The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Staring into the Abyss: Where Will Children’s TV be in 10 Years’ Time?

Event Report - 3 September 2015

Report by Dr Lynn Whitaker, Centre for Cultural Policy Research, University of Glasgow

This event, hosted by University of Westminster with The Children’s Media Foundation and Voice of the Listener and Viewer (VLV), promised to unpack the issues for children’s public service media in the recent Government Green Paper on BBC Charter Review. Journalist and broadcaster Steve Hewlett chaired the session, incisively focusing a diverse panel of six to the two key issues of ringfencing and contestable funding, allowing each speaker short position statements followed by gentle grilling and culminating in an open Q&A from the packed audience of industry, policy, civic and academic stakeholders.

Alice Webb, Director BBC Children’s, commenced proceedings by declaring this a golden age in children’s media with ‘more choice and more opportunities’ than ever before but stressed that policy has to support quality and that broadcasters had to remain atuned to the needs of the audience. Using evidence from the recent BBC audience research, ‘Keeping up with the kids’, she therefore outlined ongoing priorities of quality and trust, and emphasised the centrality of longform scheduled TV content along with the move towards user-control, and personalisation and multiplatform. Asked directly, she was against contestable funding and vociferous as to the ‘danger’ of ringfencing the children’s budget, arguing that it was the thin end of the wedge that would damage BBC independence.

Next Dan’l Hewitt, MD of Maker Studios (now a wholly owned subsidiary of Disney), presented a very different picture of the future, claiming children are frustrated by mainstream media and are empowered by shortform video content through which they can connect to the virtual community beyond the UK and become content makers themselves. Hewitt used the 39million YouTube subscribers to Pewdie Pie and Stampie to claim new forms of celebrity and fandom in ‘children’s’ content (juxtaposed against Alice Webb’s observation that one had to be 13 or over to access such platforms) and while he stated that he wouldn’t ever dictate what producers make he said that if there was a contestable fund then Maker would bid for it.

Non-public service delivery and funding models were also touted in Christopher’s Skala’s position. He looked to the lessons of the recent past to assert that the current kids’ content model was broken; the biggest threat to kids content was advertising bans; and that the BBC had lost 'the right to serve the children’s production community’. He was emphatic therefore that the BBC was not the solution and that he did not care if it survives or changes. For Skala, YouTube was the answer, pointing to his own plans to make full CGI animation for that platform for a tenth of the cost it would cost a broadcaster.

Next up Oli Hyatt MBE, Chair of Animation UK and co-founder and head of development at Blue-Zoo Productions, brought the focus back to public service content and how the audience might best be served, putting forward the arguments for both a contestable fund and ringfencing children’s as a ‘special case’. He suggested a contestable fund would attract the right sort of talent, create plurality and would, if match-funded, replace the £53million he considers lost from children’s media industries through budget cuts and policy change. Speaking for animation he noted that the tax breaks had been helpful in developing commercial content that can travel globally, but the problem for children’s PSB was specific genres within it. He was passionate about the ‘brilliant’ BBC and clear that the contestable fund must not come from their current children’s budget (hence ringfencing), noting that cutting one of the three long-running BBC medical dramas could fund children’s content. Expounding further about a contestable fund acting as a ‘carrot’ for broadcasters (rather than the ‘stick’ of enforced quotas), Dan’l Hewitt quipped that he could see Disney and Cartoon Network coming in.

Professor Jeanette Steemers, University of Westminster, followed with a comprehensive rebuttal of the contestable fund (as ‘top slicing’) and ringfencing as a ‘Trojan Horse’ that would ultimately damage BBC independence. Steemers argued that other options should be explored and that, in particular, the commercial PSBs (ITV and Channel 4) should have quotas reimposed. Steemers stated that while children’s does have a specific legitimacy as a public service genre, that should not make it a special case for ring fenced funding as ‘every genre will want it’; like Alice Webb, she suggested it would be the thin end of the wedge to allow government intervention into content considerations.

Finally, Anna Home OBE, Chair of the Children’s Media Foundation, proposed that this was a real and possibly last chance to intervene. She outlined that we must protect current BBC output and funding and that Channel 4 should be held to account for failing in its obligations. She could see some possible advantages of an Alternative Fund – healthy competition, diversity, etc. - she could not however advocate contestable funding saying that the elephant in the room was that it would be licence fee funds that would be diverted to a contestable fund. She also observed that there was as yet no evidence of any broadcaster wanting the content and pointed out that it was disingenuous to compare short form YouTube content on a like for like basis with quality TV content. Above all she stressed that the prime aim was to serve the audience and its diverse UK cultural diversity.

The floor was opened for questions and high quality debate ensued – fierce and impassioned in places. There was some dismay and incredulity expressed against the contention that the commercial PSBs could not be compelled to invest in children’s content and a representative from Ofcom explained that company profits are not linked to PSB obligations, but that spectrum value was the calculation made when deciding PSB obligations, and spectrum value had decreased so as to no longer really be a barter mechanism of regulation. Other funding mechanisms and examples from other territories, particularly Canada, were put forward. There was considerable consensus that Google and YouTube etc. should put money back into children’s content production or that other forms of levy should be explored, and grave fears expressed over the operation of a contestable fund as described in the Green Paper – especially as the ringfencing of children’s budgets by compulsion from outside the BBC, and the extraction of money from the Licence Fee for a kids’ contestable fund, represent a threat to BBC independence from government.

The final word – rightly – was given to Alice Webb who agreed that the temptation of making children’s a ‘special case’ must be resisted as the BBC as a whole must remain independent.

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