The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Joined Up Thinking? Significant Boosts for UK Children’s TV Production

Jeanette Steemers, Professor of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London, explains how three regulatory interventions could provide significant boosts for UK children's productions. 

After over a decade of declining expenditure and commissioning by UK broadcasters on UK children’s productions, three regulatory interventions could provide a welcome boost to UK originations.

First, an unexpected and successful House of Lords amendment to the Digital Economy Bill, approved on 26 April just before Parliament was dissolved ahead of the election, now gives Ofcom the power to impose quotas on commercial public service broadcasters, ITV, Channel 5 and Channel 4. This almost reinstates regulatory powers that were lost in the 2003 Communications Act, precipitating a rapid decline in investment by commercial PSBs, ITV in particular after 2003. Commercial PSBs reduced their expenditure on UK originations from £59m to £3m between 2003 and 2014 (Ofcom, Public Service Broadcasting in the Internet Age, Data Annex 2015 London13). The key change contained in this amendment is that Ofcom can take account of children’s ‘programmes’ on all ‘related services’ when it considers quotas, suggesting that provision on CiTV, ITV’s children’s channel, which is not a licensed public service, would be sufficient to satisfy any quotas related to the main ITV channel’s public service obligations.

The amendment to the Bill, championed by a cross-party group led by Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Benjamin, could be truly significant depending on how Ofcom chooses to use its powers. To implement quotas Ofcom will have to publish criteria for children’s programming on commercial PSBs and carry out a public consultation. After many years of claiming that it had little power to intervene in halting the decline of children’s production, Ofcom will finally have powers to make a difference, and the way it defines these criteria will be crucial.

‘Quotas’ are not defined in the bill. Transmission quotas (the amount of children’s programming broadcast) are unlikely to raise investment in originations as broadcasters could simply show cheaper acquired or library programming. Output quotas (specifying amounts of original production per year), possibly in threatened genres like drama or factual content, or content for older children) could be more effective, but not if there are only limited funds to back up these production obligations. For example, Australian commercial broadcasters have satisfied origination quotas with lower cost co-produced animation, which is defined as drama, and expenditure on children’s content has declined. Stipulations on expenditure for certain types of programming could have a more profound effect, especially if these are combined with tax breaks such as the current children’s programming and animation tax breaks. Evidence from France and Canada suggests that a combination of tax breaks, origination quotas and expenditure quotas can sustain a domestic production industry (Steemers & Awan, 2016). The nature of the quotas will be crucial, as will the ability to apply them to the commercial PSB’s non-PSB services (CiTV, E4) and also to non-linear video-on-demand services (particularly important as children’s consumption shifts online). Once Ofcom publishes its consultation, stakeholders will need to make a strong case for clearly defined “quotas” that will have a real impact on children’s original content.

The second factor that is likely to play a role is whether the UK Government, as outlined in its BBC White Paper last year, institutes a contestable fund for public service genres under threat, including children’s programming, but extending to arts, regional, minority and religious content. In its Consultation on the Public Service Broadcasting Contestable Fund, announced last December, and still under consideration, the DCMS floated a number of options for a pilot fund, financed from leftover top-sliced licence fee funding. If the pilot fund is given the go-ahead it is likely to have £60 million to distribute over two or three years from 2019. The DCMS has yet to deliver its response to the consultation and no one knows how much of the £60m children’s will get. A DCMS response is expected in the summer. Before the Digital Economy Bill “quotas” amendment, a key barrier to the fund would always have been the difficulty of getting commercial PSBs to avail themselves of contestable funding if there were no quotas to oblige them to commission original content. Without quotas, children’s content is not particularly attractive or profitable for commercial channels unless they can leverage it internationally through licensed merchandise. Children’s programming is simply not profitable enough for UK PSBs. If Ofcom does implement production quotas on commercial PSBs, then a contestable fund for UK originated children’s public service content becomes much more viable, but only as long as the pilot project runs and delivers real quality and entertainment value to children.

The third factor to have an impact will be Ofcom’s role in regulating the BBC. Ofcom’s current consultation on the BBC’s mission and public purposes, with a deadline of 17 July, contains important proposals for BBC children’s content, which have to be considered holistically with the previous two interventions. It is proposed that CBeebies has a first run originations quota of 100 hours per year. CBBC will have annual transmission quotas for news (85 hours), drama (1000 hours) and factual programming (675 hours), stipulations that replicate the existing CBBC Service licence issued by the BBC Trust. What is new is the stipulation that the BBC must meet a first run originations quota of 400 hours. The originations quotas do not diverge greatly from the 508 hours of first-run originated hours attributed to the BBC in 2015 in Ofcom’s 2016 Annual PSB Report. Again it is up to stakeholders to make their views known on whether these quotas are satisfactory, and in particular, whether they are confined to the linear channels, or whether they should also apply to on-demand platforms.

After the virtual dismantling of the public service children’s production ecology in the UK over the last 10 years because of regulatory neglect and omission, a trio of regulatory interventions could provide the boost public service children’s content need. However, it would be wrong to turn the clock back entirely and it is important that any changes take account of the changing realities of children’s media consumption and experiences that are increasingly not linear and not focused on traditional TV formats.

Policy

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