The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Yearbook 2022: Industry Under Pressure – Audience Under Threat

Anna Home, OBE. Chair of the Children’s Media Foundation lays out the issues facing the chidlren's media industry and audience in 2022 in this introduction o the Children's Media Yearbook.

In my article for last year's Yearbook I ended on an optimistic note. The Young Audiences Content Fund (YACF) was clearly making good progress despite production problems associated with the pandemic.

However, earlier this year the fund was closed in a somewhat peremptory fashion. The announcement came before the end of the fund's three-year pilot and ahead of any evaluation – which was unexpected.   Professor Jeanette Steemers’ article describes the demise of the YACF in more detail. The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF) and other organisations made strong protests about this decision. We wrote to and had meetings with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to convey this was illogical and damaging to the children’s media industry. 

  • Assessment of the first two years of YACF operation shows: 55 new projects commissioned
  • 144 development grants issued
  • The commercial Public Service Broadcasters returning to children’s commissioning
  • An increase in indigenous language production
  • Involvement of new companies and producers
  • Focus on the nations and regions. 

The fund was moving things in the right direction. It had the potential to redress the market failure in children’s commissioning revealed by Ofcom in 2017, and much else besides, including some of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and, of course, significant additional provision for UK kids under severe pressure since the start of the lockdowns. 

In the last few months it has become clear the decision is final. After the April publication of the white paper Up Next – the government’s vision for broadcasting in the future – the YACF has become part of a wider discussion about the potential of contestable funding to support public service more broadly in the future. 

CMF is pleased that the success of the children’s pilot will be taken seriously, but we need to be wary that if a multi-genre contestable fund is introduced in the future, children’s content will not end up at the bottom of the list – as was so often the case in the past.

The white paper will dominate discussion in the coming year. It will consider among other things the future of both the BBC and Channel 4. The privatisation of the latter appears to be a fait accompli as far as the Secretary of State is concerned. And that is despite 96% of the respondents to the government’s consultation being against it. 

Despite its commitment to support the young teen audience, Channel 4 did little to address the under-served 12+ age range. But CMF believes that it can and should appeal to this group, who deserve content geared specifically to their needs – that gives them a voice. We oppose privatisation as it will inevitably lead to the dilution (or disappearance) of public service commitment at Channel 4.

The CMF multi-authored report Our Children's Future: Does Public Service Media Matter? explored radical solutions to public service engagement with young people, but it also stressed the crucial importance of the BBC to ensure continued provision of public service content for the young, now and in the foreseeable future. The white paper announces a review of the future of the licence fee which will start this summer and conclude before the end of the current BBC charter in 2027. The government's position is that the licence fee should be abolished. Until we know what the alternatives are, we cannot agree. However, we welcome the debate, and would draw attention to some of the alternatives discussed in Our Children’s Future. CMF’s main concern is protecting the role played by the BBC as the major provider of public service content for children in the UK. 

Freezing the licence fee until 2024 is effectively a reduction in funding and already means there will be programme cuts across the board, including Children’s. A decision by Ofcom in May, agreeing to a reduction in CBBC hours of original production in favour of increased acquisition, is also a concern. It inevitably means more international animation and less live-action commissioning. CMF appreciates this is deemed necessary to re-attract the audience that has defected to the streamers and YouTube. But it creates a disturbing precedent and is a trend we will be watching very carefully.

The debate around the white paper will give a once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence the future and to ensure that UK kids and teens get the media they need and deserve. CMF will do as much as we can to achieve a positive outcome for the young audience.

At the end of May there was a radical announcement by BBC Director General Tim Davie that the CBBC channel would no longer be part of the BBC's portfolio of channels. Along with BBC Four it is to become an online-only operation at some point in the next six years.  This is in part a reflection of budget cuts, and addresses the concerns Ofcom expressed, that children are migrating away from linear television to on-demand services. The CMF understands this is a future-focused decision, and supports the need to reconnect with the audience lost to on-demand services. However, many details need to be addressed before it happens – not least the lack of ubiquitous high-speed broadband, meaning that some less well-off young people may be excluded from the promised CBBC content on BBC iPlayer. iPlayer is also a problem, as it isn't a natural destination for children and its child-friendly features were all abandoned some time ago as being too costly to maintain. To address 7–12-years olds where they are, and to recapture the ‘lost audience’, will require smart thinking and significant marketing budgets, to ensure that CBBC content is delivered on multiple platforms, backed by social media activity, and truly available on the online spaces children frequent.

These and other issues will be discussed at CMF-produced sessions at the Children’s Media Conference and in further events we’ll organise over the months ahead.

We are a relatively small, mainly volunteer organisation, but I believe we fight above our weight. I would like to thank everyone who has been involved in our activities in this busy year and will be involved over the coming months: the CMF Board, Executive Group and the core team led by Greg Childs and Colin Ward. And my thanks to our patrons and supporters who keep us afloat – join us if you want to help make a difference.

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)