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Small Voices, Big Questions: The Mystery of The Cheese Badge

Small Voices, Big Questions: The Mystery of The Cheese Badge

In the days following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, media corporation Clear Channel Communications sent a memo to more than a thousand radio stations managed by the company, advising them to remove 164 songs from their upcoming playlists. The list of tracks—which all had lyrics that were judged to be potentially insensitive or traumatic to listeners following the terrorist attack—included Nowhere to Run by Martha and the Vandellas, Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’, and It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by REM.

This is what came to mind immediately when, earlier this year, I noticed that an episode of my toddler’s favorite TV show had been removed from the air. Some background: My one-year-old son Iggy is obsessed with an animated show called Hey Duggee, about a group of anthropomorphized preschoolers of various species known collectively as the Squirrels, who learn lessons from Duggee, a large brown dog who plays the role of their Scoutmaster. The show is as popular with parents as it is with children, in particular for its gentle parodies of popular culture and references to things its younger viewers could not possibly know about (one episode is a direct retelling of Apocalypse Now). 

Like many children in the U.K., my son has watched more TV this year than he used to, or than I necessarily would have liked him to. It’s cold (and germy) outside and trying to entertain a small child for months on end in the confines of a cramped urban flat quickly wears thin for everyone involved. As a result of these factors—the pandemic coupled with my son’s understanding of the TV as the Hey Duggee machine—I became extremely familiar with the entire Hey Duggee canon. One day, I noticed an episode in a YouTube compilation that I didn’t recognize at all, one that had seemingly been pulled from rotation and was unavailable to view anywhere on the internet. The episode in question was called The Cheese Badge, in which Duggee and the Squirrels have to contain an “outbreak” when hyperactive hippo Roly goes on the run with the World’s Smelliest Cheese.

bettyBetty valiantly disinfects Frog. image: BBC/Studio AKA

The episode is a basic hygiene lesson couched in a crossover parody of the movie Outbreak and the TV show Stranger Things. The imagery of the episode is highly suggestive of the pandemic: Duggee and the Squirrels wear hazmat suits with plastic screens over their faces, and do lots of cleaning and disinfecting to cleanse the environment of the “blue” left behind by the offending cheese. This seemed to be the obvious explanation for why the episode had been pulled. Someone within the vast machinery of the BBC had identified the content as sailing too close to the wind of its viewers' experiences this year, and removed it from rotation. The more I thought about this, the more I wanted to know how the decision making process worked. Was it part of a general review of the BBC’s content to ensure sensitivity during the “unprecedented circumstances”of 2020? Or was it a decision made on the fly: someone noticing the content, quickly removing it and not thinking about it again? Were there meetings and Google Forms and deliberation, or was it down to the capricious click of a programming editor’s mouse? And crucially, I wanted to know if this decision had been the right one.


Stonewalled by CBeebies

Searching “The Cheese Badge” on Twitter shed some light on how long the episode had been missing—parents first started noticing in early April, soon after the U.K. government announced the first lockdown measures. Throughout the year, more and more people posted wondering what had happened to the episode, with the search term peaking in summer. The episode seemed to have been returned to schedules in mid-October, with several Twitter users noting that it was available on the iPlayer again.

I emailed several people in the BBC’s Children’s department, but they were tight lipped. Everyone I spoke to, without fail, told me they were the wrong person to ask, before passing me on to someone they considered to be the right person, who then insisted they were also the wrong person. Eventually, someone told me that I was mistaken, that the episode had never been intentionally removed from the air. Armed with several screenshots of Twitter posts, and feeling slightly silly for having got into an argument with a BBC Commissioning Editor about something called The Cheese Badge, I replied, citing the evidence of the parents who had noticed the episode’s long term absence between April and October. They went quiet.

Eventually I was contacted by someone else from the organization, who confirmed that yes, the episode had been removed, but that it was for a number of reasons, none of which the BBC was able to disclose.

The reason I cared so much about finding out what happened to this episode is this: Children’s TV during the pandemic has been a common topic of discussion, but oddly one-sided in what’s actually being discussed. Most conversations in this area have centred around what we now call screen-time, that is, the time that children spend engaged with a screen, be it a TV, smartphone, or tablet. Many experts counseled parents that a temporary increase in screen-time to cope with the challenges of lockdown was unavoidable, and that they shouldn’t feel too guilty about relaxing the rules. As with many parenting issues, much of the focus here seems to be on the experience of the parents themselves. Children’s TV during the pandemic has mainly been cast as a coping strategy, and not even for the people who are its primary viewers. Very little thought seems to have been given to the content of kids’ TV, and how it might help children to understand and cope with the very strange world of 2020.


The Risk-Benefit Calculation

There’s precedent for this: a more interventionist model of the role television could play in children’s lives. In 1968, following the assassination of U.S. Senator Robert F Kennedy, the PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired a special episode directly addressing the incident. The character Daniel Tiger asks his friend Lady Aberlin sadly: “What does assassination mean?” Lady Aberlin asks very seriously “Have…have you heard that word a lot today?” before going on to answer with disarming honesty: “It means somebody getting killed, in a sort of surprise way.” Eventually, satisfied with the answer, Daniel Tiger tells Lady Aberlin “I’d rather talk about it some other day,” to which she replies kindly: “Whenever you like.”

Daniel Tiger, with his small child’s voice and his big questions, is clearly a stand in for the young viewer here. One remarkable thing about this scene is how little information it gives about the Kennedy assassination, as much more probably would be inappropriate. The show doesn’t set out to parent in place of the viewer’s own family; instead it opens up an opportunity for a conversation that many children must have desperately wanted to have, but found themselves without the words to begin. 

mr rogersDaniel Tiger works up to asking Lady Aberlin a big question. image: Youtube/Fandango Movieclips

Of course the main difference between the Mister Rogers segment and The Cheese Badge is that the former was created explicitly to address a traumatic real world event, while the latter did so completely by accident. I’m not sure how much this matters, though. Even by accident, the imagery of PPE and disinfectant rendered through the vehicle of much beloved characters has the potential to make something scary seem understandable, manageable even. “If Duggee and the Squirrels did it, it’s ok for us to do it too.” And crucially, just as with the Mister Rogers scene, it provides a starting point, an opportunity for parents to talk to children about changes in their lives that may be worrying them.

All of this, then, makes it seem all the more strange that the episode was removed for the majority of the pandemic, when perhaps it could have been most helpful. In some areas of academia, including developmental psychology, these opportunities are called affordances. Allowing a child to play in ways that open them up to risks, both physical or emotional, means giving them affordances to learn and develop in ways that are beneficial to them, even as they exist in tension with the risk of being hurt. Dr Frances Clerkin, a Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the Cork Institute of Technology, writes that allowing affordances for risk requires adults to “participate in acknowledging children as citizens with rights and expertise in their own lives in the here and now.” Perhaps this is the same for television then, if we are to see children, even very small ones, as full and complete people with the right to understand and participate in their world rather than be shielded from it, then that surely requires us to allow them the opportunities to ask questions about it, and therefore we should help give them the language to do so.


Sense and Sensitivity

Peter Kraftl, a critical social scientist in the geography department at the University of Birmingham and an expert in children and media, thinks decisions like these are complicated, but have to be viewed in the context of a society that has had many moral panics around the role of media in children’s lives. “The general panic around media has extended back generations; there were panics around the introduction of the telephone, and then TV and then computer games,” Peter explains. “Very often, that kind of panic is associated with children and young people. The combination of children and technology is always a really powerful source of fear for adults.” In the case of the BBC in particular, the organization straddles different responsibilities, which might explain their hesitancy to keep The Cheese Badge on the air throughout lockdown, and also their reticence around talking about it to a journalist. “The BBC is a tricky one because they have this public remit on account of the licence fee, and they have an educational remit, but at the same time they’re not directly linked to government, so there’s always been this question of what role they have in terms of the state apparatus.”

On top of these responsibilities, there’s also the regular opprobrium reserved for the BBC by the British press, and tabloids in particular. The corporation is regularly accused of being too sensitive, not sensitive enough, too in hoc to the corridors of power, or a cultural Marxist institution hellbent on poisoning all our brains. Even in the context of this delicate bind however, some things, such as accountability and transparency, are unambiguous virtues. I was disappointed then that I couldn’t get a clear or honest answer from anyone at the BBC as to why The Cheese Badge had been removed. I suspect the people that I spoke to knew that my real question was about more than one particular episode of Hey Duggee; it was about who decides what children should be protected from seeing on television, and how.

Hey Duggee script editor and screenwriter Jenny Landreth told me that sensitivity to the audience’s reception is baked into the process of producing the show. “Everyone who works in this field is extremely aware of the responsibilities we have to our audiences—handling things carefully and sensitively is absolutely part of the job, as is being rigorous about the kinds of messages that shows might impart,” says Landreth. “Nobody chucks stuff around casually or with disregard, and particularly in animation there are many pairs of eyes on each episode as it goes through the process, so there are lots of opportunities to get it exactly right.” Even the most rigorous of processes however, cannot account for changing world events after an episode has been made. 

rolyRoly's rampage comes to a soapy end. image: BBC/Studio AKA

I don’t know if parents would have been able to use The Cheese Badge to make the pandemic more understandable and less terrifying for their small children, maybe its removal made no difference at all. I do know though that the most futile choice a parent could have made this year would be to attempt to shield them from the events unfolding around them, and that’s why few have. Little fingers colored messy rainbows and stuck them in windows in March and April, and learned to stand two arms’ lengths apart when they went back to school in June. At the start of the pandemic my friend told her toddler that the reason she couldn’t go to nursery was that some people were sick, and that things would be open again when they were better. Three-year-old Cleo got her head around this instantly, and leveraged it to create a fantasy world in which she would be allowed to do whatever she liked. “Mummy, please may I have some chocolate?” “You’ve had enough chocolate today.” “When they’re better, I’ll have lots of chocolate. When the people are better.” 

Children understand more than we give them credit for, and as for the things they don’t understand, that’s where it’s our duty to help them do so. Speaking about his choices to address directly the questions of small children about the darker aspects of their lives and of society, Mister Rogers himself said: “I felt that I had to speak to the families of our country about grief. A plea not to leave the children isolated, and at the mercy of their own fantasies of loss and destruction. Children have very deep feelings, just the way parents do, just the way everybody does, and our striving to understand those feelings, and to better respond to them, is what I feel is the most important task in our world.”

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