Though early February marks a significant tenth anniversary for CBBC and CBeebies, I confess my first instinct was to shrug it off. That’s because the two channels are so much a part of the fabric of everyday family life, they’re easy to take for granted, like Marmite, marmalade and Clarks shoes.
In truth, I vividly remember the launch, on 11 February 2002, because my now-strapping student son was a biddable eight-year-old, mad about Stitch Up, an annoying (to my eyes) CBBC programme that played hilarious practical jokes on us poor old adults.
He also developed a soft spot for Tracy Beaker, since she seemed “not the usual girl, more of a tomboy”. Together, we also watched a fair bit of CBeebies, originally firmly aimed at pre-schoolers, because of Teletubbies Everywhere – we adored them.
Of all the BBC’s expansion beyond BBC1 and BBC2, these two wholesome, ad-free children’s channels have been the most welcomed, loved and successful. You never see letters from adults arguing for their closure, as happens from time to time with BBC3.
In 2002, only a couple of million homes had multi-channel television, with Freeview yet to totally transform and provide access. But families with children were already keenest on multi-channel television, and my home was one of them. With four children around, it was noticeable that Disney and other US children’s channels were targeting them, at first mostly with imported cartoons.
Against that, BBC children’s programmes had to be squeezed in on weekend mornings, when the adults were having a lie in, or around teatime. CITV was in the same increasingly tough position. So children were easy targets for multi-channel operators.
The smartest part of the BBC move was to design two separate channels, not just one to bundle up efforts. BBC children’s experts put themselves on the line, and insisted that young children, the Teletubbies fans, were a different audience from the primary and junior school children, edging into tweeny land.
CBeebies also promised to provide 90 per cent original British programmes (CBBC 70 per cent), imported cartoons were rationed and they were able to appeal to everyone, and all tastes, with a complete mix of homemade fantasy, drama, wildlife, gardening, cooking, cartoons, news, current affairs, campaigns, even a spot of opera. Plus safe, monitored websites. From Shaun the Sheep to MI High, it’s all there.
CBeebies is the easiest bit to get right, parents control the viewing, and there are fabulous experts making fresh programmes, including the superb In the Night Garden, Waybuloo, Baby Jake, Octonauts, Charlie and Lola and chirpy Rastamouse. There are layers of characters and encounters, with the aim of gently helping children follow through the consequences of coping with siblings and fresh experiences.
The Bed Time Hour, leading up to a soothing 7pm “Time to go to bed” sign-off, is recognised as one of the great salvations for stressed working parents – and also for grandparents. I now have two small grand-children living in America, and when they recently stayed for a month, CBeebies worked its instant charm on them. “I want CBeebies at home,” declared the three-year-old.
Neither CBeebies nor CBBC have stood still, but in the last four years or so, the CBBC channel, originally the weaker of the two, has started to power ahead as the home of great new programmes like The Sarah Jane Adventures, Horrible Histories and Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60, all award-winning.
Its audience has shot up six-fold over the decade. Adults have started to demand to share their drama and comedy. Doctor Who reviver Russell T Davies has even crafted a whole new series for the channel, called Aliens vs Wizards, out this autumn.
So, Happy Birthday, CBeebies and CBBC, you are beacons in the BBC’s mission to educate, inform and, of course, entertain British children. Please keep it up.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 7 February 2012.