Keeping them Wide Awake 

15 October 2018

From ‘Television and Radio 1988’, published by the Independent Broadcasting Authority in December 1987

‘I want children to forget all about school,’ says Nick Wilson, TV-am’s Head of Children’s Programmes and the man responsible for the hugely popular The Wide Awake Club (broadcast on Saturdays from 7.30 a.m.-9.25 a.m.).

‘By Saturday morning most kids have had a hard week in the classroom and need something to help them relax. That’s where WAC comes in.’

The Wide Awake Club has a regular cumulative weekly audience of over six million viewers comprised mainly of its target age-group of 6-12 year-olds, but with some viewers as young as two years old and a large adult following.

WAC fans love the show for its zany mix of news, interviews, games, music and competitions. What they may not realise is the amount of care and dedication that goes into producing every edition. Those who make programmes for children are constantly aware that they have a responsibility to their audience of finding the right balance between entertainment and education.

‘We know we are in competition for children’s attention with all the other kinds of programmes they watch – drama serials, adventure series and cartoons,’ says Wilson. ‘So we try to recreate the pace of those shows but within a magazine format. That way we keep children interested.’

One of the means by which WAC achieves this pace is to limit its ‘talk’ items to a maximum of three minutes. This has the triple advantage of not requiring the young audience to concentrate on a ‘talking head’ for too long; makes both interviewers and interviewee keep to the point; and helps make the programme a genuine ‘magazine’ that the audience can dip in and out of.

WAC aims to introduce serious subjects with the philosophy that a little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down.

So, viewers find themselves watching a popular cartoon series such as The Shoe People, followed by a WAC news special, or have an episode of Batman before a serious item on ecology or politics.

The Wide awake Club team (left to right): Timmy Mallett, Arabella Warner, Tommy Boyd, Michaela Strachan and James Baker.

Choosing which ‘serious’ subjects are suitable for children is obviously a sensitive area and one in which great care has to be taken. Nick Wilson wants parents to feel confident that they can safely leave their children to watch WAC by themselves.

‘We try to cover the main news items that have appeared on television and in the papers that week,’ he explains. ‘They are subjects that most children will already have heard something about, but what we do is give the background to the news and make it more comprehensible to them.’

Michaela Strachan in ‘make-up’.

WAC certainly does not shy away from the ‘difficult’ subjects its audience wants to understand. For example, last year’s ‘Song For Christmas’ competition – in which viewers were asked to compose a song for the festive season – culminated in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, in the presence of the Duchess of York, to raise money for leukaemia research. Tying in with this, The Wide Awake Club broadcast a special feature on leukaemia and interviewed children who suffer from it.

For the 1987 General Election, the programme ran items on how the House of Commons works and the way in which the present political system has developed. And a group of MPs appeared on the show to explain to children how and why they should write to them.

‘There are very few issues which we would not tackle,’ says Wilson. ‘Overt violence is obviously one, but that doesn’t exclude us from doing items on war. We have covered the Iran/Iraq conflict, Nicaragua and Northern Ireland, not from the standpoint of the violence but in a way that explains why these things are happening.’

Drug abuse is another problem area. The danger is that in warning children against drugs, television can generate an interest in them. WAC believes it has overcome this dilemma by co-sponsoring the work of Britain’s first Life Education Mobile. A kind of touring classroom trailer, the Mobile travels around the country teaching children to understand and respect how their bodies function and so dissuade them from using drugs. In addition to sponsorship of the Mobile, WAC features its work on the show.

Presenter Tommy Boyd in the sound dubbing suite recording a voice-over.

WAC is also concerned that children should not regard television viewing as a passive occupation. Games such as the weekly ‘Bed-making Competition’ – where experts come in to the studio to demonstrate a skill and the young contestants then have a go themselves – are so popular the WAC production offices are inundated by requests to take part in them.

‘We would never run a competition that requires only a one word answer. It’s important to stimulate children’s creativity, and good television can do that,’ says Wilson. ‘For example, our spelling quiz ‘Bonk ‘n’ Boob’ has proved to be so successful, schools are now using it as a teaching aid. And even when we don’t offer prizes, and just ask children to make something or paint a picture for us to see, the response is tremendous.’

Looking to the future The Wide Awake Club plans to become even more accessible to viewers. Last year’s 100th programme party in London Zoo was attended by hundreds of WAC fans from around the country, and the show has also organised two nationwide junior snooker competitions. By televising these sorts of events the Club is hoping to encourage other organisations to become involved and so make more sports available to WAC viewers wherever they live.

WAC presenters and researchers meet with Nick Wilson, Head of Children’s Programmes at TV-am (fourth from the right)

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