The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

The Politics of Children’s Television: Reflections on the Political Process

Jeanette SteemersProf. Jeanette Steemers, representing campaign ally, the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, contributed this article to the CMF blog. In recent weeks she has made oral submissions to two Parliamentary Select Committees.  

Transcripts from the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications Inquiry on “BBC Charter Renewal: Public Purposes and Licence fee” (session 6) can be found here.  You can watch here   

Transcripts of the Oral Evidence to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee Inquiry from 3 November 2015 can be found here.  You can watch here.

British children’s television has become an object of political interest, because contestable funding is now a key part of discussions about BBC Charter Renewal.   Different interests including industry associations, children’s and citizens’ advocacy groups and individuals are all trying to push their views forward in the endless round of consultations that run alongside the DCMS Charter Renewal Inquiry, and also more importantly in discussions behind the scenes with politicians and government officials.

The Children’s Media Foundation and others have asked for options other than contestable funding to be considered.  PACT, the Voice of the Listener and Viewer and the Children’s Media Foundation all reject the idea of taking licence fee funding from declining BBC finances to support a contestable fund, because they all recognise that this would weaken the BBC’s overall financial position and by extension its ability to maintain existing levels of children’s services, without any guarantees that commercial PSBs or other players would fill the gap.

Some producers see contestable funding as an opportunity to access funding more easily.  Yet there are many unanswered questions about who would run such a contestable fund, how content would be evaluated, promoted and distributed, and whether it really represents value for money for children and their parents.  It’s worth remembering that parents and children are not complaining about advertising-free BBC Children’s services, largely comprising UK content.  The public, and of course children, are the invisible stakeholders, whose voices are barely ever heard above the hoo-ha around ‘crowding out’ and alleged monopoly.  On funding, the biggest obstacle seems to be that other options may not get an airing.  It’s top-slicing or nothing.

Wrongly assuming a BBC market monopoly, the Government’s Green paper, clearly asks ‘whether there is a case for alternative providers to be able to access an element of that funding’ (i.e. the licence fee). The reference to children’s programming here is no accident, and reflects some industry concerns. This is not the BBC’s fault but down to commercial PSBs cutting their commissioning activities to the bone over a number of years because they see no economic benefit in providing children’s content.

The House of Lords Select Committee is conducting its own review of the BBC’s public purposes and licence fee.  Its members’ questions are thoughtful and considered and my experience, questioned on 27 October alongside Tony Collingwood, representing Pact, is that it is trying to understand all aspects of the argument beyond narrow issues of funding.   These include the impact of new technologies on children’s media consumption; issues of care and protection; children’s as an at risk genre; the difficulties in catering for children over ten; the BBC’s educational purposes; issues of diversity; the BBC’s contribution to the creative industries as well as funding – on which, of course all content depends.  Both Tony Collingwood and I set out clearly why licence-fee funded contestable funding is not the long-term solution to the industry’s problems. As Tony pointed out “I think it is a little crazy to ask the BBC to pay for a failure in another part of the industry”.

Reflecting on the debate, the issue should be less about the BBC failing to deliver and more about how to incentivise the commercial sector. The most important regulatory intervention for diverse high quality UK children’s content has repeatedly been shown to be regulated institutional public service broadcasting and its platform extensions. This is the case in the UK, but also in other countries where PSB is important – in Scandinavia, in the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and Australia.  The next best regulatory intervention is quotas on commercial PSBs, but these got waylaid under the last Communications Act in 2003. There seems to be no appetite to bring them back by Ofcom, by the Government or even by ITV. How much money would ITV and Channel 4 need before they even considered commissioning more UK content, and is it right for licence fee funding to subsidise commercially funded organisations, who see children’s content as an economic drain.  We simply don’t know. There certainly isn’t any appetite to bring back junk food advertising, or apparently other forms of public subsidy or levies, which would require parliamentary approval and which don’t fit with the current political narrative of deficit reduction.

Of course it does not help to offer no solutions. But one area where a different form of contestability has been seen to work is when the BBC commissions content, allowing BBC in-house and independent producers to compete for quality.  The independent sector has won over 60% of children’s commissions in the WOCC, the 25% of the commissioning quota that is open to competition in addition to the 25% reserved for the independent quota.  This was addressed briefly at the House of Commons inquiry on 3 November, because BBC Children’s will not be part of the BBC Studios proposal, and will retain its in-house guarantee. This has barely been picked up in the broader debate, and it merits further consideration. Could a relaxation of the 50% in-house guarantee and greater competition for the best ideas between BBC in-house and independents bring benefits to audiences as well as the industry, for whom the ‘kite mark’ of a BBC commission still carries enormous value both domestically and in the international marketplace.

Jeanette Steemers, is a Trustee of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, and Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Westminster

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