Children's Television: Media Contain Ideological and Value Messages

25 Nov

We haven't forgotten about the blog posts for this special series, though we apologize for being a bit behind. October and November seem to have been very busy months. But we are focusing on catching up now. Here is the follow up to our chat a few weeks ago on Key Concept 5. We hope you'll continue the conversation in comments! Sincerely: Ms. Solomon & Ms. Keats

October 24th’s #K12Media chat began with an exploration of some of the messages in popular children’s television. We talked about Dora, and looked at her family (traditional, multi-generational, father plays an important role as well as the mother, extended family is often featured). We noted the fact that she is an “explorer”, that she leads the show. Ms. Keats pointed out that much of children’s television has an educational component (or at least a nod to education). She talked about the research and curricular connections that shows attempt to make when targeting the preschool set.

I began to think about the press release issued by the creators of Sesame Street for this year’s season. The release states that, “the new season focuses on a STEM curriculum, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math” because students in the US are falling behind in those areas”. Watching Sesame Street with my children is a very different experience from watching as a child. The show has changed dramatically. Guest spots, specific educational agendas and shows within the show (Elmo’s World, Abby’s Flying Fairy School etc) now dominate the hour. There is a shift here, beyond the explicitly stated one in both the priorities and values of the show, and that shift isn’t new this season. There seems to be less of a narrative arc to each episode, in favour of an educational framework. There is a definite shift toward standards and outcomes that seem to reflect the values and ideologies of the American education system. If how the program is created is of interest, Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point has a chapter focusing on the shaping of children’s programming, in particular the structure of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues.

We touched on some of the other notable messages from Sesame Street. This season introduced the first food insecure muppet in a prime time special. She (according to reports) will not be part of the regular cast, so the logical question to ask would be why? Why introduce a character specifically for this special but keep that character off of Sesame Street? When most of the characters on television are firmly middle class (or better), and income inequality in the population overall is on the rise, it seems as though it might be a good time to see people (or Muppets) from a broader range of socioeconomic situations on television. It’s important to consider why that diversity is not represented—or is only represented in a limited and contained manner. Other telling shifts in values and ideology can be seen when we compare moments from older Sesame Street and the same situation, years later (because Sesame Street has been running for so long and because the videos are available, it’s a really good source for this kind of analysis). One example might be the treatment of breastfeeding on the street. How has the portrayal of breastfeeding changed? Another controversy this summer occurred when an online petition suggested that Bert and Ernie should get married, which raised questions about the kinds of families that are represented on the street. The choices made in each of these representations are made consciously and they reflect very specific values and ideologies.

Children quickly grow out of preschool television, and turn to shows that feature older children and adolescents. There is a deliberate shift in the focus of the production of these types of shows. While much of the preschool shows rely on research in early childhood education, the same can not be said of the majority of shows targeted to older children and adolescents. These shows seem to focus on very different themes and situations. As Colin McAuley points out:

That’s not to say that stereotypes aren’t present in preschool television, they are and are important to note, but they seem to become more frequent and problematic as the programming targets the older crowd. A great resource to begin the discussion with older children (preteens) is the NFB film, “Staying Real”, as it features 13 and 14 year olds discussing some of the stereotypes they encounter:


Ms. Keats pointed out that shows like Glee parody and play with the stereotypes found in other shows targeted at teens (or younger). She said that a discussion of stereotypes on television “can spark the ability to see them in people’s own lives” and possibly change negative viewpoints. I wondered about who has power in children’s television and how does that change? Shows targeted at younger children seem to focus on empowering those children, making them feel more secure (they can solve the puzzle, finish the quest, find the object, save a friend etc), but shows targeted at older children seem to focus on anxieties and insecurity (relationships, shopping, gossip, rumours). Monica Batac asked what “opportunities available to the protagonists of preschool shows” (priviledge)? Heidi Siwak raised the concern over “reality” television, and Ms. Keats noted the shift from scripted stories to voyeurism (still scripted but in a very different way).

Before we knew it, the chat was over. We hope you’ll extend and continue the conversation in the comments. We thought we’d leave you with some questions to consider:

Who is portrayed in the show? Who is absent?

What types of people, places and objects do we frequently see? What is missing?

Who has power in the shows that children and adolescents watch?

Who is being left out of the group that is depicted most prominently or positively?

What products are tied into the shows? What can you “get” or purchase (dolls, albums, playsets, movies)?

Is the show tied into a game or online experience? How does that game or experience reflect or extend the ideologies or values of the program?

Where does YouTube fit into the mix? Is it simply another venue for children’s programming, or is it a different experience altogether? How? And do the values/ideologies differ in that medium? How?


Image by Gavin St. Ours