But nostalgia for kid’s shows doesn’t stand scrutiny

rickmcginnis2During the four years I wrote a daily TV column, I could always rely on at least one study a year, often more, decrying the debilitating effect that television had on the young mind. Among the most recent is a University of Washington report that blamed TV viewing for preventing babies from learning language, while in the U.K., a survey of teachers found that they blamed reality shows like Big Brother for eroding children’s sense of reality.

To the latter, I can only respond with a firm but baleful “duh” – in a society where judgment and standards have been so relentlessly downplayed, it’s no surprise that kids are drawn to one of the few places where bad behaviour and inflated self-esteem might be met with opprobrium, even if it’s dispensed by Simon Cowell. The latter seems like an expensive restatement of the obvious, but the fact is that, unless you’ve rewound your household to Depression-era technological standards, children are going to end up in front of the TV and parental hand-wringing over what they’re watching is inevitable, even ritual.

A few years ago, Sesame Street reissued a handful of the earliest episodes of the epochal children’s show in a boxed set dubbed Sesame Street – Old School, which has since been joined by a second volume. It wasn’t aimed at kids, but at their parents, some of whom might remember when Ernie didn’t have his trademark striped shirt or Oscar the Grouch was orange and the show’s premiere episode was even preceded with an animated introduction that warned “these early episodes of Sesame Street are intended for grown-ups and might not meet the needs of today’s pre-school child.”

It’s fantastic to think that what was once considered the most scientifically and socially well-designed paragon of kids’ TV back when I watched it (the first volume of the Old School box covers the years 1969-74,) is now somehow inappropriate, as if the glimpses of children playing on construction sites or riding bikes without helmets – or the presence of theatrically surreal sketches starring actors like Alan Arkin – are more than fragile young psyches can bear today.

The “needs” of pre-school children have become an obsession, probably thanks to parents who feel guilty about parking their little ones in front of the set and end up agitating for what they consider more appropriate to whatever the contemporary conception of “needs” might have been. This resulted in the 1990 Children’s Television Act in the U.S., a piece of legislation that obliged broadcasters to strive for an educational element in their children’s programming and which hammered a stake into the Saturday morning cartoon.

The heyday of the Saturday morning cartoon is collected in two recent DVD sets from Warner’s, a volume each devoted to the ’60s and ’70s, with a promise of further to come. This is children’s programming as I knew it as a child – dominated by the Hanna Barbera animation marquee and featuring an ever-diminishing roster of characters from Yogi Bear and the Flintstones to the Jetsons, Speed Buggy, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch, Funky Phantom, Magilla Gorilla, Josie and the Pussycats and the Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan.

Watching the shows today, it’s hard not to see them for what they were – crap, in a word, and even the apologists interviewed for the short bonus features included on the discs are forced to admit that cheapness, repetition and recycling were hallmarks of the H-B style. Some context is needed, however, and it’s provided by Hiya Kids!, a 4-disc set released last year by Shout Factory, which collects children’s TV hits of the ‘50s, featuring Howdy Doody, Lassie, Rootie Kazootie and Kukla, Fran & Ollie among others.

To the eyes of this child of the ’70s, it’s awful stuff – slow, chintzy, monochrome and bitterly condescending, when it isn’t betraying the obvious impatience of the adults making it, who can be imagined just behind the camera, smoking and counting the minutes till they can get to the bar. Bad as the H-B fare was, it was at least fast and colourful and made with some idea that kids have a taste for speed and slapstick fury.

I’d like to hope that Hiya Kids! cured baby boomers of any residual nostalgia for their childhood shows the way the Warner sets scoured away whatever remained of my own. To be frank, the only kids’ TV I’m getting nostalgic about is the stuff I watch every day with my own daughters – shows like Yo Gabba Gabba, Rolie Polie Olie, Olivia and (horror of horrors) even Dora The Explorer. It’s not that they’re particularly great – though they’re a great improvement over what we were watching when I was a kid – but I can already see a day when they’ll be discarded like so many old clothes and stuffed toys and that thought, God help me, has the potential to make a grown man weep.