THE air of gloom was palpable. As news filtered through that Blue Peter – that custodian of myriad childhood memories – was to be axed from BBC1, generations raised on silver bottle tops and totalisers took to Twitter to lament its passing.
Hashtags such as #Ripbluepeter started appearing and even official reassurance that the programme wasn’t actually being scrapped, just moved over to the children’s channel CBBC (where it already premieres, being repeated on BBC1 on a Friday), did little to ease the sense that the announcement marked nothing less than the end of an era.
It was, for old fans, a time to wax nostalgic; to recall the days when the best part of coming home from school was switching on to watch Freda the tortoise come out of hibernation. As with all good wakes, there was mirth amid the mourning. “Just made a black armband out of sticky back plastic,” joked Emma Freud. The humour celebrated a time when every member of every family knew the names of the presenters and news that the Blue Peter garden had been vandalised would be greeted with a collective gasp of horror.
But that was then. Reduced to two presenters, Helen Skelton and Barney Harwood, instead of four, and down to just one show a week, some would argue it is already a shadow of its former self. Like all children’s programmes, viewing figures have fallen (from 1.4 million in 2002 to around 370,000 last year) and of those, the BBC says, 93 per cent of the target audience already watch the programme on CBBC.
The BBC’s rationale is that shifting it sideways will allow BBC1 and 2 to focus on adult mainstream television. But with younger children increasingly captivated by Tracy Beaker and Horrible Histories, and older children opting for reality shows such as The Apprentice and I’m A Celebrity, is Blue Peter’s brand of hearty fare relevant any more?
Although the most controversial programme to be affected, Blue Peter has not been singled out for this treatment. Though, at the moment BBC1 and 2 are committed to showing 1,500 hours of children’s programmes a year, when the last analogue transmitter is switched off this year, all children’s programmes – including Newsround, which has been on air since 1972 – will transfer to CBBC. The move is being made as part of a cost-cutting exercise and in the hopes BBC1 will be better placed to compete with its commercial rivals during the traditional teatime slot.
To some, it is an inevitable outcome of a digital world. “Most children, even from an early age, have the skills and the confidence to flick through the channels and recognise which ones serve their interests,” says David Oswell, reader in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of the book Television, Childhood And The Home. Professor Karen Lury, of Glasgow University’s Film and TV Studies Department, agrees. “I’m not sure moving it off mainstream television means anything for a lot of audiences now because they’ll find it, wherever it is,” she says. “What’s important is that it’s still there and is strongly associated with the BBC and what the BBC means within broadcasting culture; that it means something about nation, about service, about community.”
However, to others, moving Blue Peter from BBC1 sends out a message about the value placed on children’s television as well as sounding a warning bell about future investment in programme-making.
“The benefit of having children’s programmes on BBC1 is that children are seen as an important part of the BBC’s output, ” says Maire Messenger Davies, professor of media at Ulster University and the author of Television Is Good For Your Kids. “The other thing is, on the main channel, you pick up older children, children who would be a bit shy about going to CBBC which might be seen as babyish.”
Messenger Davies says any lessening of the commitment to children’s television in general could lead to a decrease in commissioning which would be disastrous both in creative and economic terms. “The BBC is the key commissioner of children’s materials – there are a lot of independent production companies who rely on the BBC for their living,” she says. “Also, a lot of people who are very key in adult television come through children’s programmes, eminent people like Russell T Davies started their career there.”
As for the future of Blue Peter, the omens are not good. The prioritising of other programmes and the axing of last year’s annual suggest it could be on its way out. Yet – its fans say – few shows are better adapted to the modern world.
The first truly interactive children’s programme, Blue Peter was ahead of its time on issues such as the environment. And it has tried to keep up with modern mores; in the past few years the studio and theme tune has been revamped, the atmosphere has become much less formal and there is greater use of contemporary music. Last year, it became the first programme in the UK to broadcast an entire show in 360 degrees on the web.
“Helen [Skelton] is really highly rated by children – they think she is cool, funny and active – so Blue Peter remains for better or worse a kind of role model for kids,” Lury says. “The presenters have stopped being parental or even sibling figures, they’ve become more aspirational – children think: ‘I could be like her – I could do what she does.’ ”
Messenger Davies says the magazine format of the show is so appealing that if the BBC scrapped it, they would have to reinvent it. “There’s always a place for a programme which communicates directly with the audience,” she says. “There’s also a place for something that’s been around for ages. It’s kind of nice your mum and even your grandmother watched it.”
Blue Peter, then, is a televisual thread linking us to the past. And it is a survivor. It saw off rivals Magpie and How and it overcame the shame of the Richard Bacon cocaine and the fake winner phone-in scandals. While its move to CBBC may not mark a high-point in Blue Peter’s history, it seems reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.
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