What They Do When They’re Scared

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I unfortunately caught a bit of Reporting Scotland yesterday. Scotland’s economy “failed to grow” in the first quarter of the year, because low oil prices put “a real spanner in the works”; unemployment was down, but so was the UK’s as a whole, so it isn’t that big a deal; yesterday’s thunderstorms cause transport problems, which naturally means economic chaos. Money, money, money. The price of everything, the value of nothing. This, concurrent with much crowing from British Nationalists as they contort George Kerevan MP’s statement about an independent Scotland needing to “cut its budget coat to fit its fiscal means” – surely a metaphor that could just as easily substitute “cut” for “tailor” or “alter” – into some sort of tacit admission that Better Together were right all along.

Then I learned about exactly how much money the BBC gains from Scottish license fees, and how much it spends here.

bbcscotlandfinancial-2That the BBC faces an existential crisis in the event of Scottish Independence is one thing: you could argue that even if the UK as we understand it now ceases to exist, the actual island of Great Britain would still be there. But here, we see exactly what the BBC thinks of Scotland – and how much it is willing to put back into Scotland. Scots contribute £320.1 million, only to get £98.1 million spent on “local content” – that is, Scottish content.

Bear with me for a moment while I talk about a weird internet series, and how it relates to the state of the BBC today.

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Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is an internet phenomenon that’s best explained as a children’s television series going very, very wrong. Each episode follows the format of a typical children’s TV format, usually featuring a song about a particular subject: so far there are six episodes based around creativity, time, love, technology, healthy eating, and dreams. While it’s most immediately evocative of the US’ Sesame Street, viewers in the British Isles may remember local series like Jigsaw, Rainbow, The Sooty Show, Rosie & Jim, Tots TV, and The Hoobs – at least, before the blood, guts, gore and screaming starts.

I’d recommend watching the entire series, especially if you have a penchant for the strange (albeit a strong stomach, given some of the horrific imagery). Here’s the first episode:

Yet there’s clearly more to the series than the simple “children’s show goes dark” twist beloved of so many Creepypastas: dozens of theories and speculations about the hidden themes of the show abound online, from great philosophical cogitations on life, to criticism of the commercialisation of educational programming. Probably the most interesting of such analyses I’ve found is the following video:

I thought I would extract the following passage from the video, starting from 9:27, as I think it touches on something extremely important in regards to the BBC:

The underlying theme here is clear: the kid’s show these three characters are in throughout the entirety of the series sets out to deliver lessons about the world, but either fails miserably, or succeeds in intentionally brainwashing kids to a specific point of view. But why? Why are the creators of the show so cynical about kids’ programming? Are they trying to say that there’s some big conspiracy behind kid’s TV shows? Well, yeah, actually: definitely seems that way.

Dig a little bit deeper, and there’s evidence that the show’s creators are railing against not just kids’ TV, but the makers of kids’ TV – and what their goals really are. Not educating kids, but in making money. Throughout the series we see visuals about earning money, such as the very first thing you see in Don’t Hug Me: a newspaper which reads “Stocks Flying High,” along with a figure that seems to imply that the value of the British Pound is increasing. We also have subtler clues like a board game in the background of Episode 4 that’s titled “Money Win.”

But the most important element of this is a very small detail. Any fan of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared knows that each of the episodes takes place on June 19th: but what you have to look closer to see is the year. You can actually figure it out from Episode 1: that newspaper headline about stock soaring in the UK is no accident – and it’s not fiction. If you look at stock records for June 19th in the last hundred years, there’s one year in particular where stock markets were hitting record highs on that date: in 1955.

In 1955, stock markets all over the world, including the US & UK, broke practically every record imaginable when the markets opened. And if this is good evidence in Episode 1, in Episode 2, we get our definitive proof: when the clock mentions that “the past is far behind us,” we see a picture of all three main characters with the date underneath that reads 19-06-55 – the 19-06 part obviously stands for June 19th, since the Brits put their date before the month, with the 55 confirming our year. But why? Why 1955?

Well, 1955 was actually a huge deal in British television history. Prior to 1954 the British Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC, held a monopoly on British television; but it was 1954 that the UK passed what became known as the Television Act in an effort to bring an end to that BBC monopoly. This act led to the establishment of the first alternative network called ITV, or Independent TV, in 1954. While the BBC is sponsored by the British Government, ITV is independent, and therefore has to make its money through advertising.

Now, in interpreting this series, other Youtube channels, most notably Youtube Explained, have covered this topic: but they’ve said in the context of Don’t Hug Me that this was a good evolution. I see it the opposite way, and I’m pretty sure the creators of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared would agree, and here’s why: this was the first time that advertising appeared on British television, marking an inflection point at which television went from a medium to communicate and entertain, to a medium to make a profit, thereby giving executives and advertisers as much – and often times more power – than the creators.

Britain was especially sensitive to TV advertising. I mean, in the US we were already used to interrupting TV programs through ads, or not even interrupting them at all. In the US it was actually standard practise to bleed those regular shows into an ad. So, one minute you’d be watching The Flintstones, and then all of a sudden they’d be selling you cigarettes – no joke! – or watching a game show and then being sold dishwasher detergent in the middle.

One piece of evidence that was used against ads was that in the US, the coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation was interrupted by a commercial with a dancing monkey named J. Fred Muggs. The British considered advertisements like that embarrassing, and quite frankly rude. You don’t interrupt their queen with a monkey!

So, 1954 and 1955 were years that were filled with debates about when and how to allow ads onto TV, and if the behaviour of Becky & Joe, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’s creators, is any indication, the issue of ads influencing TV is a big concern of theirs’. According to the newspaper The Guardian, Becky & Joe received offers from more mainstream sources to make more episodes of Don’t Hug Me, but turned them all down and funded the project themselves through Kickstarter. Joe Pelling said “We wanted to keep it fairly odd, and have the freedom to keep doing exactly what we wanted.”

The implication here is clear: if Don’t Hug me I’m Scared were made for television, it would have had to have been approved by other people – people whose interests would have been for profit or popularity, not about the message of the show. And when you look at these 6 episodes, it’s pretty clear that the messages for a positive, good, inspirational, entertaining kids’ show are there, but they’ve been perverted by the influence of an outside force.

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is ultimately a parable for the loss of control that artists trade off when they work on bigger screens: their messages are manipulated, and their morals are poisoned by others with ulterior motives.

Youtube Explained, among others, viewed the breaking of the BBC’s monopoly as a great thing:

The referencing of this time period is genius: the creators are comparing the ’50s to today. This is when the BBC lost their monopoly, when  they opened the floodgates to allow all sorts of content and ideas on the airwaves. Today, this is happening on a much larger scale: we have the internet. Similar to when the ITA made its very first broadcast, it is now the people that have the power to share ideas. This is a highly influential medium, and today we have taken control.

The media is no longer this big, scary, propaganda machine that shapes and brainwashes people in order to shake them so they will “fit” the system, so they will remain law-abiding Christians that support the church and buy things they don’t need and don’t ask questions. Britain saw the beginning of this in the ’50s when television was no longer a monopoly, and today I think we’re seeing the pinnacle of it.

Sadly, once again, I can only think of The Deprogrammers. Here’s the first ITA, later ITV, broadcast:

What do you see? I’ll tell you what I see: just another BBC, only with more advertising, and with someone else benefiting from the proceeds. Same clipped Proper English, same preoccupation with London, same austere surroundings and patronage. The powerful found a way to present themselves as an “alternative” to themselves, and got people on board with it.

Nothing brings across the hollowness of the “ending the monopoly” fiction as the irony of the Postmaster General, Charles Hill, determinedly and defiantly declaring that advertising will not debase or interrupt our culture and entertainment, and the very first advert making a mockery of the whole exercise:

And, of course, in the end, even the BBC capitulated to the power of advertising:

The BBC is not permitted to carry advertising or sponsorship on its public services. This keeps them independent of commercial interests and ensures they can be run purely to serve the general public interest.

If the BBC sold airtime either wholly or partially, advertisers and other commercial pressures would dictate its programme and schedule priorities. There would also be far less revenue for other broadcasters.

The BBC is financed instead by a TV licence fee paid by households. This guarantees that a wide range of high-quality programmes can be made available, unrestricted, to everyone.

The licence fee also helps support production skills, training, local or minority programmes and other services which might not otherwise be financed by the economics of pay-TV or advertising.

The BBC runs additional commercial services around the world. These are not financed by the licence fee but are kept quite separate from the BBC’s public services. Profits are used to help keep the licence fee low so that UK licence fee payers can benefit commercially from their investment in programmes.

Got that? The BBC doesn’t sell airtime either wholly or partially in the UK: it just keeps its advertising outside the UK (and on the web) and uses the proceeds to keep the license fee low – it “benefits” UK license fee payers “commercially,” see? Likewise, the BBC doesn’t allow commercial pressures to dictate its programme & schedule priorities: it just allows commercial pressures from the UK Government and its own vested interests to do that. All the talk about protecting the integrity of a public service rings hollow given the lengths our state broadcaster has gone to further the interests of the rich, the elite, and the powerful.

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is viscerally unsettling in an immediate sense, but if anything, I think this theory makes it even more unsettling. Even growing up as a child, I wondered about the “lessons” shown at the tail end of episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: I, as a precocious child, thought it was very noble and thoughtful of the creators to include this analysis at the end of each episode. It encouraged my budding critical mind to really think about what I watched on television,* applying not just “morals” to the story, but thinking about themes, applicability, and critical thinking. It came as something of a surprise to me to read of the controversies raging about He-Man and other 1980s cartoons, and that so many iconic aspects of the series – He-Man’s reluctance to use his phenomenal strength through excessive violence, the villains’ sense of humour, and of course the morals – were pre-emptive measures to combat that outrage.

I became very cynical from a young age, always questioning what it was the cartoons and children’s’ programs were really up to. “To Sell Toys” was an easy explanation for cartoons dedicated to transforming children into capitalist consumers, but I started to perceive deeper, darker intentions. Blue Peter, for instance: how many times have they joyfully sold the armed forces, the royal family, and other pillars of the British Establishment to a new generation? Is it a coincidence so many boy’s cartoons were all about how great it would be joining the army or construction business, while girls’ cartoons tended to be about how great makeup, clothes, shoes and jewelry? It isn’t just right-wing or capitalist propaganda we see, either, as Captain Planet & the Planeteers and similar cartoons extol a more left-wing viewpoint. Whatever the case, I started to wonder why these people were so interested in forming our minds. Regardless of your political leanings, it’s not pleasant to realise people are trying to convince you into thinking a certain way.

My belief is that the job of the press is to report, not to editorialise. Similarly, the role of the media is to expand people’s horizons, not to define them. I found I did that in my childhood despite the programme makers’ intentions: whenever I disagreed with a He-Man moral, or found an episode’s theme distasteful, I challenged it. I carried that on through my adolescence and adulthood, from fiction to non-fiction. And I’ve found that those people who are most aggressive in their opinion-forming are the one who are most threatened. They cannot convince people of the merits of their position, so they seek to narrow the debate to their terms, hoping nobody asks too many questions. They frantically go back over old ground – currency, budget, defence – limiting the terms of the argument to a situation that no longer exists. The arguments of 2014 are completely irrelevant now that England & Wales voted to Leave the EU, because the arguments made in 2014 assumed that the rest of the UK would still be in the EU.

That’s what happens when children’s’ TV shows go wrong: what seemed comforting, gentle, educational, and truthful starts to change. You see the gruesome reality beneath the façade, the monster behind the curtain, the rot beneath the veil. And then they start to panic.

I guess that’s the moral of the story: be suspicious.

*Coincidentally, very little: we grew up without television for much of my early life, though we did watch videos.

2 thoughts on “What They Do When They’re Scared

  1. jamie macdonald says:

    interesting piece- thanks, I have wondered about this for some time now too,(though did not become so cynical until later in life) and am convinced that television is far more powerful than most realise.. I’ve seen young babies (6 months ) turn in recognition of the theme to mum’s favourite soap opera, a good indicator of babies in the womb listening to mothers music, couple that with the the warm feeling of well-being coursing through both at the time, of the tune, for the latest episode.. hooked?! then when you see/hear the content of some of it.. The influence these have on society and the ‘normalisation’ of the way the characters speak to, and treat one another – it’s not good.

  2. Excellent piece, Al. I became fairly immune to TV through time myself to the point where I finally ditched my malfunctioning telly during the Indyref campaign
    I think during the previous three years I’d watched it on average once every six months and used the damn thing more for listening to the radio.
    I stopped actively watching kids TV at the age of 16 in 1980 but as that decade progressed I observed that any popular kids series appeared to immediately spawn a procession of toys, clothes, lunch boxes etc. I think that’s when the penny dropped for me although admittedly I had a couple of Thunderbirds toys in the late ’60s.
    This when the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy released Television; The Drug of a Nation, I got it immediately in its savage critique of all TV.
    These days I’m proud of my aversion to the idiot box in the corner of most homes though I’m exercising healthy scepticism of aspects of the Internet too.
    “Kill your Television” is still a phrase I heartily endorse!

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