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Children's Animation, a Universal Language?

The BBC's Theresa Plummer-Andrews provides a light-hearted look at the problems and peccadilloes of producing animated children's programming for the international marketplace.

It would be unheard of to have a children's television schedule not containing some form of animation, and anyone who has any knowledge of what children around the world watch would acknowledge this fact. But is animation the universal language which travels from country to country whatever it is? I think not, and this is not only attributable to the fact that huge amounts of so-called programming produced are sheer rubbish, which should never have got as far as the animation studio.

There is a vast difference in cultures within Europe alone, never mind the rest of the world, and a lot of programming produced in France, Germany, Scandinavia etc., will never find its way on to British television simply because our child audiences are so different.

French children simply adore series which feature girls as the lead characters, but in England (where most boys have taken male chauvinist pills from the minute they are born) these girl-led items fall flat on their face. Of course, there is always the exception such as Disney's Little Mermaid, but the norm here is for the boy to rule the television set. They will not watch anything with the word "girl" in the title, however powerful the program might be. It is a mystery we are still trying to solve.

Animals of Farthingwood.

Different Strokes

Whilst working on a 16 country co-production titled Animals of Farthing Wood, I discovered other little idiosyncrasies between countries. Our German partners were far more concerned with "emotions" and were uneasy when we had various animals killed off by either man, fire or old age. The French could not tolerate one of the animals accidentally getting drunk and weaving its way down a road shouting "Here we go, here we go," in a wonderful football supporter type manner. When you consider that the French wean their children on red wine, this came as a bit of a surprise to me. The Scandinavians, who have very strict alcohol laws, tolerated the sequence, so long as the animal ended up with a terrible hangover and was berated by its companions for drinking that "terrible liquid that humans drink." Different strokes for different folks.

The English find it difficult to tolerate the style of animation produced for the Japanese home market, and the level of violence in some of their series is quite shocking for us, but quite normal for them. However, many hours of Japanese programming finds its way onto French television in its unedited form and no-one out there seems to mind it. It was surprising to hear that although Disney merchandise sells incredibly well in Japan, they do not watch the television shows. So much for a universal language.

One of the latest trends to come out of America is "FCC Friendly" educational programming. We are all aware that you don't need the brains of a rocket scientist to know that children do not wish to come home from a day at school to sit down and have more worthy programming thrown at them. These little people are clever enough to smell the message and simply don't want to watch it, more especially in the patronizing manner in which some of it is presented to them. On the other hand, we have pre-bought two major animation series from America just recently, and one of them has reached such a level of violence that even with careful editing we are having to pull episodes off air because of complaints from the British public. In each episode there are more guns, machine guns, knives and weapons than we can count, and with the current world aversion to violence on television, someone should be monitoring this. There seems to be no balance between the ultra-soft pap and the "shoot 'em until they drop" syndrome.

BBC's Williams Wish Wellingtons.

A Matter of Funding

The major problem with any programming these days is to get funding. Major broadcasters spend most of their budgets on the Prime Time schedule or in-house production, which means a fight to get enough money to develop and fund good animation. We in the UK find this very frustrating as we have many wonderfully talented animators here who are capable of producing carefully thought out concepts with good scripts, great voices and, of course, superb animation. What most investors fail to recognize is the long term value of really good programming. They all want instant returns from overseas television sales, licensing, merchandising and publishing and are not prepared to wait for these ancillary products to build up. Good animation is a long-term investment and given time, good expertise in sales and marketing and a belief in the product, investors will eventually make their money back to see a profit

What we find is that children of all ages want to watch programs which have a proper story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Pretty characters waving around on a screen with no reason for being is not euough for our little ones, they want meat in their sandwiches, and as they are our future I think they deserve it.

BBC's Prince of Atlantis.

Theresa Plummer-Andrews is Head of Acquisitions & Creative Development for the BBC.