Halfway through watching Grandpa Was An Emperor, a fascinating recent documentary about Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, I was thrown by a minor, but completely unexpected, plot twist. Not long before he was killed in a coup, one of the film’s key protagonists, Ethiopia’s agriculture minister Kassa Wolde Mariam, had appeared on the British children’s TV show Blue Peter.
If you are not British or over the age of 30, you’ll probably be rather baffled by the reference to this children’s television programme. But if, like me, you are both, the words Blue Peter are inextricably linked with memories of childhood. Hearing them mentioned again in this unusual setting took me back.
Created by the BBC in 1958, Blue Peter was broadcast twice a week to children not long home from school. It was a wholesome mix of on-location reporting, model-making involving sticky-backed plastic and lovable pets (who can forget Shep?). For those who appeared on the show, there was no higher honour than the award of a tiny enamel “Blue Peter badge”.
But it was also a programme that mentioned current affairs. In 1970s Britain, when I started watching the show, it was taken for granted that children’s media should feature news and world events, which is how the Ethiopian minister came to be discussing his country’s famine with John Noakes, Lesley Judd and Peter Purves.
Today the idea of a politician from any country turning up on a children’s TV show seems pretty far-fetched. That’s partly because the fragmentation of the entertainment ecosystem into thousands of highly targeted pieces has given 21st-century kids something that my generation could not imagine: choice.
In the 1970s, millions of us watched Blue Peter at a preset hour and there was little else on the three available TV channels (Channel 4 finally came along in 1982). Today there are more than 400 different broadcast channels in the UK, and an estimated 1,700 in the US, when you count all the cable options. In this overcrowded landscape, TV producers know that they can lose their audience – young and old – if they don’t immediately grab them.
As a result, it’s also become that much harder to create collective conversations or memories in society as a whole. Watching Blue Peter is seen as a rite of passage by British adults of my generation, along with shows such as the teen music flagship Top of the Pops.
This wasn’t a UK-only phenomenon. In 1990s America, MTV was watched by an estimated 68mn households out of a population of 250mn. MTV cultivated a more subversive image than Blue Peter but also tackled current issues, spearheading a Rock the Vote campaign in the early 90s to teach its vast audience about democracy.
No longer: the MTV News channel recently announced its closure after 36 years. Meanwhile Blue Peter, along with Newsround, another old favourite, no longer appears on the main BBC One channel and is watched by an audience that is a fraction of its 1970s peak of 8mn. Parents today rarely find their kids huddled round the same TV at the same time each evening when they have their own screens and their own “For You” pages on social media that can be consumed 24-7
This shift has been wildly empowering. My generation reminisces about Blue Peter but would we really return to those restrictive earlier days? Once you taste choice it becomes addictive. And the explosive spread of the internet has delivered myriad benefits, such as the fact that millions of people around the world, armed only with a cellphone, now have access to information that was unimaginable before.
The dark side of all this customisation is equally evident: the erosion of a common base of knowledge, experience and dialogue within and between generations. And, though public sector broadcasters such as the BBC or America’s National Public Radio try to maintain a more broad-based approach, it is tough to compete with the hyper-personalised content found on social media platforms such as TikTok. Far from uniting the nation, US television channels such as Fox News and MSNBC appear to exist in entirely parallel cognitive universes.
Some entrepreneurs dream of changing this: ventures such as 1440 or Allsides are trying to fight media bias among adults, while the former FT journalist Will Lewis has launched The News Movement as a youth social-media platform. I wish them all luck. But, in an atomised media landscape, the chances that 8 million British kids will ever sit down to watch the same TV show are vanishingly small.
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