The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

More Money for BBC Children’s – The TV Industry Perspective

Martin Franks discusses the BBC's increased investment in Children's and Youth content and the ramifications this could  have on the UK supply chain. 

We are experiencing a period of interesting change in the UK children’s media scene, after years of what appeared to be a state of ‘bumping along the bottom’ that followed the major events ten years ago, as ITV departed from kids' production and advertising was more strictly regulated.

Recently, we have had the success of the Animation and Children’s TV tax reliefs driven by the efforts of Animation UK, PACT and ourselves, alongside the announcement of the upcoming Contestable Fund. As well as seeing Ofcom develop a new role in supervising the BBC, it now has new responsibilities toward the commercial PSBs as a result of Save Kids Content, Baroness Benjamin and PACT’s success with the Digital Economy Bill.

As an aside we should congratulate the campaign for pursuing amendments to the Bill right up to the cut-off date just before the last election, and through deft negotiations with the government, pushing the amendments forward to ensure that Ofcom once again regulates the commercial PSBs to carry kids' programmes.

On the commercial side, we are also seeing Sky Kids, Virgin Kids and Netflix move into UK Family and Children’s commissioning.

Then on July 5th the BBC announced they are investing an additional £34 million in kids’ services and content over the next 3 years - an announcement later fleshed out in the Opening Keynote at this year’s Children’s Media Conference.

Just before the Keynote delivered by Alice Webb (Director, BBC’s Children and BBC North) and James Purnell (Director, BBC Education and Radio) was an enthusiastic and inspiring presentation by Jeremiah Emmanuel, a talented young "CMC Changemaker" who's been an activist since the age of 4! Adding a touch of humour and extra energy to the stage was BBC Radio’s Nihal Athanayake, who moderated the discussion with Webb and Purnell. What a great mix of voices organised by CMF’s own diversity expert Angela Ferreira who produced the Keynote for CMC.

Purnell pointed out that this £34 million investment was a core plank of the Annual Plan that they are now required to produce and that it was the biggest investment in Children’s content at the BBC in many years. It is a considerable achievement that Alice Webb has managed to grab the interest of the Director General, Lord Hall, to back her ambitious and far-reaching changes no doubt to the gnashing of teeth in other departments.

Webb then took the floor to confirm a number of changes which those of us who’d already been at the Indies session in Salford on May 2nd had had an inkling of:

  1. Both CBeebies and CBBC are looking to commission ‘Fewer and Bigger’ – a phrase we’ve heard before and which of course carries a number of consequences for the UK child and family audience, and in-house and indie supply producers (now all competing for the same pot).
  2. There will be continued support for linear broadcast TV which families and children continue to watch. By the end of the decade, it is still envisaged that 3/4s of the BBC children’s budget will go to content and services of this kind.
  3. Finally, it was recognized that the 13 - 16 year old age group need their own dedicated content and additional cash will go substantially towards this - but not related to TV channels - more to online delivery.
  4. And children need to be communicated with on platforms where they are, so the other big new spend will be on developing new digital platforms.

During the question time, it was revealed that this additional money will be built into the baseline for children’s TV spend - so at the end of the three year period the baseline budget will be £124m (up from £110m now).

Concerns were raised about the experience of content suppliers after BBC3’s move to online only and the terms of trade that were imposed. Purnell assured the audience that lessons had been learnt - but see John Kent's article in this blog for information on the digital sector's reaction to this.

From CMF’s perspective, what does this mean for the needs of the child and family audience and progress on our aims of increasing quality, range and variety for all social groups; and supporting the production of media for children in the UK?

Obviously, any investment in content and services is to be welcomed. However, the commitment to ‘Fewer and Bigger,’ which is based on the BBC’s belief that to survive they must compete with the big global players, could lead to less variety of content and suppliers.

Currently, as the overwhelmingly dominant commissioner of first run originations in the UK at 97%, the BBC’s decisions have a major impact on the whole market.

More series of shows such as Hetty Feather, Millie Inbetween and Jamie Johnson could simply lead to a more ‘monocultural’ offering, which is not ideal. Achieving a balance between supporting top shows and allowing a variety of content to serve the variety of the UK population (and also children’s need to experience a full range of creative perspectives and styles) is difficult. But perhaps some shows should be earmarked for ‘fewer and bigger’ while space in the schedules is retained for innovation and risk taking.

The CMF has commented on this in our submission to the Ofcom consultation on regulating the BBC.

And the recognition that children are agnostic in their consumption and just want to find their own favourite shows and brands whenever and wherever they want, has huge implications for investment in appropriate technology. But it will be a pity if investment in technology and interactive/participative services swallows up huge amounts at the expense of narrative content.

And in the desire to create content for the 13 - 16 year old market, which has been underserved for years, will there really be enough money to commission work from commercial UK indies, given the investment in platforms? And the other big question that affects all existing and particularly new digital content - what will be the terms of trade?

It is possible, if you look at the small print, that there will actually be less money for content, as has been suggested by some who’ve looked into the details. The BBC has done brilliantly trying to serve a wider social range of the UK children's population and they continue to be the most trusted supplier of children’s content. Now they are pursuing their own survival in a changing world. But that pursuit should not compromise the wide range of programming that children need for a healthy childhood, and it also shouldn't undermine the diversity of the UK content supply chain.

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