Let me just start by saying that I, as a child, used to hate "Play School".
I was one of the Sesame Street generation - I could learn more from a single episode of this twice-daily feast than I ever would from a whole month of watching some idiot grown ups in turtle-neck woolly jumpers (or sweaters, if you must) singing puerile songs and sitting down to tea with ragged, mouldy old stuffed animals. I would watch Fat Cat and Friends (not that anybody under 20 remembers this anymore) but would rather strangle Humphrey B Bear. And what was Romper Room all about??
Even the early morning and after-school cartoons were far better back then. It's like there's been a complete reversal of television since my childhood. For example, prime time viewing was once brainless escapism (Knight Rider, The A-Team, Magnum PI, Miami Vice, V: The Series, etc - note that they are all American, because the Australian stuff was worse then that it is now), and today there's a little more intelligence behind it (The X Files, ER, Babylon 5). Even the American sitcoms have improved - from crap like Married... With Children to stuff as watchable as Friends and Mad About You. Some even say that Seinfeld is funny, but I think this may be more in support of the argument that I am about to make.
Kids' TV has done the reverse. It used to be relatively intelligent, and now it's mindless pap. Back then, they were enjoyable and had an actual coherent plot to follow. How many of these do you remember?: Astroboy. Battle of the Planets. Star Blazers. Mysterious Cities of Gold. The Transformers. Doctor Who. Monkey. Spartacus and the Sun Beneath the Sea. Inspector Gadget. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Ulysses 31. Robotech. The Real Ghostbusters.
In cases like Voltron, the plot was recycled episode after episode, and as soon as the Blazing Sword was formed we knew there'd be a quick diagonal slash (sometimes two) across our screens and the Ro-beast would be dead! But we kept watching, dammit, because we wanted the entire set of lions for Christmas whether our parents could afford them or not!!! I've given all mine to my nephews and I can just imagine how many pieces they're in by now. [*sigh*]
Now let's trip forward in time. There are three categories that the above-mentioned programs have fallen into, and they are:
Where does the problem begin? Well, from the moment a child can walk it knows instinctively how to turn the TV set on and stick a Teletubbies video in the VCR. From there, naturally the child's first words are going to be "Uh oh", "Tinky-winky", and other such verbal classics. They even mimic the accents.
From there the parents, in search of a variety of material with which to "educate" or "entertain" their child, will begin to attend concerts and watch videos of The Wiggles. Here we have a bunch of four grown men making mountains of money out of brainwashing your child with songs like "Wake Up, Jeff!" and something about red cars and green dinosaurs (not to be confused with the equally offensive purple ones).
So far your child has reached prep or primary school age with the vocabulary of tomato pulp. By the same time when I was a child I could probably tell you the plot to an episode of Astroboy backwards, including it's social moral. I even wanted my own copy of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy should I ever end up being captured by Vogon spaceships. (This was years before the TARDIS materialized in my life.)
I knew Right from Wrong. Good from Evil. Science from Magic. The Galaxy of Olympus from Castle Greyskull. I even knew the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything (hint: it's a number between 41 and 43).
Your child knows the lyrics and dance movements to Hot Potato.
In my mind, I was creating whole galaxies and exploring a universe of possible futures.
In your child's mind, bananas in sleeping attire are dancing around.
Back then, cartoons were sometimes tailed with educational or safety pointers - such as not playing with dangerous objects or conquering galaxies and the like. This was particularly the case with stuff like Inspector Gadget, He-Man and She-Ra. Sometimes it was more deeply involved, such as a potted history of the Aztecs, the Mayans and the Incas as with Mysterious Cities of Gold. Today a child is probably more likely to learn how to get a Ren and Stimpy figure safely out of its box.
Swept up on this wave of asininity, your child's mental health will continue to develop into new areas - such as Poke-fucken-mon. Maybe I'm too old. Maybe I just don't get it. Maybe there's nothing to get. But I have yet to meet a child who has been influenced by the Pokemon craze who does have the potential to become a nuclear physicist.
It may just be possible that your child will deviate from televisual entertainment completely. One way is more preferred by parents and sociologists alike: they discover the real world, they read books or, if needs must, comics (does anybody even read Tintin or Asterix anymore?), they go outside, they make friends and have adventures. They learn to grow up.
The second method is, quite frankly, the path toward the human race becoming the Borg. Already your child probably knows their way around Windows 98 better than yourself or anybody in the whole of the Microsoft Corporation. Six year olds are running pirated games software conglomerates behind the shelter sheds, where we used to pretend to be Smurfs or Wombles (who are both, I notice, making a comeback amongst great anguished cries of "Mummy, what are those stupid things?" echoing through shop isles).
I guess my generation could take a little blame for computer-bound zombies: my final primary school teacher actively promoted the illegal copying of Commodore 64 games to increase our educational progress from the comfort of our own homes. Only the strongest-willed managed to break free of the temptations of Pole Position, Ghostbusters and Wizball to venture into the outside world occasionally.
Others are even now sealed in sunlight-deprived rooms playing newly-created maps in their Unreal engines, their only contact with other humans being maintained by a network server. Away from the computer (food, sleep... maybe), they talk about computers and gaming and weapons and levels and secret panels and creatures and refresh rates, etc. Endlessly. With that excited look in their eyes the polar opposite of the glazed look in your own. (Others talk about the internet and porno sites more, but that's normal... I hope.)
So what is all this doing to the next generation? It's mainly the high schools in America that I'm worried about - where the students are more heavily armed than the local police forces, and those wielding the weapons on their rampages of destruction are the detritus of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle phase.
This animated show of the late-80s/early 90s was the turning point. It was the moment most defined in my mind where children's television turned sour and children gained no educational or moral value out of it at all, other than how to say "cowabunga, dude" in a really silly voice, not bettered since Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. From here came the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, where merchandising toys became an industry enough to rival that of industrial mining. Department stores had to rebuild entire new facilities just to house the Toys section, and families had to keep their children on leashes when they ventured there lest their child developed some new overt fanaticism for a new short-lived craze.
The emphasis has shifted away from intelligent entertainment, and kids shows are now just half-hour advertisements for the associated merchandise, that costs more for the name on the packet than any other factor, such as the material components or island nation sweat-shop labour. This consumer mentality doesn't need them to think, it doesn't need them to learn, and it doesn't need them to have ideas of their own beyond when the local store's next delivery is due.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to waste my adulthood by reliving my childhood.
© Michael Cloonan, 1999