The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Event Report: A New Chapter in Regulation?

On 24th January 2018 the Children's Media Foundation hosted an open event to discuss the Ofcom Children's Content Review and plans for regulating the commercial public service broadcasters - ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.  As there was an announcement on December 30th that the new  Contestable Fund would now be dedicated to children's content, that inevitably also featured in the conversations.  

The event panelists were:

  • Independent producer Richard Bradley from Lion TV
  • Anne Brogan representing CMF
  • Kate O'Connor from Animation UK
  • Rosina Robson from Pact
  • Prof. Jeanette Steemers for the VLV
  • NIck Walters representing SVoD provider Hopster.
  • Former Head of ITN and Ofcom Board member, Stewart Purvis chaired the event.

Representatives from Channel 4, ITV and Ofcom were present to clarify their positions, and there were many contributions from the audience in what was a lively discussion. 47 people attended.

Stewart Purvis opened the meeting with a clear round-up of what has caused the UK children's media industry to need support. He then described the political measures which have come about after long-term lobbying. There is now a tax relief for children's television production, the potential for Ofcom to once again regulate ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 to commission and carry more children's content (a power it lost in the 2003 Broadcasting Act), and the proposed £60m Contestable Fund for public service content will now essentially be directed at children's producers. Little is known of the detail, but what has been revealed is that the Fund will put up 50% of project budget, and the producer will bring to the table  broadcasters or potentially other investors or platforms to complete the funding - provided the content is freely accessible to the audience.

Each panelist gave their perspective on the Ofcom Review, regulation and the Fund.  In general all the parties were pleased that the Contestable Fund had been dedicated to kids' and youth content, but some were concerned that there might not be the will at Ofcom to take on the opposition of ITV or Channel 4 to re-regulate.

The Potential for Regulation

Rosina Robson (Pact) felt that Ofcom's evidence-based approach was reasonable, but Stewart queried whether the evidence in their consultation document indicated that parents were broadly satisfied with the media diet their kids are getting, so their conclusions might be that there is no need to regulate.  Anna Brogan pointed out that the 2017 Ofcom report showed that 40% of children were concerned about not seeing themselves on television - a significant proportion - and this was a key element in CMF's submission about the need for more varied and relevant content for young people.  Jeanette Steemers believed that the research Ofcom was conducting was in danger of not asking the right questions and would miss for example parental concerns about their kids gravitating towards content on YouTube, which was a very real issue in the press and public sphere now. Asking if they are satisfied with the amount of media available for their children is not the same as exploring what in that provision they consider meaningful, of quality, or of value.

Nick Walters from Hopster pointed out that usage amongst kids does not always follow quality or value.  He cited YouTube maker channels which have low production values and little editorial purpose and yet attract huge numbers of followers.  You can crack the YouTube audience by cracking the algorithms, not necessarily by providing quality content.

There was a discussion on how ITV could carry additionally regulated content. Their VoD player is not particularly child friendly.  But they do have a channel. Jeanette Steemers said that if ITV fail to engage with kids now - using their channel in particular - those kids will not recognise the ITV brand in years to come. Richard Bradley (Lion TV) said the solution was to place the content wherever kids wanted to access it - channels, catch-up services and other services such as YouTube.  The real question is what should this content be. Quality drama was vital to revive the ITV children's brand.  With the BBC decreasing the number of dramas they will commission over the next few years, we are now perilously close to there being no British accents in any of the drama available to kids across 30+ channels.

When asked "what should be included in a regulated quota?" the panel responded:

  • Richard Bradley: live action for the 5-14 age range.
  • Anne Brogan; Drama - there is nothing like it for opening up their minds and imaginations.  Also 10-16 content as no-one is making any.
  • Jeanette Steemers: all the above but also pre-schoool drama - only the BBC make it.
  • Kate O'Connor: Animation UK will make a compelling case for there being failure in the animation sector too.

Anne Brogan followed up by saying that any quota system in the regulation should be about hours AND spend. It can't be one without the other as that has been proved not to work elsewhere.

For ITV, Magnus Brooke (Director of Policy and Regulatory Affairs) reminded the meeting that ITV1 is the only part of ITV Ofcom has the power to regulate. He also pointed out how little programmes for 6-12s make in advertising revenue, especially given children's advertising restrictions, and CITV is run as a commercial concern. There isn't a sustainable business model around children;s content.  SVoD providers "bank-rolling" content for kids is interesting, but it has to be remembered that they take all the digital rights, so partnering with them would tie up the outlets which ITV could use to offer the content.

Channel 4 echoed ITV, saying that Ofcom can only regulate Channel 4 - but none of the subsidiary channels. This was a concern for Channel 4 which already has to balance 15 public service obligations within its system of licences. A quote could upset the balance.

Stewart Purvis brought up the new situation which could allow the content on a non-regulated channel, like CITV, to be counted against the obligations set against a regulated channel, like ITV1.  He said this could bring about the interesting scenario in which Ofcom regulated ITV1, but counted the content on the CITV channel - a channel which, since it is unregulated, could be closed down by ITV at any time...

Kate Biggs from Ofcom agreed that legally they can only regulate the commercial PSB channels.  However it could be possible to come to an arrangement, but it could not be a regulatory condition.

Stewart Purvis felt that this statement was of real significance in the complex debate around  the practicalities and fairness of quotas, regulation, and obligations.

Nick Walters commented that the idea that PSB programmes can only be provided on certain channels at certain times is insane. The reality was much more varied and nuanced.  Ofcom pointed out the regulations come from government and Parliament - they are not for the regulator to pick and choose.

Robert Beveridge of the University of Sussex was concerned to have heard Ofcom use the phrase: "regulation, if it comes about..." He felt there was a danger that with the Contestable Fund coming, the issue of regulation would be kicked into the long grass for the next three years. There were others at the meeting who expressed similar concerns - that there was no "will" to regulate.  Kate O'Connor said this would be a very disappointing outcome.

The Contestable Fund

The timescale of the Contestable Fund pilot was a concern.  Could it be sustained after the three years?  Pact made it clear they would not support taking money out of the Licence Fee to pay for its continuation.  Jeanette Steemers wondered if some of the projects being funded would even be made within three years, given the time it takes to put deals together, develop, produce and post produce. There as a possibility the Fund would have little to evaluate after three years in operation. Others felt that the content being made would not need to be high-budget to be effective and that short-form was especially palatable for older audiences. There was a feeling that the Fund should be used to stimulate newcomers, small scale-producers making waves on new platforms, that could become self-sustaining over time.

The idea that the Fund would put up 50% of funding was discussed.  Would this mean that only animation could be targeted because it is the norm for animation financing to gather a range of funders - in several territories?  Richard Bradley thought that broadcasters such as CITV should relish the opportunity to have new content half-funded, but he also felt that it should be though of as an "innovation fund" - not to produce more of the same.

The extent to which the content should be UK-focused was discussed.  There were those who felt strongly there should be quotas set to ensure "Britishness". But would that criteria have to be diluted or lost to find additional funders and complete the budgets?

Kate O'Connor wanted to remind the meeting that animation is still challenged and the Fund should at leats in part help alleviate that stress. However there were those who were concerned that putting together internationally funded deals would be the inevitable result - and "Britishness" would be sacrificed

Anne Brogan said that the 50/50 structure would be difficult for live action producers - particularly in factual content. Projects would have to resonate globally. And if the Fund were used to support innovation it would be difficult to bring investors in, because they won't finance content that could fail to produce ROI.

It was pointed out that the Irish Fund has mainly produced animation. There have been very few additional Irish live action shows.

Nick repeated his view that it was only a problem if the Fund only supports expensive long-from content.

The question of the BFI running the Fund was discussed. There were concerns that the organisation had little track record in supporting children's content.  Anne Brogan was supported in her contention that "we don't need another commissioner".  The creative impetus could surely come from the provider of the other 50% of funding.  She proposed the EU Media Fund model - using a complex application form to ascertain the value of the proposal using measurable criteria - which everyone would understand. The content which passed this test could go to an independent committee to decide on priorities.

On criteria, Jon Rennie (Cloth Cat Animation) reminded the meeting that the Fund was already being described as intended  to support regional content and this was important.

Jess Cleverly (Wildseed Studios) made a strong plea for Innovation as the key criteria - both in content and in methodology.  The idea that only 50% of the funding is available will mean that projects and commissioning will inevitably default to "the creaky  existing structures". He felt strongly that planning for the Fund should take place in the context of a migrating audience, not a declining industry.

Magnus Brooke said that ITV was supportive of the Fund being used solely for kids' content. But he felt that the Fund could not really change the broken economic model - and would certainly not be able to finance drama.  On both topics under discussion, he concluded that "the elephant in the room is that we are regulating what we can, and not what we should". How will the ascendancy and lack of public service purpose of YouTube and other unregulated platforms be addressed?

The meeting closed with an understanding that the decisions to be taken in the next few months on both proposals could stimulate significant activity and new content for children and young people.  But the challenges in the detailed planning for both regulation and the Fund are considerable.

Greg Childs
Director The Children's Media Foundation

Events Industry Policy

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)