Regular programmes made specifically for children began in Britain when the television service resumed after WWII. 1946 saw the launch of For the Children and its simple puppet programmes aimed at the younger end of the audience, among them Muffin the Mule (BBC 1946-55), soon became popular.
Despite these early successes, Mary Adams, producer of BBC children's programmes in the late 1940s, expressed the ambition that children's television would one day offer "plays, how-to-series, storytelling, a collectors' corner, pets, travel, outside broadcasts from museums and factories, informational films, quizzes and encyclopaedia programmes". The aim was to make children's television a 'service in miniature', replicating all of adult television's genres and formats for younger audiences.
By the 1950s the BBC was providing regular puppet films for the very young in the daytime under its Watch With Mother banner, and an hour or so of after-school programmes, encompassing simple storytelling (Playbox, 1955-64), magazine series (such as Studio E, 1957-8) and live drama productions, usually based on literary classics (The Railway Children, 1951).
Significantly, much of the development of children's television in Britain has been shaped by women - the ratio of women working in this area was for many years far greater than in the wider industry. In the early 1950s Freda Lingstrom ran the BBC Children's department. She developed Andy Pandy (BBC 1950-9, 1970, 2002), among many other series, but her dislike of imported American fare and even the books of Enid Blyton meant viewers went elsewhere in search of thrills. When ITV opened in London in 1955, children switched over to exciting new film series aimed at the whole family - the most popular of these was The Adventures of Robin Hood (ITV, 1955-60).
The loss of ratings across the BBC output in the face of ITV competition led to massive rethinking in all departments, including Children's. In 1964 Children's was merged with Women's Programmes to become Family Programmes and momentum was doubtless lost while ITV forged ahead. Smaller regional ITV programme-makers used the children's arena to provide programmes to the national network, among them Southern (South Coast England) and, later, HTV (West England and Wales).
During the BBC's hiatus, radical new ideas were still fermenting, including experimental nursery education series Play School in 1965 and the crystallisation of the twice-weekly Blue Peter format under producer Biddy Baxter in 1964. Many more such ideas began to see fruition when the Children's Department was finally reinstated under the leadership of Monica Sims in 1967. Workable budgets meant the service bloomed by the early '70s.
Mary Adams' wish eventually came true - a healthy era of competitive duopoly in the 1970s and '80s saw ITV and BBC develop two children's television 'networks' unrivalled anywhere in the world. Generations of British children have been informed and entertained by the output developed since the early '70s. Magazine programmes like Blue Peter (BBC, 1958-) have offered a window onto the world. Drama serials, from period drama to science fiction, have enthralled millions; and all manner of contemporary dramas - notably Grange Hill (BBC, 1978-), Press Gang (ITV, 1989-93) and Byker Grove (BBC, 1989-present) - have sought to represent everyday life for older British children and teenagers. Factual series, on topics from science (Think of a Number, BBC, 1978-84 or How!, ITV, 1966-81) and nature (Animal Magic, BBC, 1962-84 and The Really Wild Show, BBC, 1986-98) to art (Vision On, BBC, 1964-76 and successor Take Hart, BBC, 1977-83) and books (The Book Tower, ITV, 1979-89), have helped foster inquiring minds and, perhaps, launch lifelong interests and careers. Simple entertainment has come from comic puppet characters like Sooty, Basil Brush and Emu, in variety series like Crackerjack (BBC, 1955-84) or in a host of pop music shows from Lift Off (ITV, 1969-74) to Razzmatazz (ITV, 1981-87).
Until the mid-'70s, children's programming had lodged in the hour or so after school and Sunday teatimes, but in 1976 Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (BBC, 1976-82) became the first networked series to fill three hours of Saturday morning with live and interactive entertainment. The slot has since become a cornerstone of the BBC and ITV schedules, with series like TISWAS (ITV, 1974-82) and SM:tv Live! (ITV, 1998-present) drawing both adult and child viewers.
Children's programming has always attracted close attention from parents. Complaints about the suitability of controversial issues covered in series like Grange Hill mean the broadcasters are always wary of the need to stay within their own guidelines. Also, as a cornerstone of public service broadcasting, children's television is often criticised by adults for falling standards - since the 1950s, imported American programming and cartoons have consistently been singled out as symptomatic of a perceived decline.
Such traditions of quality may sadly be eroded in the multi-channel era, where market forces and ratings will exert greater pressures on programme-making. ITV remains outwardly committed to children's broadcasting but 2002 saw children's programmes on CITV start at 3.15pm. and finish at 5.00pm to allow more room for early evening adult programming.
Satellite and cable channels showing children's programmes all day now air almost exclusively American content. The BBC's two children's digital channels (CBBC and CBeebies, launched February 2002) largely show recent archive BBC material, but such ventures are really about diffusion and branding and less likely to be directly concerned with originating new programming. Hopefully in among these changes, the rich programming provided in television's past can be continued in a similar kind of 'service in a miniature' for future generations.
If children's television can be seen as a 'service in miniature', then it must also be realised that it acts as a microcosm of British television as a whole. It is difficult to shield it from the forces shaping the rest of British broadcasting, where similar arguments rage about the death of the single play format, the preponderance of soap and reality TV in the schedules and the overreliance on imported material.
Whether pre-school, teenage or somewhere in between, children are perhaps television's most demanding audience; if they don't appreciate a programme they will quickly become restless. As Why Don't You??? (BBC, 1973-95) once suggested, they will all too readily switch off their television sets and go and do something less boring instead.