The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Evidence Session to the House of Commons Select Committee Meeting on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting

On 17th November the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee held an evidence session on the future of public service broadcasting.

This hearing explored the future of public service broadcasting (PSB) at a point when its future is being questioned again against the increasing popularity of subscription video on demand (SVOD) services like Netflix.

CMF board member Professor Jeanette Steemers from King’s College London gave evidence to the committee, alongside two other academics, Dr Caitriona Noonan from Cardiff University and Professor Philip Schlesinger from Glasgow University. Professor Steemers explained to the committee how the production and distribution of screen content for children is often different to content made for adults. She had given written evidence to the Committee last year.

The meeting addressed a range of issues, including PSB prominence; the definition of PSB; the production of children’s content in the UK; distribution of public service content by other services; the discoverability of minority language content; and the significance of key genres like news and drama within PSB.

Accessibility

Panelists agreed that a key feature is that PSB is freely accessible at the point of delivery. Television, it was suggested, is still freely accessible, provided you pay the licence fee. In contrast, a significant proportion of families in the UK do not have access to digital platforms and/or paid subscription channels.

Discoverability and Prominence

The committee heard that children are now looking for content in ways that extend beyond linear television on mobile phones and on YouTube, which suggests new approaches to prominence on smart TVs in addition to prominence on electronic programme guides. Panelists pointed out that it is now crucial to find out how children and parents/carers can access and find publicly funded content from the BBC or the Young Audiences Content Fund (YACF). It was suggested that PSBs  like the BBC need to promote their brands more effectively on digital platforms, including YouTube and also on own channels to increase discoverability.

The chair asked whether digital platforms, such as YouTube, should be compelled to regulate their own algorithms so that they give prominence to public service content. Witnesses welcomed this suggestion, but pointed out that these platforms will likely be opposed to such restrictions.

Professor Steemers pointed to the successful intervention of the YACF, which has encouraged commercial PSBs in the UK to commission new children's projects. However, it is too early to tell how well these projects have performed, and how the YACF would be financed in the future.

The committee asked about the impact of the ban on junk food advertising which came into force in 2006. As CMF suggested previously, this ban was partly responsible for the decline in the production of children’s broadcasting content in the UK. This had left the BBC largely standing as a commissioner of children’s programmes, until the recent introduction of the YACF.

Although the junk food ban around children's content on TV was set to stay, panelists explained that creative thinking has evolved to balance the lack of advertising revenues through other initiatives, including the YACF, children’s tax credits, and the advertising of gaming around children’s content. From a CMF perspective, the YAC fund is a move in the right direction. And yet, producers still need to fill significant gaps in finances.

The committee asked what kind of regulatory intervention is needed to secure the future of PSB for children. Professor Steemers suggested that children’s content should not be over-regulated as this could have adverse effects on producers. Instead, one should consider “proportionate” regulation, which means that some players in the public service spectrum need more rules than others. The BBC, for example, should continue to be subject to quotas since it is sustained through public funds.

The committee heard that production companies in the past generated significant income from international sales and licensed merchandise, as previous successes like Bob the Builder and Teletubbies have shown. However, the rise of SVOD channels has made this more challenging, as SVOD platforms like Netflix usually purchase all rights, but this eliminates the opportunity to generate future income for their independent companies. Producers will have difficult choices to make in the future, particularly in the children’s content sector.

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