The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Q6: Should I be concerned at the range of content available to my children on TV?

TVA review by Ofcom in 2013 found that most children aged five to fifteen say that watching television is their main regular media activity, with nine out of ten saying they watch it every day. [1] As watching television is such an important part of children’s lives, parents expect children’s TV programming to meet certain standards and maintain a good balance between education and entertainment.

What do we mean by quality when it comes to TV? Ofcom states that a public service broadcaster (PSB) should inform understanding about the world, stimulate knowledge and understanding, represent diversity and alternative viewpoints, and reflect the cultural identity of the UK. [2] Is children’s TV programming in the UK currently meeting these standards?

There are concerns about the lack of children’s new and original programming being produced in the UK. Between 2006 and 2011 the number of hours of original UK children’s programming halved and seems set to decline further. [3] This is important because parents show a preference for programmes that are clearly British in nature rather than imported shows from the United States. The BBC has declared that it will focus on ‘greater resources for fewer programmes’, putting quality over quantity and reducing the amount of cheap entertainment content, such as imported animations. [4] While this may lead to greater quality in the BBC’s output, there are concerns that it could lead to a lack of diversity in children’s broadcasting in general. [5]

The BBC Trust reports that feedback from parents and children regarding their services is very positive, with CBeebies (for ages zero to six) in particular receiving praise for its high-quality content which has been found to stimulate learning and development. CBBC (for ages seven to eleven) also performs well, providing drama and factual content that is both entertaining and educational. [6]

However, the fact that older children are less likely to watch programmes that are labelled for children is a challenge for broadcasters. A similar effect can also be seen amongst younger children, with the six-year-olds reluctant to make up the CBeebies’ audience and keen to progress to CBBC. Similarly, there is little available for older children after they move on from CBBC and even less for ages twelve to sixteen, although this is beyond the target audience for BBC Children’s. Channel 4 is supposed to cater for ages ten plus but is not considered by the Children's Media Foundation to fulfil that sufficiently at present. In the past, shows like Grange Hill and Byker Grove were able to engage with teenage and adolescent audiences by exploring issues that were relevant to this age group, but there is now a dearth of material on TV that primarily aims to attract, educate and entertain older children. [7]

Children and young people’s viewing behaviours have changed with the technology. An increasing number now use smartphones and tablets to access TV programmes at a time that suits them. In the first four months of 2013, for example, there was an average of 10.8 million requests for BBC Children’s on-demand content on BBC iPlayer each week, up by more than a half from the 6.6 million weekly requests for the same period in 2012. [8] The challenge is for providers to match the availability of their services to the new ways that children choose to watch programmes. Only a minority of the CBBC and CBeebies content works effectively on tablets and smartphones at the moment, although action is being taken to make these services more mobile-compatible. This includes launching apps for both CBeebies (available as of August 2013) and CBBC (available in 2014). [9]

Some commentators view the economic downturn as deepening a crisis in children’s television that had been developing for a number of years. [10] As children’s programming only generates a small amount of advertising revenue it was one of the first services to come under threat from spending cuts, especially on ITV and Channel 5. Ofcom’s public service broadcasting report reveals that the total spend by PSBs on children’s programming decreased by about a fifth between 2006 and 2011, with spend on first-run originated programmes dropping by a similar amount. [11]

Budgetary restrictions mean that there are now only around two hours of original programming a day dedicated to children. If we look again at Ofcom’s requirement of public service broadcasting and parents’ desires for a diverse range of content to entertain, stimulate knowledge and educate young people it is unlikely that it can be fulfilled within this time.

Illustration by Nick Mackie

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[1] Ofcom (2013). Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report.
[2] Ofcom (2013). Public Service Broadcasting Annual Report 2013.
[3] Ofcom (2013). Public Service Broadcasting Report 2013: Annex F, Children’s report.
[4] BBC Trust (2013). BBC Trust Service Review: The BBC’s Children’s Services.
[5] Steemers, J. (2010). The BBC’s role in the changing production ecology of preschool television in Britain. Television and New Media 11(1): 37-61.
[6] BBC Trust (2013). BBC Trust Service Review: The BBC’s Children’s Services.
[7] Children’s Media Foundation (2013). Response to BBC Trust Consultation on Children’s Services.
[8] BBC Trust (2013). BBC Trust Service Review: The BBC’s Children’s Services.
[9] BBC Trust (2013). BBC Trust Service Review: The BBC’s Children’s Services.
[10] Steemers, J. (2010). The Canary in the Coalmine. The recession and the crisis in the production of British children’s television programming. Popular Communication 8(3): 213-17.
[11] Ofcom (2013). Public Service Broadcasting Report 2013: Annex F, Children’s report.

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)