence about the audience cited in the analysis?
If there is any empirical material: (a) how representative is it? (b) how was it gathered? (c) are there any checks on interpretation?
How is any empirical material related to the theoretical work -- does it confirm? illustrate? test?