The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

The Future of Children’s Content – Background and Issues

Greg Childs, Director of the Children's Media Foundation, and Editorial Director of the Children's Media Conference outlines the rapidly moving debate around the future of children's media in the UK - currently focused on the BBC and its Charter renewal for the ten years from 2016.

The Facts:

  • Ofcom, in its 2015 Public Service Review, reports there is "market failure" in the provision of UK-focused kids' content in the UK - commissioning of new originated content for children has plummeted in the last decade
  • The amount spent by the PSBs (ITV, FIVE and C4) on output for children has almost halved in real terms, as BBC spend has also fallen.
  • In line with this collapse in investment, the number of first-run originated hours has dropped sharply, from 1,887 in 2004 to just 666 in 2013
  • BBC content budgets face further cuts under the terms of its recent Licence Fee settlement, and children's may not be immune.
  • There is no regulation requiring the commercial PSBs to commission or show children's content.
  • Channel 4 has reneged on its formal commitment to provide content for the 10+ audience, and the regulator Ofcom has allowed them to do it.

The Issues:

Ofcom's recent Public Service Report outlines the need for a competitor to the BBC in the kids' market.  Various organisations have taken positions on this - at CMF we have proposed that while there should be no further cuts to children's budgets at the BBC, there should also be regulation to require the commercial PSBs to commission children's content, and a fund to stimulate them to do so - the "carrot and stick" approach.

In reality there is no appetite in government for more regulation, and there is a sense that it is unreasonable to impose more public service commitments on ITV or Channel 5, when the perceived value of their public service status has decreased due to the massive changes in the broadcasting landscape since the arrival of digital TV.

So that leaves the carrot - a fund to create content that competes with the BBC, keeping it healthy, providing greater range and choice for the audience (our prime concern at CMF) and enabling the kids' media industry in the UK to produce more of the great programmes we know they can.

The big questions are:

  1. How can we maintain or even improve the BBC's commitment to kids and young people, and increase budgets at a time of severe strain on the Licence Fee?
  2. How might an alternative fund be created, where will the money come from and how should it operate to the best advantage of the audience?

The Events:

The Government's Green Paper on the future of the BBC contained two unprecedented references to the children's audience  - one on "protecting" children's content spend at the BBC and the other about developing a "contestable fund" to create competition. Both are the subject of lively debate.

On Sept 3rd the CMC / VLV / Westminster University policy event surfaced various ideas about the future of the BBC.  You can read a full report.

Oli Hyatt (veteran of the animation tax break campaign) revealed a plan to demand the BBC ring-fence 10% of its budget for children's content, and to support the concept of a contestable fund for content made outside the BBC. He was adamant that money for this should not come from BBC Children's budget, but others in the room, notably PACT, the VLV, the CMF and various academics all counseled against the contestable fund as imagined in the Green Paper, which it would be funded from top slicing the Licence Fee. They were all concerned about the BBC’s independence being diminished through this precedent.

Professor Jeanette Steemers spoke at the event as a Trustee of the VLV. Subsequently, she has produced an article which expresses concerns that “…the overall tone of the Green Paper seems to be lining up children’s programming as a potential Trojan horse to cut the BBC down to size”.

On Sept 7th BBC Director General Tony Hall made the first of four announcements about the Corporation’s proposals for its future. The title was “British Bold Creative”. Once again, children’s and youth content featured, when Lord Hall described plans to create a personalised Video on Demand service (iPlay) which could be used by children and young people of all ages to aggregate offerings from the BBC children’s channels, from other BBC content (such as popular family shows) and from content from third party public service organisations. Anna Home attended the event and describes the announcement in more detail here.

The key questions remain:

  • How much money will the BBC commit to this, so that real long-form narrative content can be produced for all the age-ranges who might access the service?
  • Where can that money be found when the BBC is struggling with a major loss of revenue in the last Licence Fee settlement?
  • Will the new online VoD service eventually provide the excuse for the BBC to take the linear channels (CBBC and CBeebies) off the air, and how will that affect programme budgets?

The last point has created a firestorm of protest amongst parents, and already online petitions are stacking up huge support for “saving CBeebies”. But in his evidence to the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee in the House of Commons on the 15th September, Tony Hall assured them that there were no proposals to close the channels.

Professor Steemers has written her account of the rapidly shifting public discourse since Tony Hall’s announcement in her article “British Bold Creative – the future of children’s content on the BBC”

Finally – this week has seen a flurry of press activity, not just around the supposed threat to CBeebies, but also the launch of a campaign letter written by Oli Hyatt and signed by around 70 industry professionals. It calls for a contestable fund, with no money being taken from BBC Children’s, which should be protected under the Green Paper recommendation of ring-fencing budgets for certain genres. It calls on the commercial PSB to match-fund, and envisages £55m a year as the spending needed.

The Children’s Media Foundation responded to the letter with general support but some concerns about the detail. On protecting BBC Children's funding we think this needs a practical and achievable approach, which need not involve impositions from government.  So in our responses to the various consultations on the future of the BBC we will propose that the BBC creates its own plan for increasing funding for children’s content (and providing for new youth content) gradually over the next ten years. We are concerned that the idea of imposed ring-fencing as described in the Green Paper might lead to the government dictating in detail to the BBC how it should spend its money, which is not acceptable.

We have also expressed concerns about the “Contestable Fund” considered in the Green Paper. On a close reading of the text this would seem to advocate taking a sum of money from Licence Fee revenue and allocating it to an organisation outside the BBC to commission content. This is top-slicing and we don’t support it. Our proposals for contestable funding always envisaged the money coming from other sources, such as the Lottery, direct government grants, or levies. Our press release proposes a comprehensive research project to  identify, once and for all, the possible sources of funding, how the fund could be managed, what the criteria should be (how to ensure the content is relevant for UK kids) and who exactly would want to access the money, and make and show the content.

We plan to propose this to the government and we’re building a coalition to support that process, including the VLV and Directors UK as the first organisations to join us.  We hope that the industry will also line up behind this plan, in the way they supported the campaign letter.

Without the research, there is no chance of having any sort of funding system which does not basically involve taking money from the BBC to pay for it.  With the research both the audience and the industry representatives will at least be in a position to speak with some authority about the creative, social and economic advantages and disadvantages of the various options.

Greg Childs, Director The Children's Media Foundation 16.9.15

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)