Empowered and inspired

I’ve written before that the key question behind children’s television – indeed, behind education, child support, national strategy, and so on – is ‘What sort of people do we want in the future?’

Clearly, we want the next generation to be willing and able to take on the world, keen to shape it in their own ways. But we also want them to have perspective and informed views and all the rest. You can fill in the gaps yourself, but it boils down to something like ‘capable, but keen to explore entirely new mistakes rather than retread the goofs we made.’ That sort of thing.

Now, formal education tackles core knowledge and (ahem) thinking skills, and lots of government effort at the moment seems to be directed at ‘not being obese’ (which is less ridiculous than it sounds, if you believe the forecasts). What role, then for public-service media?

For the decade I worked in it, I think the key word in children’s TV was ’empowerment.’ It wasn’t often vocalised, but on reflection I think it was central to most of what was done through the late nineties and into the early zeroes. Commissioners and executive producers wanted shows that empowered children, that gave them control and authority, that made their actions count and their decisions feel valued.

Hence lots of physical action game shows, from things like Fun House to Jungle Run. Hence also My Parents Are Aliens, which was a delicious inversion of the traditional family dynamic, with the world-weary kids looking after their annoyingly-naive-but-strangely-lovable alien ‘parents.’ MPAA was regarded as a classic series, and rightly so.

Empowerment is good. It was a necessary mantra, and I think may be almost as relevant now as it was 15 years ago, despite ongoing curriculum changes in schools shifting more decision-making into children’s hands.

But alongside empowering children, you also want to inspire them. You want to show them the wonders of the world, and reassure them that it’s good to feel awe, or joy, or excitement. You want to show them what other people have achieved, and invite them to say not just ‘I could do that,’ but ‘I will do that.’

Empowerment and inspiration are parallel concepts, but I’d nevertheless argue that TV shows can aim for one preferentially over the other. So, My Parents Are Aliens was empowering, but How2 was inspirational.

My concern about Richard Hammond’s Blast Lab, then, boils down from this epic monster nit-pick to a single accusation: I think it’s neither empowering nor inspiring.

See, the achilles heel of children’s media is that it has to be entertaining – it only works if children choose to watch it. My guess is that the CBBC commissioners were so delighted to have a proposal for a science series that they thought looked entertaining, that they failed to hold it to the higher standards to which they should aspire. If I’m cynical, I’d say they fixated on the idea that the series was aiming to show that science can be fun – which is frustrating, since in the last decade STEM engagement has been moving on from that naive approach. Science is fun: we don’t have to make it so, we simply have to reveal that reality.

The show is entertaining, certainly. Much more so than I expected, I’m happy to say. This in itself is a considerable breakthrough, showing the powers that be at the BBC that factual children’s series can be something other than worthily plodding. It’s been years since anyone’s achieved this with the BBC, really. Bravo, Hammond & crew.

But the show doesn’t empower the children in it, nor the viewer at home. Not really. And while the big stunt demo is somewhat inspiring, it’s buried in the middle of the show and not quite treated right to form a ‘Did you see that? That was amazing!’ take-home.

It’s close. Closer than I’d hoped. But I think, in the end, they’re aiming for entertainment, and forgetting that children’s media can – indeed, should – be that and more.

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