I remember, when I was in class two or three, as soon as I got home from school I would rush to the TV room to watch “Heidi”. It was imperative that I not miss a single episode because we were also doing the book in school. English literature at the time was mainly an exercise in storytelling and the animated series allowed me to literally see what I was reading, thus began my long-standing love affair with both books and TV.
Watching the Ramayana and Mahabharata series on DD was a way for me to hear the stories that other children’s grandmothers told them. However I must admit that my fascination with understanding and observing people does have its roots in me, at the age of 7 or 8, trying to figure out how these stories set in times so distant could still be important enough for parents and grandparents to repeat them over and over again. It was in many ways, one of my first forays, in the study and understanding of culture.
The fact of the matter is that people in our age group, our generation (born in the late 80s and early 90s) have been particularly influenced by the advent of the colour television and the sudden explosion of the television industry. It was a whole new world for us, it changed how we entertained ourselves and there was no longer a need for constant companionship or supervision. The TV had become both friend and aya didi (nanny).
I discovered the cartoon network in 1996, back in the days when at 8pm cartoon network switched to TNT, which showed old black and white English movies. It worked well with the schedule that our parents thought we should follow as well- cartoons till 8, dinner and then bed by 9, except on the rare occasions when TNT was showing “The Wizard of Oz”.
That is of course not the case with children born in this millennium. They have accepted television as a part of their natural environment. It is no longer a fascinating new thing which continues to intrigue them. Unlike us, for them, having a TV at home is nothing special.
We must also take into account that children now-a-days have much greater choice in what they can and do watch on television. For us it was just the cartoon network and occasionally the Discovery channel, for them there is Hangama, the Disney Channel, Animax, Nickelodeon and a host of other new channels. The wide array of choices is testament to how far the industry has come and the recognition that is now given to children as consumers that can affect the spending habits of the average Indian family.
While we must admit that the reach of television has grown, in that, TVs are now more common and are, in fact, found in even some of the poorest homes in the country, we must also take into account the language factor. Even 15 years ago children’s channels used to be essentially English channels, mostly because India didn’t have any of its own. This restricted the viewership to children who were comfortable in English, implying that they went to good English medium schools and belonged to homes where some amount of English is spoken. However sometime in the last decade cartoon network and other children’s channels have become available in Hindi and other vernacular languages, as well as the advent of Indian channels for kids with cartoons inspired by Indian culture and mythology which were previously available only on Doordershan. This has removed the language barrier thus increasing viewership significantly as well as catering to the interests of more traditionally reared children who might not have been allowed to view some of the more westernized programmes.
Another significant aspect that we need to consider is the content of the cartoons and other programmes that children today watch. In a survey with a small sample set I found that what children now find interesting and “watch-worthy” is significantly different from what we enjoyed and often still do enjoy.
When asked what their favourite shows were I got varied answers about shows on various channels ranging from National Geographic to Hangama, however almost all of them did include cartoon series “Shin Chan” (the story of a very annoying boy and the many ways he causes trouble for his parents and neighbours) and “Doremon” (the story of a boy and his alien/robot companion and their many mis-adventures).
Having spent a considerable amount of time with the sample set (kids aged 6 to 13) talking about all the shows that they watch and their viewing likes and dislikes, I came to a slightly strange, even contradictory, conclusion. I concluded that the present audiences of children’s channels want both more and less fantasy.
Let me explain, most children no longer accept cartoons about talking animals unless it is set in outer space or some alternate dimension. This leads me to believe that the naïve innocence that prevailed when we were 6yr olds no longer does, these kids are more mature and more aware of their surroundings than we were however they still try to hold on to that sense of wonder and amazement but only if it is presented to them in a manner that they can accept as a possibility, thus outer space, alternate dimensions and super human abilities. It is easier for them to grasp and follow complicated plots and themes that have not been specifically disproved in their daily existence than to accept simple storylines that have. For Example: - the possibility of a time travelling alien is acceptable because it has not been specifically disproved in their day to day experiences however a talking dog that solves mysteries is not acceptable as their day to day experiences have proved the unlikelihood of the existence of such a creature.
Thus we can see that there is a huge gap in what we watched ( “Scooby Doo Mysteries”, “The Flintstones”, “The Looney Tunes”, “The Road Runner Show”) and what children today watch (“Doremon”, “The Transformers”, “Ben 10”, “Thundercats”). The world of cartoons has transformed from a world of wishes and carefree joy to a world of guns and bombs where violence rules. Art imitates life and so does TV, Cartoons used to be about an escape from the everyday but now they reflect the real world and prepare children for the violence and destructions that reigns these times.
Some amount of change and progress is expected over a period of 15 odd years; however it is my belief that the speed at which technology and the internet have developed has also had a significant impact on television and its young viewers. While some classics have survived the test of time, such as “Tom & Jerry”, most cartoons that we loved are rarely seen or recognized by kids today and even the most avid TV addicts from our age group are unable to recognize all the shows that are popular among children now.
While it does make me feel old to admit it, the truth is that as time passes what is popular and what is common changes in every sphere of our lives so if we accept it in the type of music we listen to and the kinds of movies we watch, we must accept it in the cartoons that entertain children everywhere as well.