The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

British Bold Creative – the Future of Children’s Content on the BBC

Jeanette SteemersJeanette Steemers is Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Westminster, Communications and Media Research Institute.  She is also a Trustee of Voice of the Listener & Viewer.

Here she reflects on the growing pace and developing ideas in the debate around children and the BBC Charter Review.

Seven days are a long week in Charter Review. On 7 September we were digesting the BBC’s first large scale response to the Government’s Green Paper on Charter Review, British Bold Creative. By 14 September we were trying to decipher a letter signed by children’s industry representatives contemplating the ring fencing of BBC budgets to serve the under 16s (See the Broadcast magazine article).

Can the BBC and the production industry come closer in their aspirations? Much will depend on how the Corporation deals with the sensitive issue of how it allocates funding to children’s content, and the answers to this, in a difficult funding environment of high stakes, are still outstanding.

Contestable or ring fenced funding is the ‘elephant’ in the room and will have to be broached in the BBC’s final submission, because the Green Paper directly references children’s programming in this context. Children’s content was not dealt with in detail in Director General Tony Hall’s Science Museum speech on 7 September, but it is clearly recognized as something that strengthens the case for PSB, and that if the BBC does not do something innovative for children and by extension young people, then it simply won’t be part of any ’shared conversation’ in future (p. 45).

The big idea in British Bold Creative is iPlay, a single online platform, which ticks all the right boxes as a safe, UK-run, public service and advertising-free response to other online offerings such as YouTube and Netflix.  As a single on demand portal it removes barriers between demographic groups, particularly that difficult transition period between the preschool CBeebies brand and CBBC for the under-twelves, and it also allows children to access family-oriented content.   So an 8 year-old could be looking for Bake off and Match of the Day as well as Wolfsblood, Horrible Histories, games etc.   In theory it might even make it easier for the BBC to target 12 pluses with teen content.  It is being marketed as more than just TV programming, allowing interaction, but also raises issues around appropriateness and moderation.  It could be a great space to innovate – and possibly a space to test the crossover between television and games.  The notion of children accessing their own personalised collection of programmes and content is attractive.  However, parents of very young children might not welcome this, if they are not keen on their children using electronic devices on their own, and the shared experience around a screen is still important as well.

There are also questions to be answered about how content and partners will be chosen; how commissioning structures will be changed to accommodate the new set up; how will data collected from the site be used to aid in the commissioning process (p. 61).  How will the new platform impact the formats and types of content commissioned, with a possible shift from traditional broadcast formats?  How will it impact existing IP agreements? The level of third party involvement also needs elaboration. Who are the ‘carefully chosen partners’ (p.60) ‘with complementary public service values’ for iPlay (Broadcast 10 September), and how will their involvement differ from proposals to open up the iPlayer to other content commissioners and ‘other business models’.

CBeebies and CBBC are not directly named in British Bold Creative as being under threat of closure because of iPlay.  But this has been picked up in press reports, which speculate about the future of both. On 6 September The Guardian reported a BBC spokesman saying there were no plans to shut down either CBeebies or CBBC, ‘although their continuation, along with every other BBC service, would come under review’.*   The BBC’s report writes about ‘riding two horses’, a theme picked up in BBC Children’s Director, Alice Webb’s recent blog. This is the idea that you must serve those who are on the internet, yet also cater for those who use traditional channels. All the evidence shows, that we are in a transitional phase where children are still watching a lot of television on big boxes in the living room as well as accessing IPads and smart phones.  Producers are bound to be worried that an eventual shift online or towards shorter-form content will inevitably mean smaller budgets and fewer opportunities.

What is singularly unclear yet is the issue of funding, and whether the new iPlay initiative will lead to more children’s content (traditional or otherwise) being made; and whether funding for it will shift from existing budgets.   In total the BBC is planning to spend £150m on several new ideas including iPlay.  On p. 95 they state that they  ’expect to be able to fund’ more drama for young audiences’, but beyond this there is not much detail on where funding is going to come from and the extent to which it will be used to fund content. As the BBC tantalizes us with its answers to the Green Paper in installments these are questions that still need to be addressed. The BBC needs to ride both horses effectively with more detail on funding in future announcements.

Professor Jeanette Steemers, University of Westminster & Voice of the Listener & Viewer 14.9.15

*Editor’s note: On 15 September Tony Hall told MP’s at a Select Committee hearing (Listen to 11.53.00) that the BBC did not have proposals to take the two BBC Children’s Channels off air.

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)