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Children and the media

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Television and the young

While television has yet to penetrate vast populations of young people, children's television is already big business and a growth industry.

The world's four biggest television channels - Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, The Disney Channel, Fox Kids' Network - are all based in North America but broadcast throughout the world. They have achieved their dominance in less than 10 years.

Much of children's television output is now linked - through advertising, product placement, and licensing - to the retailing of toys, books, electronic games and other items.

American producers benefit from the economies of scale because their domestic market is now so huge. As a consequence, local production of children's programmes elsewhere has begun to shrink, even in Europe. Inevitably the cultural values that predominate reflect those of the producers rather than their diverse markets. Although local production is now being developed to meet the needs of European consumers, it will be some time before this trend reaches less developed markets.

Eastern Europe, once well served by locally produced children's programming, has come to rely on foreign imports. In Latin America, children of parents who can afford access to cable channels have to rely largely on imported programming. In North Africa, where 50 per cent of the population is under 30 years old, there is no indigenous children's programming. And while post-apartheid South Africa has seen an upsurge in the production of children's programmes, like the rest of the continent, where children have access to television, the schedules are packed with products from the English-speaking world.

The arrival of digital television has increased opportunities for niche marketing, allowing European channels to reach out to international markets that share the same language. The potential of digital could mean that tomorrow's children will be far better served with culturally appropriate material than today's.

However plans by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the United Kingdom's leading public service broadcaster, to launch two interactive digital channels dedicated to young children and teenagers, met with opposition from commercial broadcasters.

The key challenge to be addressed by those who are investing resources in children's productions, or who are engaged in the process, is examining how far the best interests of their young viewers have been considered in commissioning, making and marketing the programme. They should also be aware of those young viewers who do not share their own cultural values.

When conducting market research about television programmes for children, the opinions of children from potential non-domestic markets might also be canvassed, and opportunities should be created for children to express their reactions to programmes directed at them.

The following question should always be asked: is the primary purpose of the programme to persuade children or young people to buy, or desire, a secondary product; or has it been commissioned for its entertainment, informational or educational value?

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