Children's Animated TV Programs: A Content Analysis

By Lambert, E. Beverley; Clancy, Susan | Australian Journal of Early Childhood, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Children's Animated TV Programs: A Content Analysis

Lambert, E. Beverley, Clancy, Susan, Australian Journal of Early Childhood


This article describes the application of content analysis methodology (Bauer, 2000) to a popular animated television series for preschoolers: Bob the Builder. The method described was developed as an instrument of analysis for a larger study currently being undertaken by the above authors in relation to how children use their multiliteracies to make sense of the media programs they watch. The term multiliteracies (The New London Group, 2000) refers to the range of literacies required to create and interpret multimodal texts. These are texts chat use any combinations of the following modes of meaning: linguistic, visual, auditory, spatial, and gestural. Examples of such texts include television shows, computer games, and radio broadcasts.

The influence of Bob the Builder programs on preschoolers and their parents is indeed a strong one in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia (ABC television shows it daily). An Internet search using that title revealed more than 20,000 sites and clearly illustrates how important this television program has become in the commercial world, where it generates business in books, music, toys, clothes, children's themes, wallpaper, and other interior designs.

The television series of Bob the Builder is a multimodal text and as such relies upon the use of combinations of linguistic, visual, spatial, auditory, and gestural cues in the transmission of what Chatman (1978) describes as a visual narrative or story. These cues consist of elements such as visual and spatial effects (camera angles, lighting, colour, positioning of characters, appearance of main characters) and elements of sound (voice-overs, music, songs/chants, rhythms, style of language). As well as these influences there are also the more easily recognised overt narrative elements such as plot and the roles of characters (Chatman, 1978).

Clearly it can be seen that more than one layer of meaning exists for child viewers to interpret, and this is a central issue in much of the debate about multimodal texts. In trying to determine how children interpret these various layers of meaning when viewing Bob the Builder, a coding framework was developed for analysing the content of the program's episodes. It is presented here as a theoretically grounded research method (Bauer, 2000; Silverman, 2001) that could have a wider application to similar multimodal texts.

What were the assumptions underlying the study?

Since the 1970s there has been a strong focus on redressing gender stereotyping in children's literature, but animated television programs for preschoolers do not appear to have received the same attention (Eaton & Dominick, 1991; Hilton, 1996; Signorielli, 2001). Initial impressions of Bob the Builder, for instance, present a modern day story-line with a liberated female character (Wendy). However, the supposedly modern Wendy is depicted merely as a mirror image or clone of Bob, and she works purely to organise and support him. As such, Wendy is a key pivot in the program, yet Bob always comes across as the main character and the real worker. Such social messages can be interpreted as contradictory. This premise has led the authors of this article to examine the social assumptions underlying the series.

Consideration also needs to be given to the fact that preschoolers' cognitive ability to think analytically about what the media presents to them is limited. Therefore they are particularly vulnerable to misrepresentations or inconsistencies about gender, adults' work, relationships, and other aspects of daily life (Arthur, 2001; Marsh, 1999; Emmerich, 1981; Signorielli, 1984; Williams & Best, 1990).

As a result of these factors, the research aim for this phase of the project was to develop a coding frame for the analysis of the Bob the Builder TV program. It was envisaged that such an analytical tool could be used as a basis for analysing other multimodal texts for preschoolers when the gender representation of key characters is being considered. …

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