The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Public Service Broadcasting – Reframing the Debate

The Voice of the Listener and Viewer staged its 31st annual Autumn Conference on Tuesday 18th November.

CMF Director, Greg Childs reports

VLV has collaborated with the Children's Media Foundation a number of times on policy-based events, and plan to do so again in relation to the BBC Charter Review, in the spring. This VLV event explored how the debate is being framed around public service broadcasting and the changes technological, regulatory and commercial pressures bring, and was useful to illuminate the context in which our question: “how much does kids content matter to the BBC” is going to have to be asked.

The event was opened by Dan Brooke, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Channel 4, and James Heath, BBC Director of Policy. They discussed how audience habits are changing and how broadcasters might need to react to the uptake of YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, etc. But on the whole they both thought that the shifts  were marginal. For them the stats indicate that people, if anything, are watching more scheduled television on television sets, rather than migrating in droves to Video on Demand.

But there was scepticism in the room, and I found myself wondering how much kids under 12 are changing that model  - and using media differently.

This theme developed later during a session on "changing technologies". Jon Drori CBE (a member of the UK Parliamentary Advisory Council on Public Engagement and a Trustee of the Internet Watch Association) talked about the audience wanting to interact, participate, be social, communicate and make connections between their media experiences - while also still needing stories. I asked Jon whether he felt that the audience under 16 was possibly different from the adult audience.  Ofcom's research suggests their habits are still to watch linear TV for much of the time – like adults do.  But was there something more subtle going on that the research was not picking up?

Jon felt that the figures might in part be skewed by a lot of "family" viewing of shows like 'XFactor' and 'Strictly...' whereas young people's personal viewing was much more eclectic, and involved a variety of platforms. There was also a discussion about multi-tasking and the use of two screens simultaneously, the attention level that might result, and how that might not show in the research.

Since the VLV Conference recent Ofcom research has revealed that 11-15 year olds are watching 6 times as much online video as adults, and half the TV. Younger children (6-11) are watching online video more than twice as much as adults. Will lthis increase over time as YouTube and othe services become more child-friendly? If there are shifts in behaviour, public service broadcasters ignore these 'digital natives' at their peril.

And that brings us to the position we’re taking at the Children’s Media Foundation on the BBC's planning for its future. Children and young people are key audiences for the BBC. Not only does it have a duty as a public service organisation to serve all sections of society, its role for the kids' audience extends further. Because there is acknowledged market failure – i.e. hardly anyone is commissioning apart from the BBC.

The kids’ audience requires intervention. So it’s vital the BBC comes up with clear and supportive plans for the future of children's services (especially their funding) in their Charter Review proposals.

However, hopes that there will be opportunities to bring out themes of this sort in a public consultation were in doubt by the end of the day.

In a final panel which included a current BBC Trustee, Richard Ayre, it became clear that the DCMS, with so few staff after cut-backs, would not conduct a consultation on Charter Review. Panellists agreed it would fall to the Trust to do it. However Richard Ayre felt that there was no need to discuss Charter Review before the General Election - next May.  He said that work was going on in-house – but he was sketchy on how organisations outside the BBC, like ours, might be involved in the process

So now we are faced with the prospect that consultation on Charter Review may be brief.  Then the whole process of Licence fee negotiations (also under review) could end up as rushed as it was in 2010, when the Coalition Government landed the BBC with additional obligations (like S4C and World Service) to be met from the existing Licence Fee settlement.

These are matters for CMF to take up with the BBC - and we‘ll certainly make our views known.

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)