The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Ofcom Children’s Review – Results Revealed

Ofcom have released the findings of their Children’s Content Review, which analyses the state of the industry, commissioning and funding statistics, and the provision of content for the various age-ranges of children in the UK public service landscape. It reveals significant shortcomings in the support for kids’ and youth content at the commercial public service broadcasters (ITV, Channel 4 and Five).  But is it a “result” for the children’s media industry and audience?  It seems the only response to that is: “not yet…”

CMF have issued a statement welcoming the findings, but criticising Ofcom for not going further to use the powers granted to them in the Digital Economy Act at the end of 2017 which clearly gave them the right to regulate the broadcasters if shortcomings were observed.

The broadcasters are falling short, but Ofcom has also identified the complexity of the issue, as children and particularly young teenagers migrate their viewing to Video on Demand providers, often via social media platforms, especially YouTube.  Ofcom has powers to regulate the public service channels ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – but not their purely commercial side channels such as CiTV or E4, and still less online platforms which the broadcasters might run themselves or owned by the big social media providers.

Ofcom’s findings and recommendations take this into account.

They highlight the continued decline in UK-based content commissioning spend with a fall across all the broadcasters from £116m in 2006 to £70m in 2017, with the BBC still the most significant player in terms of investment and hours across all children’s genres.  In terms of hours of UK -made children’s programmes ITV has reduced the amount on ITV1 from 158 in 2006 to 47 hours in 2017. Only a small proportion of the programmes on CITV shown in 2017 was new and UK-made.  Channel 4 did not show any new UK-made programmes made specifically for children except 21 hours of content for 10-14 year olds in 2017.  Channel 5 has reduced the number of hours of new UK-made programmes primarily aimed at pre-school children from 150 in 2006 to 32 in 2017.

Apart from the statistics of decreasing spend and output they also identify major shortfalls in terms of audiences served, variety and relevance offered:

  • Lack of original high quality programmes for older children across all programme genres.
  • Limited range of children’s programmes that help children to understand the world around them.
  • Limited range of original, high-quality children’s programmes that allow children to see their lives in the UK played out on screen.

Their recommendations consist of an open letter to the three PSBs requiring them to come up with plans to address these shortcomings by March 2019.  This is clearly not regulation in the classic context of quotas or mandatory requirements.  It recognises the difficulties faced by broadcasters in serving elusive older audiences and asks for solutions across a variety of platforms including online. Ofcom will then review these plans and decide what happens next.

But of course what this means is that the content will be delivered via outlets that Ofcom do not regulate, so could be withdrawn by the PSBs at any time, with little or no power at Ofcom to intervene.

CMF has pointed out to Ofcom that this justifiable pragmatism about the shifting sands of audience habits should not be used as an excuse not to regulate the PSBs and let them off the hook. We’re also concerned about the delay in the process as set out in the Ofcom findings. The Digital Economy Act clearly requires Ofcom to act if there is market failure – which there is.  We will work closely with the regulator and other interested bodies to ensure this plays out to best advantage for the audience and the children’s media industry that serves it.

And we will continue to lobby ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 that, taken hand-in-hand with the new Contestable Fund which will entirely support children’s and youth content, this is a fantastic opportunity to reconnect with younger viewers in meaningful ways – both in terms of where and how they are watching and with truly relevant, age-appropriate and culturally specific content that offers alternatives to the content they find on social media and video sharing platforms.

Greg Childs, Director CMF

Industry Policy Research

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