The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Event Report – The BBC White Paper and the Future of UK Children’s Content

By John Kent, CMF Events Co-ordinator

If you’ve dived in and read the government’s recent White Paper on the future of the BBC’ you'll know it’s a weighty tome. If you haven’t, then the summary is that there have been four main areas of discussion in recent weeks

  • the governance of the BBC
  • the drive for ‘distinctiveness’
  • the creation of BBC Studios
  • and the promise of a contestable fund for content.

But what do any of these proposals mean for British children? Does the White Paper promise them a better deal?

On 31 May the CMF hosted an event at the University of Westminster to discuss the White Paper from the children's context.  More than eighty people booked to hear the views of a prominent panel moderated by journalist Phil Harding:

  • Alice Webb, Director of BBC Children’s
  • John McVay, PACT
  • Oli Hyatt, Animation UK
  • Colin Browne, Chairman - VLV
  • Anna Home, CMF Chair

The DCMS were also represented in the audience. They couldn’t talk, but they were listening.

In the first part, the panel gave their opinions on the White Paper. They were unanimous that it could have been much worse for the BBC than it turned out. However, some aspects of the proposals have implications for children’s content. In-house production, the meaning of ‘distinctiveness’ and the BBC’s freedom to do new things were all discussed.

As you might expect, PACT were positive about the removal of quotas for independent production companies wanting to make children’s content and felt that no-one would make content that was not distinctive. The VLV and CMF were more circumspect - concerned that the removal of specialist experienced and thinking “in house” could be detrimental to the long term assurance of quality and care for the audience and thus affect the entire children's sector. Alice Webb was confident that her department was strong enough to cope in a commercial market.  Anna Home said the CMF is also concerned the White Paper could prevent the BBC offering games or interactive content for children, and of being able to follow the audience onto new platforms. Her concern was that the 'distinctiveness' criteria would be used as a stick to beat the BBC each time it tried to create new services, and in children's that flexibility was vital. Alice Webb felt that in some ways the White Paper was looking backwards, not forwards and that it risked curtailing the BBC’s ability to explore next technology and platforms. Anna Home agreed that the White paper in general did not read like a blueprint for the 21st Century.

The headline feature of the White Paper for the children's media community was the "contestable fund": £20 million per year for three years, to be used for a range of public service content including children’s. This is suggestion the CMF has proposed for some years.

Before discussing the Contestable Fund, the event heard a presentation from Professor Jeanette Steemers, who’s been researching how contestable funds work around the world. The link to the Executive Summary of her paper is here.

Professor Steemers outlines her report findings in another article in this newsletter, but the very short version is that contestable funds are tricky to operate, and whats needed is a range of tools, not just a pot of money. The examples that worked best seemed to be associated with quotas and other interventions. And interestingly, connected to the previous criticism of the White Paper, hardly any of the 6 territories investigated had a fund that really addressed digital content. Almost all focused on broadcasters as the delivery platform.

The panel were generally positive about the Fund. Inevitably, they wanted more money, and were particularly worried about the dilution of the fund when it was meant to serve so many minority audiences. And there were strong concerns about how it would be administered. The feeling is that without careful planning, more money could be spent on managing the fund than on content. Some members of the audience even went as far as saying that they felt the proposed  fund would be so hard to manage that it feels like it’s been designed to fail - especially considering how small the children's pot might be, and that it would run out after three years. The £60m has currently been provided by a “windfall” underspend in the Broadband rollout budget, but it was felt this could be a Trojan Horse for future top slicing of the BBC, when it’s proved that more money is needed.

It was an interesting and provocative session. Aspects have already been reported in the press. While there is no formal consultation on the White Paper, this is likely to be the first of many discussions. The CMF are certainly not letting it go unchallenged. We have organised an All Party Parliamentary Group meeting at Westminster on 8 June to relay the research findings to parliamentarians, and we’ll also be sponsoring a session at the Children’s Media Conference in July “Making it Happen for UK Kids” - a Question Time style panel including Lord Alli and Alice Webb as panelists. Join us in Sheffield if you can!

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)