The Great Animation Debate

A debate about merchandising based on children’s animated television programmes took place at the Bristol Animation Festival. Report from David Jefferson.

We have seen more print spilled about children’s animated television programmes over the past twelve months than there has been for a long time. It is difficult to measure what is serious concern in this matter and what is current modishness. The aim of the seminar held at the Animation Festival in Bristol was to try and locate, within the context of children’s animation films on television, what the issues are, what the problems are and what resolutions might be on offer.

A large, enthusiastic audience gathered for the debate, which was chaired by Philip Simpson, Head of the Education Department of the British Film Institute. Members of the panel included independent producer, writer and director Sue Crockford, Peter Murphy, Head of Children’s Programming at Harlech Television, and independent children’s producer Anne Wood.

Some of the toys that are based on animation.

When Anne Wood was asked to give her view of the present situation, she highlighted the problem of trying to survive as an independent producer – like many present – and identified the central problem to this debate as; “where does the money come from? Or rather: why doesn’t the money come?”

As a producer with Yorkshire Television Anne adapted quite a few Eastern European cartoons for transmission in the UK. She became the first head of children’s programmes at TVAM. However, they had a difference of opinions and she was sacked. “I wasn’t happy about taking the Care Bears, particularly when asked to schedule it for eleven weeks up to Christmas.

“For the past three years I have been an independent producer, trying unsuccessfully to include some British originated animated output on children’s television. One reason is the television companies are not prepared to pay the full production costs. The people in power have no sense of the veracity and complexity of the child audience. The animation we see at a festival like this has so much to offer children and it is being almost totally neglected; apart from one or two rare exceptions such as Super Ted and Thomas the Tank Engine; and thanks to Channel 4, occasional flashes of alternative animation styles. On the whole the scene is bleak. Children are offered American style animation which the programmers acquire at a low price. The proportion of animation shown is quite high but it is one kind. Programmes such as Thundercats are worrying parents because children as young as four become hooked on it.”

A representative of the ACTT, the technicians union, revealed the findings of a recent survey of animation aired on ITV and Channel 4. The amount of animation broadcast per week, not including title sequences, is given as 200 minutes imported and 85 British. That is in spite of the quota laid down by the IBA regulations. They state at least 86 per cent should be British made. The BBC are broadly the same. Live-action programmes make up the quota.

Peter Murphy told how, as head of children’s programmes of HTV, he is on the ITV Network Committee and so participates in the decision making of the children’s ITV schedule. “The schedule is shifting sands. The balance changes as series come and go. A member of the IBA sits in at the committee stage and is free to participate in the discussions. They are always watching us in terms of quotas.

Sue Crockford expanded on Anne’s experiences with ITV. She described ITV as being very concerned to win large audiences in competition with the BBC. She put the Channel 4 position. “For the past two years I have been concerned with buying-in programmes that might be going out in a slot called Just for Fun. It will be transmitted 12.30 to 1.00 pm five days a week as Channel 4’s contribution to children’s programming. The budget would only allow for half-an-hour of commissioned material a week. We had to buy-in the other two hours. The gap between buy-in and commissioned is bigger than for any other form of programme.

The concern should be the quality and content of the animation, maintained Nigel Murphy of Liverpool Poly. “Some contain a lot of violence. Are we allowing our children, purely for financial reasons, to absorb things we don’t really want them to see? Why do we have to fill up the spaces with low quality animation when in actual fact it would be better to have the screen blank.?”

Janice Cooper of Leeds Animation was concerned that the series are all about boys, even British animation; Thomas the Tank Engine; Postman Pat; etc. “We see no representation of girls as the norm, there is just a token female. I would be much more worried if I had a small girl watching than a small boy.”

Philip Simpson condemned the long tradition of ‘bashing’ American products. “I actually enjoy some of the imported American animated programmes. A recent Guardian article on this subject was pompously anti-American, which I find offensive. The Guardian seemed to be saying: those great unwashed people out there are watching American television and furthermore, are enjoying it. It is American and, to use their phrase: “pernicious rubbish”. I hope that is not what we are saying here.”

ITV searches long and far for children’s programmes, claimed Peter Murphy. “Members of the committee attend most of the international festivals, whatever they are, wherever they are, but as with all things connected with television we are restricted to what we are offered. We recently turned down a major American series because we felt we had enough American products going out at the moment. It also happens to feature a toy, which is dangerously close to the series only making sense if the child can purchase it to use interactively with the programme.

“We seek non-violent projects, we look for a different mix of material. We are not complacent, we are always wrestling with this problem and we are not a bunch of Philistines. It is a very complex problem.”

Mike Young, creator and producer of SuperTed, said they have merchandising. “It is necessary because we get a fraction of the budget from television sales. In Britain few television companies support animation studios, we have S4C television in Wales with Syriol and some small studios; we’ve got Thames television with Cosgrove Hall, Channel 4 backs a small number of projects and that is all. You can’t knock the American product because the children enjoy it; without it there would not be very much animation on British television.”

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