Media Genres and Content Preferences
Carmelo Garitaonandia, Patxi Juaristi and Jose A. Oleaga

Introduction With the onset of digital, cable and satellite television there has been a dramatic proliferation of channels. This has radically changed the attitude of broadcasters towards children's programming and scheduling. The variety and range of children's programming is under threat, as even public-service broadcasters come under pressure to maximise their audiences. Do children's television preferences nevertheless indicate an appetite for national programmes produced specifically for children? Using key findings from a major study entitled Children and the Changing Media Environment in Europe, this feature looks at the kinds of television programmes (and electronic games) children in Europe prefer.

In recent years, the broadcasting strategy of mass-appeal television channels in most European countries has seen the erosion of programmes made especially for children and a parallel reduction in time-slots dedicated to children's broadcasts. In the United Kingdom and Nordic countries where the tradition of public-service broadcasting remains strong, there are still children's programmes in after-school hours, as well as educational programmes aimed at children during the mornings. However, traditional time-slots are under threat, and budgets for more expensive series are ever more difficult to secure as even public-service broadcasters are under pressure to maximise their audiences. As a result, in many European countries, unless the household subscribes to a multi-channel network which has a children's channel such as the Cartoon Network, Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, it is almost impossible for a child to watch a children's programme during the afternoon or evening--so it seems that only higher-income families who are able to afford such channels for their children will have this access.

In justification of such trends, broadcasters often point not only to the increasing provision of dedicated commercial channels for younger children, but also to the fact that audience figures for older children are often largest for adult or family programming rather than for dedicated children's programmes. However, audience figures do not necessarily provide an accurate picture of children's preferences, since in many cases the choice of programmes offered to children is limited. Given such context, what are the new insights which can be provided by the research on children and the changing media environment in Europe? Does the survey offer new perspectives on children's programme preferences? And as the variety of media available to children diversifies, how will content preferences for any one medium relate to those for other media?

Children's interests

When asked to select the topics of particular interest to them from a list of 14 options, children from different countries proved to have very similar tastes. Overall, children and young people's favourite topics are sport, music, animals and nature, although there are some who choose adventure/action and comedy/humour as their top preference. Small differences between countries do exist. For example, sport is most frequently chosen as an interest in the United Kingdom and least frequently in Israel. Music is rather more popular in France, and animals/nature ranks highly in Spain. Generally, children's tastes concur when it comes to topics which hold the least interest such as art/theatre and news.

Interestingly neither the socio-economic status of the family nor the geographical location of the children's home influence children's interests in any of the countries surveyed. However both age and gender are important. There are a number of age-related trends common across countries. For example, an interest in music and romance increases with age. The opposite occurs with adventure/action and animals/nature topics. As boys and girls get older, interest in these topics declines. Interest in film, pop and television stars and science fiction peaks between the ages of 12 and 13.

The gender gap is also evident here: boys' interests are generally more uniform and more action-oriented, while those of girls are more diverse and more people-oriented. Above all, boys are interested in sport and adventure/action. At the ages of nine or ten, animals and nature are almost as likely to be the main interest as adventure and action. However at 12-13, interest in animals and nature disappears, to be replaced by an interest in sci-fi and comedy.

By 15-16, music starts to rise into second or third place. As girls grow older their favourite topics change more radically, although generally their interest in animals and nature falls as their interest in music rises. Thus, girls aged 9 and 10 are mostly interested in animals and nature. Smaller and roughly equal proportions like music, stars, sport and comedy. These preferences change dramatically at age 12 or 13. At this age, girls like music above all else, while interest in animals or nature falls by half. The levels of interest in stars, sport and comedy remains relatively unchanged. Once they reach 15 or 16 years of age, music continues to be the topic most often selected, interest in stars drops and romance emerges as a favourite topic.

Children's media preferences

The authors of the report asked whether particular media were associated with particular interests. Their findings were similar across all countries. Children do appear to follow their interests across different types of media. No topic is associated with only one medium, and indeed most media are considered useful for following up a number of different interests. Television, however, is the medium most commonly used to pursue children's interests. Books are considered useful for following up interests in animals and nature, art, travel, crime and romance. Electronic games, comics and newspapers, on the other hand, have much more limited uses.

Boys and girls enjoy different sorts of programmes. When they are younger, boys love cartoons with fast-action rough and tumble. Later, sports programmes become their main interest. Similarly fighting or sports games are their favourite type of electronic game. Girls, on the other hand, prefer narrative programmes and television and electronic games with a narrative thread. There are also age-related differences. Cartoons, for example, as we might expect interest a substantial proportion of only the very youngest group.

So, unsurprisingly the age and gender of the child have a crucial impact on both topics of interest and media preferences. The findings of the report, Children and the Changing Media Environment in Europe, have suggested that the socialisation processes responsible for the development of gender roles are remarkably consistent across Europe, and that these largely account for the observed differences in media preferences. On the other hand, the socio-economic status of the family and the geographical location of the home appear to have little influence on interests and preferences, although of course these do affect children and young people's access to media--especially to new media at home.

Conclusions

Children and young people can only choose their favourite programmes and their games from the set of possibilities available to them: broadcasters and the media industry therefore exert a powerful influence on children's choices in terms of the provision they make both in television programming and in electronic-game design. In view of the overwhelming importance of television in young people's lives--children around Europe spend on average over two hours a day watching television--a wider range of quality children's programming is surely desirable. This research suggests that a variety of programming is likely to be welcomed by children as well as their parents. For example, the enormous popularity of national soaps amongst children in the countries where they are available indicates that young people are likely to respond well to narrative programs made in their own countries and reflecting their own culture when they are provided. However the resultant audience ratings may increasingly be insufficient on their own to justify such productions in economic terms. It is also clear that audiences for children's programmes will face tough competition from both programmes made for adult/family audiences and from other screen media.

This article has been adapted from chapter 6 in the book Children and their changing media environment, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.