The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Sleepwalking into the Future

Anna Home OBE, Chair, The Media Foundation and Greg Childs OBE, Director, The Children’s Media Foundation, wrote this introductory article to the Children's Media Yearbook 2023

Time For Radical Solutions?

For the Children’s Media Foundation (CMF), this year has been dominated by our increasing concern over the long-term future of public service media (PSM) for children and young people. This follows the abrupt closure of the Young Audiences Content (YAC) Fund in early 2022 and is in the context of the slow progress through parliament of the Online Safety Bill and changes to the regulation of content for children proposed in the draft Media Bill.

The evaluation of the YAC Fund in the spring highlighted how successful it was in increasing the range of PSM content across different age ranges and fulfilling a clear public service remit with stringent criteria
– benefiting both the audience and the industry. However, there is little chance of a new fund appearing anytime soon. Meetings with government ministers have made it clear that while there is enthusiasm for what the Fund achieved, there is simply no public money to pay for a replacement. Cuts at the BBC and their re-prioritising children’s budgets to focus more on animation and internationally viable content, and a clear warning from the commercial public service broadcasters that life without the YAC Fund was going to mean less commissioning, means the range of content will certainly diminish.

ITV has since replaced the CITV channel with an on-demand service on ITVX – with even lower budgets – and both Channel 5 and Channel 4, while they committed to try to maintain some of the new programming commissioned with the YAC Fund, could not promise to increase their commitment when they met industry representatives at an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) meeting convened by CMF and chaired by Baroness Benjamin OM DBE.

More recently Alex Mahon, Channel 4’s Chief Executive, has reiterated their commitment to young people and raised the issue of the adverse impact of AI-driven algorithms on platforms heavily watched by the young. This makes the government decision not to privatise Channel 4 at least one positive in this rather bleak landscape.

The whole ethos of children’s media is changing at speed. The traditional children’s TV audience is fragmenting. Viewers are migrating to a variety of different providers; in particular TikTok and YouTube, neither of which will be sufficiently regulated by the Online Safety Bill to ensure prominence for public service content on their platforms. Without intervention, children will become less and less aware of what public service media is, and of where and how to find content that not only entertains them, but reflects them, their needs, concerns and interests, and helps them to develop as citizens of the future.

Over the last year CMF has been addressing these issues and promoting discussion of this bleak future in a variety of ways.

We have allied with a number of charities in the Children’s Coalition, led by Baroness Beeban Kidron’s 5Rights organisation, which has sponsored a series of amendments to the Online Safety Bill, ensuring it enshrines the concept of ‘safety by design’. And we work with another coalition of organisations, convened by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, which is currently planning responses to the Draft Media Bill that will reflect growing concern over the future of public service media in the UK.

CMF is particularly concerned about what appears to be a proposed relaxation of regulation. Currently the proposals need clarification. But they appear to state that instead of each individual broadcaster being assessed annually for their children’s or youth output – the regulatory stance defined by

the ‘Benjamin amendment’ in the 2017 Digital Economy Act – in future we may return to the situation in which Ofcom is only required to assess the vague concept of ‘sufficient content’ across all the broadcasters’ outputs ‘taken together’. This is the failure of regulation that led to the dramatic decrease in commissioning defined by Ofcom as ‘market failure’. Baroness Benjamin has worked with CMF on a letter that has been sent to the Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) requesting clarification of the intentions in the draft Bill. Longer term the prominence and discoverability of children’s PSM content is a serious issue – for the industry, for the audience and for society at large.

No-one is effectively addressing the ‘lost audience’ of aged 7+ children for whom public service content will soon not even be a memory. Former Director of Children’s at the BBC Joe Godwin has written an important contribution to this debate in this Yearbook. It stresses the need for government, the regulator and broadcasters to address children where they are, rather than where they think they should be.

CMF has been stimulating the debate through the course of the year – as part of our role to ensure the issues are brought to the attention of the industry, the public and politicians. Our public events have discussed what happens after the YAC Fund and, most recently, Sleepwalking over the Edge considered why public service content for children and young people is vital not only for their futures but for the future of society as a whole. “Sleepwalking” was a term used by BBC Director of Children’s and Education Patricia Hidalgo at her address to the APPG in March. At CMF we are determined to wake up the people with the power to change this. Our next steps are to brief politicians of all parties about the long-term implications of a failure to act now and the inadequacy of the Media Bill to address the problem of the lost audience.

We are also pursuing research partnerships to address the question of whether or not investment in PSM can impact positively on young people’s development, and how it can be delivered effectively in the new landscape. If you have research expertise to offer please contact us, and to keep up with the issues discussed in this article – and throughout the Yearbook – you can subscribe to the CMF newsletter, come to our events, become a supporter or patron. If you want to get more actively involved, please message:

This year at CMC the Foundation is producing the Question Time session at the start and the debate, Public Service – RIP, at the end. We hope these will both shed further light on the critical issues facing the children’s media industry and the young audience.

Radical solutions will be required. We need to find a way to secure the future for the long term. Propping up the past is not enough. But if we all pull together to make our voices heard, perhaps by this time next year we could be looking at a more optimistic future.

CMF Updates Industry Policy

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)