The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

APPG Event – The Future of Children’s Television

Consultation Response Ofcom Children's Review 2018 and PSB regulation final The All Party Parliamentary Group for Children’s Media and the Arts joined with the International Broadcasting Trust for an event in Westminster

On 16th May 2018, Julie Elliott MP, Co-Chair of the APPG for Children’s Media and the Arts, hosted a reception and debate in the Palace of Westminster.  The purpose of this event was to highlight the important role broadcasting plays in engaging British children with events in the wider world and to discuss policy solutions to the problem that there is not enough content that explains the wider world to children who live in the UK.

Julie Elliott welcomed an audience of just over 60 people, from a range of interests (policy makers, parliamentarians, international development, broadcasting, academia, Ofcom, DDCMS and BFI officials for example).

Putting the session in context, Julie said that international content for children has declined in line with other content and very little new content is broadcast for children, which is geographically and culturally specific to their lives and tells them about the wider world.  Thanks to APPG co-chair Baroness Benjamin’s amendment, there is a clause in the Digital Economy Act 2017 for Ofcom to explore whether to introduce criteria concerning the provision of children’s programming on the commercial broadcasters.  With Ofcom’s deliberations nearing completion, Julie said that this debate came at a crucial time.

Sophie Chalk from IBT, reminded the room of Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: every child has the right to reliable information from a variety of sources, and governments should encourage the media to provide information that children can understand. Governments must help protect children from materials that could harm them. She stated that evidence from Childwise shows that children are terrified by international events as they see them in alarmist news and on social media and remarked that children need events to be explained so that they are not scared of the world they are growing up in but are able to engage with it.

The panel of speakers comprised of  Simon Terrington, Content Policy Director, Ofcom; Cheryl Taylor, Head of Content, BBC Children’s; Nicky Cox MBE, Editor  In Chief, First News and Unicef UK Advisor; Jeanette Steemers, Professor of Culture, Media and Creative Industries, Kings College London,

Referring to Ofcom’s publication, Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes 2017, Simon Terrington set the market context, stating that most children mainly watched content that made them laugh or relax but that significantly almost half wanted content that ‘made them think’ as well.  He stated that Ofcom understands that Public Service Content is not just about what kids want, but also what they need.  So while, for example, 12-15 year olds are interested in news about music, celebrities and sport, half of the teenagers asked also included serious topics, in their top three news interests.  However there is clearly a need to find ways to encourage the other half to engage with the wider world.  Ofcom’s research shows 35% of 8-11 year olds don’t think there is enough content specifically about people like them.  Ofcom hopes that C4’s proposed move away from London will address this need for regional and cultural diversity.  Ofcom’s research shows that while children are going to YouTube, for example, for entertainment, a significant number are also going there for factual content.  However, as a news source, TV is still the most trusted.  Children may get news from social media and online but they will check it out with parents and against TV because they don’t trust it.  73% of 12-15 year olds are aware of fake news.

Cheryl Taylor said that it takes skill and training to get children’s factual content right, so that it is never mawkish or exploitative but rather celebrates the children whose stories are being told.  She welcomed plurality but stated content makers need to give an extraordinary attention to detail if they are to serve this audience well.  Asked if international stories are less palatable to kids, Cheryl stated that such content does just as well with the child viewer as domestic content.  She said producers should not fear making documentaries for kids.

Nicky Cox agreed; despite many warnings when she proposed her newspaper for kids, First News is a success both in print version and now online. She said the average age for a child to get its first mobile phone is seven and a half, but that plus the environment of twenty-four seven news channels and social media has led to an overload of information about world events and a desperately alarming rise in anxiety and mental health problems amongst children.  There is a big need for truthful content that empowers kids but we are falling short of delivering this.  She reminded the room that while kids only make 27% of the world’s population, they are 100% of the future.  With children’s views and attitudes influenced by what they see and hear, we are storing up future problems if we leave the formation of values to the influence of things like social gaming and celebrity news on snap chat.  To counter this, she has worked with Sky News as well as making documentary content with UNICEF. These have been well received and there is clearly a big thirst for informative and accessible content.  She called for editors to make better choices and tell positive stories.  She also called for a quota: with broadcasters required include a minimum percentage of content about the wider world.  Currently ITV has no target and C4 says such content is not financially viable. “But our children need it.”

From her work exploring the business end of children’s content, Professor Jeanette Steemers stated that the key problems that need to be solved are funding and distribution.  She warned that if there is no content about the wider world, it creates a vacuum in kids’ lives.  Around the world Public Service Broadcasters are pretty much the only makers of such content. In places like the Middle East, where there is no public service content, parents rely on private religious broadcasters for example.  This lays children open to indoctrination rather than accurate and unbiased information.  Jeanette stated research around the world confirms that content helps to shape how kids think and engage with the world.   This, plus so much content accessed online, where there is none of the regulation or compliance that would be used on traditional channels, means things like racism go unchallenged, and we are creating discriminatory attitudes that will manifest in the viewers later.  Jeanette dismissed the argument that children only want entertainment.  What we should be asking ourselves is “how can we help to make informed citizens?” She hoped that the DCMS’ Contestable Fund will help go towards tackling the distribution and discovery issues. She also said that the recent discussions between PSBs about creating a streaming service to rival Netflix might be a solution.  She called on Ofcom to find a way to encourage the PSBs to do a bit more and also for companies like Facebook to step up.

However, she felt that for any real change, policy needs to step away from prohibition and find ways to be positive.  Other territories face the same issues: some, like Denmark and Germany have successful public service broadcasters who are collaborating with education organisations and film institutes for example to fund and distribute content.  The British Film Institute could do more to help distribution.  DDCMS could connect with Education to make good quality content.

Questions and points were made from the floor, including the fact that some of the cab-sat broadcasters are investing in ‘public service’ content but that discoverability both on the EPG and online are issues.

It was felt that the online giants like Google should take more responsibility and do more.  While there are vast quantities of content for platforms to deal with, nevertheless it feels as if algorithms are put before the needs of children.

There was also a call for improved media literacy, requiring DDCMS to reinstate the funding that has previously been cut.  There should also be a shift from focusing on children as consumers to creators of content.  It was noted that while schools have an important role in introducing children to other art forms, this doesn’t include film and this is a wasted opportunity. Examples were given of the UNESCO Creative Cities Programme where Bristol and Bradford’s work on media literacy has resulted not only in young citizens who are able to tell their own stories but has had the serendipitous impact of improving their wider academic attainment (especially in core subjects).  There needs to be a shift in the Education agenda.

Ian Lucas MP, member of the DCMS Select Committee said that within Westminster, things tend to get compartmentalised.  It would be good to connect with All Party Groups for countries (the directory of All Party Groups is available at www.parliament.uk) to get the perspectives of children abroad. There needs to be more working together for funding: tapping into international development budgets for example. C4’s regional agenda talks about having a strong focus on younger children but the case needs to be made that C4 should be capturing its audience earlier.  He also suggested that those concerned need to get politicians to talk to the broadcasters.

Before the room enjoyed IBT’s hospitality and further discussion, Sophie Chalk summed up, stating that content that conveys the wider world to young people needs discoverability on all platforms and needs to be actively promoted by its broadcasters; that there need to be incentives for commercial broadcasters to commit to making this and other children’s content because of their commercial motivation; and that children need a SAFE SPACE online.

Jayne Kirkham
Clerk to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children’s Media and the Arts
Board Member, CMF

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