High Era of Children’s TV

Malena Jansson

Malena Janson

Sex, death, feelings, science, religion, literature, art and politics The high era of Children’s TV in the 1970’s

By Malena Janson, PhD in cinema studies, researcher within the field of children’s cinema and television. Author of “ När bara den bästa TV:n var god nog åt barnen” about 1970’s Swedish Children’s TV-Programmes

Let’s face it: Swedes generally tend to consider their country a little bit better than others when it comes to children’s cinema and television. We take children seriously, treat them with respect, and our films and programmes targeted at a young audience reflect a democratic upbringing.

This is, I would say, only partly true today. Firstly, many countries have long since caught up with Sweden in this matter. And secondly, historically, there was a period when children’s cinema and television was far more costly, bold and seriously treated than today. This was in the 1970’s, the golden age of children’s culture in Sweden. An era when directors, producers and decision makers working in children’s broadcasting literally claimed that there is no subject that is not suited for children’s TV – you just need to treat it in the right way. It was also an era when the writer and director of children’s programmes was considered an auteur and therefore given a creative freedom that we can only dream of today. Finally, the 1970’s was an era when children’s television had the same financial budget as programmes for grown-ups. This brought on high quality TV programmes on every thinkable subject on children’s prime time: sex, death, feelings, science, religion, literature, art and politics – just to mention some of the “heaviest” issues. Drama, documentary, magazines. Animation and live-action, many of them made by some of the best writers, directors and actors in Sweden during this time.

This huge upheaval for children’s televison in the 1970’s didn’t appear by chance. It was the result of many years’ hard work for a new children’s culture that was up-to-date with the new discoveries, mainly within research areas of psychology, sociology and history of ideas, that proved that children were far more competent that we had thought before. They were – eureka! – even human beings from the very first day of their lives – not some empty vessels that were to become human beings with the help of the “right” upbringing, knowledge and experience.

This paradigmatic shift also brought on another change, namely in the attitude towards childhood: Childhood, many considered during this era, is not a period for protecting the child from reality, but instead for introducing the child to reality. Children have the right to know about life in all its aspects, from the latest news from all over the world to the deepest thoughts and feelings of humans such as themselves. You could say that this was the shift from a romantic to a realistic attitude towards childhood.

This shift coincided with the strongly political era of the late 1960’s, the era of feminist and black power movement, of student uprisings and global protests against the war in Vietnam. The western world was in constant movement and most traditions were called in question. This was the perfect soil for a new children’s culture to grow in, and for a while the children’s actvities at The Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm and the latest theatre play for children by Suzanne Osten were of top importance. Well-established authors such as P O Enquist wrote short stories for children and prime minister Olof Palme constantly spoke of the importance of children’s culture.

In television, this new interest for children’s culture luckily also coincided with the shift from one public service channel to two. This was in 1969. Twice the channels, twice the broadcasting time! And suddenly two independent children’s departments, that were to work in “quality stimulating competition” with eachother.

And this, consequently, led to an outstanding golden era of children’s television during the 1970’s. The era of costlty and urgent drama series, of entertaining education programmes and of nationally produced animated films that still today are repeated in Barnkanalen (the children’s public service channel) such as Den vita stenen, Fem myror är fler än fyra elefanter and Kalles klätterträd. It also led to big ventures on news magazines and documentaries with the aim to deepen the young audience’s understanding of the world, in a national as well as an international perspective. Programmes trying to explain the wars going on in Northern Ireland, Uganda, Palestine and Vietnam were frequent and popular also among grown-ups.

And it also resulted in opening the doors into the TV studios for the children and teenagers themselves. During the 1970’s, young people participated in the public service TV production in numerous ways: By being interviewed at length by reporters, by participating in studio discussions on for example the school system, horror entertainment or the advertising business, and by being asked to contribute to the programme content with issues that interested them. In this way, the producers collected 600 questions from children, ranging from “What does a border look like?” and “How is iron made?”, via “Does God exist?” and “What happens when you die?” to “How do one become Chinese?” and “What’s happening during night time?”. These questions, most of them never ever being subject for TV programmes before, functioned as a source of inspiration to the producers and decision makers for many years.

What, then, happened to the golden era of children television in Sweden? How is this heritage held in trust today? I would say that most of the best TV productions of today owe a lot to the ground breakers 40 years ago. There are traces of the 1970’s in educational programmes like Hjärnkontoret, in drama series like Sam tar över and news magazines like Lilla Aktuellt. But, to be honest, most stuff in Barnkanalen cannot compete with the programmes back then. There is less money and lower status involved in children’s television today, together with tougher competition from commercial broadcasting channels and digital platforms.

Also, and perhaps most distressing, there has been a slight shift back in our attitude towards childhood. Today, the pendelum has swung back, from the realistic towards the romantic attitude towards childhood. In the 2010’s, we want to shelter our kids from the harsh realities of the world again, rather than trying to make them cope with it and deal with it. It’s just that today, perhaps more than ever, our children really need the tools to cope with and deal with the world in all its complexity. After all, they are the ones taking over it one day and if we can help them the slightest via television, please let’s.