Quality in German children's television A mouse on two legs

Children and youth between the ages of three and 13 watch an average of 1.5 hours of TV per day.
Children and youth between the ages of three and 13 watch an average of 1.5 hours of TV per day. | Photo (detail): pressmaster © 123RF

For over 40 years now, that little orange rodent has been scurrying across German TV screens exciting both children and parents alike. After winning multiple awards in its long history, “The Program with the Mouse” is still the inimitable icon of children's television in Germany.

Gert K. Müntefering, one of the founders of the show, once made a legendary statement that still applies today: “Children's television is when children watch television”. What he was saying was that fun and learning do not have to be at odds with each other. Our little ones want entertainment too and TV shouldn't be viewed as an extension of a school curriculum. That does not mean, however, that the quality of children's programming should be compromised. After all, according to a study by the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI), children and youth between the ages of three and 13 watch an average of 1.5 hours of TV per day.

The Prix Jeunesse International

Not just creators, editors and programming decision-makers are responsible for content and activity in children's television. The Prix Jeunesse Foundation, founded in 1964 by the Free State of Bavaria, the City of Munich and Bayerischer Rundfunk, a TV and radio station, also has a major say in the matter. Seven years after it was created, in 1971, ZDF (Zweites Deutsche Fernsehen) joined the foundation; the Bavarian Regulatory Authority for Commercial Broadcasting in 1992; and SuperRTL, another TV station, in 2005. The foundation's task is to promote the highest possible quality in domestic and international children's and youth programs, improve intercultural understanding and invigorate the exchange of shows around the world. To motivate the creators of children's shows, the foundation therefore awards a prize, the Prix Jeunesse International, which is now the oldest and world's largest awards festival for quality children's and youth television. The competition takes place every two years and is organized by Bayerischer Rundfunk (Munich). It is also accompanied by mobile workshops collectively called the Prix Jeunesse Suitcase.

In 2012, the motto of the event was Watch, Learn and Grow with Children’s TV, and it featured 353 productions from 70 countries. The special thing about the Prix Jeunesse is that all of the festival participants, including young viewers, can vote for the winners. In addition, there is a jury of children that awards its own prize. “Good children's TV is TV that brings kids forward in life, in their development, in their desire to get involved with the world and at the same time get the best possible entertainment value out of it,” says festival and project coordinator Kirsten Schneid.

Two German productions were distinguished by Prix Jeunesse in 2012. The first was in the “Fiction & Non-Fiction 12 to 15 years of age” – a film thesis project called Two-and-a-Half Heroes by Martin Busker and Kathrin Tabler from the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg. The film deals with two friends who are very different from each other and who have to deal with some difficult circumstances in life. In the category “Non-Fiction up to 6 years of age”, the multimedia interactive series Ene Mene Bu (and it's up to you) claimed first prize. Focused on preschool children, the little viewers are encouraged to paint or build things shown on the program. The show runs daily on KiKa, a children's channel, in the preschool segment Kikaninchen.

New formats, more diversity

The now cult figures of the Augsburg Puppenkiste, an exciting marionette theater, are of course not to be forgotten: The Abenteuer von Urmel, Jim Knopf and his talking cat Kater Mikesch were produced in the 1960s and 70s as a TV show and are still a hit with kids. In the Internet age, though, not only have viewing patterns changed, but a demand for new styles of content has also emerged. New show formats have been developed in order to offer the most possible diversity in programming.

At the same time, web sites have now been created to accompany the TV shows. Children's news shows like logo!, or documentaries, comedies, quiz shows, mystery series like the Fluch des Falken (BR/Tresor TV), and even biblical cartoons like Chi Rho – Das Geheimnis (on KiKA) have managed to establish themselves comfortably in the lineup. Science and educational magazines like Checker Can (BR) and Du bist kein Werwolf – Über das Leben in der Pubertät (WDR) are also watched regularly. The successful public television channel KiKa, from ZDF and ARD, celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2012 and in 2011 it was the leader in preschool programming with a 30.8 percent share of the market. The commercial children's stations have been challenging that position, however, in particular the popular SuperRTL and Nickelodeon, a Viacom company based in the USA. The latter has mostly established itself through Sponge Bob: the chaotic little sponge holds first place in the IZI study (2011) among the most popular children's figures on TV.

Too few female presenters

There is one more surprising result of the poll as well: Women are conspicuously absent in children's television programming. Apparently 85 percent of the seven- to 10-year-old girls in 24 different countries want more women show hosts. As many of the boys, however, want the world explained to them by a male figure – a desire that more or less reflects the current TV reality. As a result, “Why can't a competent woman in her late 40s explain technology to children using a The Program with the Mouse?” is one of the questions asked by Maya Götz, director of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI). We'll have to ask the programming decision-makers on that one.