The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

BBC Gets Animated

The new Director of BBC Children's and Education has announced an animation-centric strategy to attempt to recapture the audience lost to streaming services and other competitors.  CMF asks how this might affect the future of public service content for kids in the UK...

Patricia Hidalgo, Director of BBC Children's and Education outlined her strategy in her Keynote at the Manchester Animation Festival "Industry Day" on 18th November.

Animation featured significantly - as might be expected at an animation event. The good news included a tripling of the spend on animation for the 7-12s audience. But this will happen without additional funding, so something else in the CBBC schedules will have to be cut back.

Of course, animation is no less public service than any other genre.  It can serve public service aims perfectly well on a variety of levels. Not least because it is popular and fun - but can still tell great stories with purpose and meaning attached.

However, because of their high cost, animation projects are almost always co-funded by partners in different territories. This inevitably dilutes culturally specific elements in favour of a more international (which often means more US-centric) appeal.

Patricia Hidalgo made clear in her speech that she is determined to ensure the animation commissioned as a result of the redirected funding is made in the UK and has more UK cultural references and British sensibility than was previously possible. The BBC intends the creative drive for this new initiative to come from the winning entries in their "Ignite" animation competition.

We applaud the aim to create UK-centric animation from the groundwork of “Ignite”. But it’s important to remember that the redirected funding will still not fully-finance the animation planned. Partners in other territories will have to be involved.

At another industry event in early December the newly appointed BBC Children’s Head of Content and Programming Strategy, Anna Taganov (pictured), revealed a plan to commission only one "big ticket” production a year as the priority for live-action drama.  This is a stark representation of the "fewer, bigger, better" strategy that focuses spending on key successful brands.  The danger to public service is that the range of content will decrease.

Both of these strategies are of concern to live-action producers in the UK, as there is likely to be less commissioning of live-action, particularly new ideas for live-action content, for the CBBC channel.

CMF has also heard from producers recently that when discussing a commission with the BBC Children's team, it is made clear that the BBC will not fully-fund content that was previously entirely paid for by the broadcaster.  So, producers of factual series, for example, are being asked to find a proportion of their budget from other sources, such as international distribution deals.  Anyone in the kids’ industry knows that these sort of deals are few and far between for smaller-scale factual shows, and if there is any advance buy-in there is little possibility that a co-commission would come from an organisation inside the UK. That means financial backing will come with stipulations about ensuring the content is internationally focused and attractive to audiences outside the UK.

All of this is potentially a cause for concern to an audience advocacy body like CMF. If range is diminished and culturally specific content diluted, this will inevitably have implications for public service purposes. What might "go missing" is kids hearing their own voices, seeing themselves in their own settings, and experiencing stories that are close to their own lives.  The precept: "if you can't see it, you can't be it" is particularly meaningful after all, when thinking about serving the children’s audience.

Equally, innovation can be stifled if less content is commissioned. This is particularly dangerous in the face of competition from platforms like YouTube and TikTok, where the range of content available to young people is huge and new ways of making and presenting ideas is an important ingredient of success. And it’s worth noting that prioritising animation does not particularly address the audience that has migrated to short-form, multi-genre content on those media-sharing platforms.

The BBC has assured CMF that their commitment to news, factual and documentary for young people is intact. In her article for the CMF Public Service Media Report Patricia Hidalgo wrote:

"We all believe that public service media matters. Our audience needs to believe it too. We have to make content which is both nourishing and that they want to consume. It’s imperative that children can see British values, culture, locations and diverse representation in all genres: drama, factual, comedy and, under our latest plans, animation."

They are optimistic that their focus on UK-centric animation and strong drama brands will be competitive. And compete they must. There is little purpose in making public service content that the public does not watch.

BBC Children's faces an unprecedented assault on its audience - particularly the over 7s - from a combination of social media video sharing platforms such as YouTube and TikTok, and the well-funded international streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. We accept that a strategy that prioritises animation and high-end drama could win back viewers. But we are concerned about the risk that the strategy will provide "more of the same" – more of what the competitors are doing - rather than the distinctive, relevant, wide-ranging content the audience expects from a public service provider. And at the same time paying for the new strategy by diverting funding from live action factual and fiction could serve to diminish the overall public service offering.

With these concerns in mind, we call upon the BBC to increase the Children’s content budget to fund the new aspirations in animation, but at the same time maintain a greater range of drama, and ensure that factual content is fully funded. We appreciate that once again the BBC faces budget cuts but re-establishing a meaningful relationship with the young is vital for its future as a public service broadcaster. Without these viewers the BBC faces long-term decline. A strategy to win them back needs to be supported with additional funding so that the best possible public service offering can continue to be commissioned alongside the new, to ensure range, variety and broad relevance. If this audience is worth fighting for, it’s worth paying for – without inflicting damage on the core public service purposes of the Children’s department. 

 

Industry Policy

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)