Children as TV victims
Children glued to TV screens, watching cartoon fare mostly from the US, is a common sight these days in almost every urban household in Pakistan. With the disappearance of playgrounds in the country, children have not much of a choice either. Similarly, housewives coping with daily household chores find a convenient babysitter in television. The TV as babysitter does not merely offer entertainment. It also converts them into future consumers, catching them young.
I realised it last year when my two-year-old daughter would recognise Disney/Donald Duck merchandise in the stores and would insist upon buying the items. We do not have a TV at home. But my daughter got to know Donald Duck & Co through YouTube. There is no escape from global TV. She made me realise that global children’s networks have to be seen as being in close collaboration with the global toy market.
While rightwing researchers and media scholars keep dismissing concerns that media advertising has any ill effects on viewers, progressive theoreticians have argued that TV is central to the expanding demand for new toys–children are most likely to buy merchandise featuring their favourite television characters and the products advertised on the channels they watch with rapt attention. Urban dwellers with young children across the globe will easily identify themselves with this.
But it’s not merely an observation. Within a fortnight of its release, Disney’s The Lion King had sold 2.88 million tickets in 11 countries. Similarly, The Rugrats, an animated film based on a serial aired by Nickelodeon, grossed $90 million in worldwide sales. Harry Potter, targeting teenagers, broke all previous records.
But it is no coincidence that the US media are targeting children. They learnt long ago that children are excellent consumers. Between 1933 and 1935, more than 2.5 million watches with the Mickey Mouse character were sold in the US. The globalisation of the media has converted children world over into potential buyers of Hollywood cartoon merchandise. US-branded toys from the store at the nearby market at any metropolis the world over. Understandably, the toy company Mattel has licensing arrangement with Walt Disney, Fox and Nickelodeon.
In this context, a research was conducted in Norway to determine how advertisement plays with the values and wants of younger children. The study was conducted among children and parents at two day-care centres in two different towns. Both towns had a similar social structure. In one town the residents had access to satellite television (and were hence exposed to commercials) while the other did not. The study revealed that parents in the town exposed to satellite television were under stronger pressure to buy children’s toys compared to the other town.
Not surprisingly, in Sweden and Norway, sponsorship of programmes for children below the age of 12 or advertisements aimed at kids below the age of 12 is prohibited. Similar restrictions have been in place in Greece, where advertising of toys on television is banned between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. In Germany and Denmark certain toys are banned. Austria and Belgium have also regulated advertisements aimed at children. In both countries, no such advertisement is permitted five minutes before or after any programme specifically meant for children.
However, restrictions will prove useless in the face of an aggressive proliferation of children-specific channels. The more these children watch the channels, the more characters they will identify with. Hence, more identifiable toys will be staring at them from shop windows.
Children’s channels began to appear in the 1990s with the globalisation of the media. Of the 87 children’s channel worldwide in 1999 (33 of them in English), 50 were launched between 1996 and 1999 alone.
In France only, with 11 million children under 15, there are at least 11 kids-specific channels. In the US, there are 24. The four major global players in children’s television fare are also US-based: Nickelodeon (Viacom-CBS), Cartoon Network (AOL-Time Warner), Disney and Fox Family Worldwide (though Fox is now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation). Already by 1999, Nickelodeon was reaching 137 million households in 137 countries.
The US is the world’s leading exporter of children’s TV fare. For instance, Sesame Street was reaching 115 countries and had 500 internationally licensed products some ten years ago. Most of children’s television fare is animated, and thus hardly requiring any cultural interpretation, and it therefore has universal and long-lasting shelf life. Hence, generations of children have grown up watching the same Disney classics and at least desiring, if not buying, Disney merchandise.
However, the problem with the Disney channel is not only that it stirs desires and converts children into consumers. For one thing, they don’t develop reading habits. In addition, TV addiction also has consequences for children’s health. One wonders what sort of worldview these generations will have when they become adults.
The writer is a freelance contributor.