Interview: Anna Home, Chair CMF (UK)

Anna Home has had a long and distinguished career in children’s television starting in 1964. She worked as a researcher, then Director, Producer and Executive Producer, latterly specialising in Children’s Drama. She started ‘Grange Hill’, the controversial school series which had a 25-year run. She was Head of Children’s Television at the BBC for over ten years before retiring. Anna has won many awards including a BAFTA lifetime achievement award. She is Chair and a founding patron of the Children’s Media Foundation (UK).

 “I think parents should be really interested in what content can do in terms of both educating and entertaining their children.” – Anna Home

1 Why have you stayed in children’s television throughout your career?

When I first started I didn’t think at all in terms of making a career in children’s TV, it was happenstance that I arrived in it, but I had always been very interested in children’s literature and therefore I became interested in children’s drama. The more I had to do with it, the more I realised it was an audience that was more interesting and more receptive to work for than any adult audience ever would be, and I really enjoyed working for and with kids.

2  In terms of being an interesting audience what have children taught you?

As an audience they are very open-minded and prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt and have a go at things, I think they are much more open-minded than adults are, I think as we grow up our tastes and our opinions tend to narrow whereas children have very open minds and they tend to absorb everything like sponges and that’s why its so important that what they absorb like sponges is something that is going to stay with them into their adult life.

We are often nostalgic about the content we saw as children, is there any research or knowledge that confirms the impact of early viewing?

Unfortunately there is very little academic research that tells you much about the impact. But I know anecdotally from people that I’ve met over the years who’ve talked to me about what they saw when they were children that it’s had a huge impact on them. Sometimes it is about things that they enjoyed or remember, but often it is in terms of their careers, and how something they have watched on television when they were young sent them off in a particular direction and had an influence on their later lives.

How important do you think it is to have local content for kids?

I think it is hugely important to have local content for kids. I think it is important to have international and global content for kids as well because we live in an increasingly global world, but I think kids need to know where they stand within the global context – and they are only going to do that if they have the opportunity to consume local content.

Is there a particular age group where you think it is more important?

I think it is important at every age. In the UK …the provision in terms of preschool content is pretty good but it gets less good as kids get older. I am particularly concerned about the 9–12 year olds and the young teens because it seems to me there is less provision for them in terms of local content than there should be.

In terms of educational and personal development…

They are very much still growing up at the age of nine and nine plus, [it is important] that they have content that is relevant to the stage of development that they are at that time. We can’t expect them, and shouldn’t expect them, to leap from childhood to adulthood in one big leap, it’s not like that.

Children’s literature is very strong at the moment in young adult and teen literature, again in the UK. It is recognised in publishing that it is a really important age group and crossing over to adulthood at the top end of it. Children’s literature is pretty good across the board – it caters for a wider age grouping than children’s television or children’s media does.

7 What about diversity in terms of genre for children?

 Children have the right to the diversity of content. When I worked in the BBC we talked about the children’s schedule as being a microcosm of the adults, where all genres were represented.

8 Is there a ‘best’ way you see that kids content should be delivered, in the age of convergence?

Children are early adopters and are consuming media in a way completely different from previous generations and therefore we have to be very aware in the way children do consume – it is very much on demand, it is not schedule based. They’ll go for programmes and titles that they know and find them wherever they find them. About the only area that can be controlled by a scheduler is preschool.

9 You have talked about the digital channels and the loss of children’s content from the main [BBC] network as contributing to an ‘out of sight out of mind’ phenomenon.

The ‘out of sight out of mind’ is to do with opinion formers and sometimes parents being unaware of the content kids are watching, even in terms of company bosses, being less aware of (a) what children are consuming, and (b) what they should be consuming, and that’s certainly true of politicians – if the programmes are not in their face they are not necessarily going to be aware of what children are consuming. There is a ‘it’s not on the main channels it’s not that important’ kind of attitude – it’s not true as far as the consumers are concerned, but it is true, it’s a kind of lack of status. It is something you have to bear in mind, and therefore why we are advocating to the BBC which has just done this, that they should cross-promote on the main channels so that people are aware of what is available on the children’s channels and they should also showcase some of the upcoming children’s material in early primetime. Also, I’m told that the children’s department will be able now to bid for airtime within the main channel, again for early primetime.

10 What would be your thoughts to parents who are trying to grapple with the issues of programming for kids, what is it they should get passionate about?

I think parents should be really interested in what content can do in terms of both educating and entertaining their children. It is a wonderful asset to have in terms of educating kids in the widest possible sense and they should embrace it and encourage it and support it, because is actually going to have a big impact on the way their children develop and grow up in the future and become future adults.

11 What should be the bottom line for parents if they are looking at what their children are viewing or what they have access to?

Parents won’t always think that some of the stuff their kids are enjoying is a ‘good thing’ – they may find it difficult to comprehend some of the stuff their children are watching. I think they need to have an open mind about what their kids are watching and be aware that not everything an adult approves of is necessarily the right thing for the child. I think what they should be really looking for is interesting, stimulating, mind broadening stuff. Underlying whatever genre it is within the output it should have quality and the best interests of the audience at its heart.

12 What about drama – why do you feel live action drama is important?

Storytelling is at the basis of everything I think. We’ve told stories from the time of the cave man and the way we tell stories changes and we now have the most fantastic way of telling stories in the widest possible medium and we should be embracing it, and sadly we are not.

13 Funding is always an issue, is this more true for children’s content?

Children’s content has always been underfunded; it is something to do with the idea that because they are smaller than grown ups they can be given lower budgets. It’s not true, you need to invest more. One of the reasons children’s drama is declining is it is more expensive minute for minute, one of the reasons is if you involve children in a drama production it takes longer to make and therefore costs more and it’s not economically viable. Children’s content needs to be properly financed and invested in.

14 When we are in a climate of the economic imperative, what is the argument we should tell politicians?

They should be investing in the future. Their future citizens.

15 Final words…

…There are huge battles to fight, I have been at this a very long time and I am saying the same things I said in the seventies. It is a long, long fight, but you must never give up because the next generation will lose even more than has already been lost. I think you have to keep at it, and have the faith to realise that what you are talking about is the future of the future citizens who live in your country. It sounds a but grand but it is true, it is very very important. The idea, for some reason, just because it is television or screen entertainment it’s not important is absolute nonsense.

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