The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

YouTube: A Children’s Public Service Content Platform?

By Colin Ward

Deputy Director

Children's Media Foundation

 


In recent weeks we have seen something of a charm offensive from YouTube. Ben McOwen Wilson, MD of YouTube UK and Ireland, suggested in a recent interview with The Guardian that it is time we reframed the way the platform is perceived, with greater acknowledgement of the positive role YouTube plays in children’s lives. And his points are, for the most part, very well made.

We know that YouTube is an incredibly important platform for children and young people. Before the COVID lockdown in March, according to Ofcom’s Media Use and Attitudes report, YouTube was their preferred streaming platform, out-performing Netflix, Amazon and the on-demand services from established UK broadcasters. Children go to YouTube to find out about the world, because the whole world is there. And if you can’t find something then you can just make your own show and fill the gap.

In his Guardian interview, Ben McOwen Wilson emphasised the wonderfully rich and diverse content that children find on YouTube. There is no metropolitan bias, perceived or otherwise, and the nations and regions are well-represented. It is an open, democratic platform that allows people who might feel excluded from ‘mainstream media’ to find their voice. So, as an open platform, YouTube is able to bring together in one place an extraordinary range of content that represents those different communities and serves so many different niche interests.

it's certainly true that diversity is central to the public service remit, whether that means representation on screen or the issues explored in the stories that are told. Doesn’t the BBC say, with genuine passion, that audiences are at the heart of everything it does? And yet the data suggests that the children’s audience is not necessarily being well-served by the PSBs, with pressure on budgets and fewer new programmes. There is also a growing unease that shows are made to satisfy the demands of the international market and are therefore less likely to reflect the diverse experiences of the UK audience. So has YouTube come to the rescue? Is it right to claim they are stepping forward to fill the gap?

David Kleeman, SVP Global Trends at Dubit and a member of the CMF’s Academic Advisory Board, argues that YouTube is excellent at delivering specific types of content.

“YouTube is first and foremost the home for “hot takes” - content that an influencer (or anyone for that matter) devises and produces very quickly, and may not have a very long shelf life. Compare this to the established UK PSBs that take more time to develop a considered approach - even if it’s a daily news program like “Newsround”, it’s got a foundation beneath it of values and history and a POV that distinguishes it from YouTube.

On the other hand, YouTube Originals has just funded a news program for children and they funded “Lockdown,” a really interesting and innovative series set in the pandemic from Sinking Ship Entertainment in Canada. It was developed and produced in about six weeks (by teen actors at home using smartphone cameras) and while the structure was teens in lockdown communicating with social media, the story went well beyond the pandemic to include racism, family economics, friendship, and more.”

The reality is that YouTube provides a valuable service for the audience, but it is actually very different from a public service broadcaster. PSBs fail to deliver the same range of content as YouTube because they operate under constraints. Their shows are compliant with Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code and time, money and effort is expended on ensuring they are age-appropriate. YouTube has more freedom and, of course, with great freedom comes absolutely no responsibility. YouTube is safe from censure as its business is not based in the UK, so the government has no control over how it operates or the content it chooses to share with the children’s audience. That is probably the fundamental difference.

YouTube could join the PSB club. Given its huge appeal to the audience, it would be amazing to see the platform engaging with the principles of public service content. Such a move could only enrich the media experiences of children and young people. It would require YouTube to be more open about its complaints procedure and, like the other PSBs, their content would need to be compliant with the Broadcasting Code. They would also have to publish the details of any complaints they receive about children’s experiences of their service. It might also mean they would need to commit to a level of investment in UK-originated content, supporting the production community that creates their excellent, rich and diverse content. That would be a revolution. And who knows, perhaps there are people in government ready to consider such radical innovation in the sector?

Further articles will follow in this discussion of the role of YouTube in children's media lives.  

 

These conversations will feed into CMF's plan to explore the long-term future of public service content for children and young people in the UK.

 

In the shorter term CMF will be seeking clarification from YouTube as to how "safe" their platform is now for children under the age of 13.

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