The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?

A Virtuous Circle: Creating A New Additional Funding Model

A respected and highly successful animation producer considers how we can create a funding system for 'local' content that is sustainable and affordable, without simply relying on additional public funds.

I have been working in children’s television for 25 years and have had the privilege of working with producers and content from all over the world. In the past few years, I have learned a lot about diversity and representation, I have learned about what drives public service broadcast platforms as well as commercial broadcast platforms and I understand their different funding models and reasons for being. So, when asked to consider what the future of Public Service Media should look like, I felt compelled to get engaged in the conversation.

My journey in understanding the importance of Public Service Media started when I was told that what distinguishes humans from other primates is that we bury our dead and that we tell each other stories for education and entertainment purposes. We understand the world through the stories we are told as children and it is our ability to understand the constructs at the heart of these stories that allows humanity to organize the world. Stories allow us to debate with each other about our past, present and future.

These stories started around campfires or filling time while hunting and gathering. They were told at fairs and in castle halls and were later put down in books. They were taught in schools from when we settled down in agricultural societies all the way through industrialisation and urbanisation. And then finally they ended up on screens, which is where the importance of PSM appears in the picture.

Because, at that last step, something interesting happens; a lot of what has previously been left to the imagination is suddenly filled in and visualized. Instead of the story we are being told forming a visual construct in our mind, we are shown what we are supposed to imagine, where the story takes place and who is in it.

Imagine being an Asian girl being told the fairy tale of sleeping beauty. You can imagine yourself as the princess, the fairies good and evil, as well as the prince on his horse and the kiss, all of them can look like you and your world and you feel connected. Now imagine that same girl watching Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty set in medieval Europe and the experience suddenly becomes very different. You have moved your story experience to the screen and you are no longer in control of the imagining and no longer a candidate for the lead role.

My point is that children get the most out of stories when they can relate them to their everyday life. It helps them develop their sense of self, and that means that someone should offer them a healthy dose of such content, as well as making sure that everyone sees themselves on screen, irrespective of who they are or what they look like. And when I say ‘get the most out of’ I really mean that children need to see themselves on screen for validation, to gain confidence about their role in the world and to get to understand that world and options for their future within it.

One project that really helped me evolve my perspective in this regard is the series ‘Pablo’, which was first produced by Paper Owl Films for CBBC and premiered in 2017. CAKE came in to help finance and distribute to the world:

5½ year old Pablo uses his magic crayons to turn his life passions and challenges into fantastic adventures and his feelings into colourful characters with a voice in order to face the real world with confidence. Pablo is on the autism spectrum.’

For this series, all the scripts were written by writers who are on the autism spectrum, many of them first-time writers, and all the voices were provided by voice actors who are on the autism spectrum, again many of them doing this for the first time, leading to completely unique and wonderful stories.

Not only did ‘Pablo’ do really well on CBeebies, the series was successfully sold and shown internationally. However, my learning came from the many letters that the BBC received, and shared with us, from viewers in all age categories who are on the autism spectrum or have a loved one on the autism spectrum. They explained how seeing a series with a main character on the autism spectrum, for the first time in their lives, made them feel that they existed in the eyes of the world and were not outside of the world but part of it! What I learned from this experience is that representation goes much further than tone of skin or geographic setting. It goes to all core characteristics that define us as individuals. We need validation that others see us; it confirms to us that we matter to others and that we exist. It is important to realise that this is true for every child. Seeing children like yourself on screen, children that sound like you and live and operate in a world like yours. It is all part of that validation and an important condition for raising confident and resilient citizens of the world.

I had the same learning from my discussions with Malenga Mulendema, creator of ‘Mama K’s Team 4’, currently being produced by Triggerfish and CAKE as a Netflix original, on which I am serving as Executive Producer. In ‘Mama K’s Team 4’, four Zambian teenage girls fight evil in Lusaka, their nation’s capital. It is a classic superhero series in most respects, but what makes it unique is that the series is based in Zambia; the four main characters are girls; and the whole cast is Zambian and black. However, and this is what makes the series even more special, the visual style is inspired from the real Zambia and mostly created by African artists. The architecture is Zambian, the vegetation and lighting is Zambian, the food and the daily life in the street is Zambian. As Malenga explained to us, it is important that when Zambian and African children watch ‘Mama K’s Team 4’ they realise that this series was made for them, as it is about their world as it really is. It is not made by people pretending for this to be Zambia, it really is. If you are an African girl, you will have many challenges ahead of you. ‘Mama K’s Team 4’ will show these girls that they are part of the world, that they matter and that they can be heroes. There is no message that could be more important.

So how, you may ask, does this relate to the debate about the need for public service broadcast and the growing strength of streaming platforms and on demand viewing?

With the strong rise of North American media groups offering their content services to a growing global audience, it becomes interesting to consider if consumers are likely to get enough diverse and representative content offered on such platforms. This is particularly true when it comes to children.

All of these mammoth commercial corporations, be they Disney, Netflix, Warner, Apple, Amazon or others, have a strong focus on children’s content, while their editorial approach is mostly global. They look for what works globally over what is relevant locally, with just a sprinkling of local in the mix. And if the content on these platforms represents a cultural point of view it’s firstly North American, and after that it’s a rich mix of content from all over the world.

And yes, these digital global content platforms do also commission content from UK independent producers and license-in already existing UK content, but what they are not focused on offering is a programming mix that relates one on one with each sub-demographic of children in the UK. These global digital players will entertain the UK children’s audience without offering the resonance that well-targeted, culture-bearing and representative content does. Public service broadcasters on the other hand have a long tradition of providing that local representation and are consequently the most obvious candidates to keep providing it.

Which leaves the question of how children’s content on public service broadcast gets funded and what can be done to secure enough funding going forward.

Commercial terrestrial broadcasters like ITV argued their way out of their obligations to offer children’s programming in their schedules many years ago. Children’s specialty cable channels have little or no obligations to invest in UK content and the budgets of public broadcasters like the BBC have been diminishing with regular intervals over the last 20 years. As a result it has become increasingly challenging for UK producers to get their children’s and youth content financed.

In the case of animation, which I know best since that is my background, Childrens’ BBC today might offer 21% of the required funding for a project, leaving a rather humongous gap to be filled. Some of that can be found by producing in the UK or elsewhere and taking advantage of local tax credit, taking you to closer to the 50% mark of your required funding. The rest would need to come from foreign partners or investment, and they will be most interested when the project is not too specifically local, so it resonates with children in other territories to a sufficient degree. If forced to give in to such requirements, the producer effectively has to change the nature and purpose of the project in order to get it made.

Over the last few years, the Young Audiences Content Fund has played an important part in providing a solution in such cases, particularly for projects that have a strong UK and representative nature, but can there be other ways in which we make it easier for UK children’s content to be funded and produced?

For such a funding system to be sustainable and affordable, it can’t simply rely on asking for an increase in public funds. Instead, it should get all parties that offer content to the market, public or private, to share its revenues in a more equitable way with those who produce such content. It should keep those funds in the industry and allow the content producers to create more of the same going forward while providing a significant proportion of the funding themselves.

Concretely, all content platforms in such a system, theatrical, linear or streaming, would pay a usage fee into a content fund. The fees would go to an account in the name of the independent producer of the content for all UK-produced content shown by the platform. So, cinemas pay a contribution per ticket sold and broadcasters pay a contribution per programme scheduled or viewed on their platform, and that money goes into the content fund. A well-performing low to mid-budget series or feature should make between one third and a half of its costs back through this funding.

In the UK, the most logical manager of such a fund would probably be the BFI. However, the money would not be given to the BFI itself but would be held on account for the independent producer having produced the content. They can only use it to match funds from a platform - pound for pound - in their next project(s). Furthermore, it would be automatic and not subject to gate keepers. In the start-up phase and for first time applicants, each project would be judged on UK specific parameters before committing to allocate producer funds in such cases. Money in the producer accounts of the content fund would need to be re-allocated to a new project within a few years’ time, after which the funds get re-allocated to first-time producers.

As soon as it would be up and running, this content fund should mean that the independent producer would be financed more easily and would no longer be out-spent by a platform/broadcaster. Typically, and depending on genre, a commissioning entity would offer 20 to 30% to the independent producer for its project, the producer could match with 20 to 30% and tax credits and other funds would get a project fully funded or a long way there. The independent producer would consequently maintain a much stronger creative and business voice/position in the project and the system would guarantee keeping substantially more funds and profits generated by UK content in the UK.

Furthermore, it should also be written into law that any platform or distributor, local or foreign, would have to commit to a minimum percentage of their programming offered to the UK public being of UK origin. Some of that content would consist of original commissions from independent producers and some could be licensed-in existing titles. And naturally, there would need to be an obligation to pay into the content fund as described above for all the UK content on offer on said platform or distributor. This way independent producers get a whole new stream of funding to make it possible to fund and maintain UK content for children of all ages.

Across continental Europe, similar legislation is being put in place to protect local content and audiovisual industries, with percentages of local content requirements reaching up to 60% and where newly commissioned content needs to get commissioned from independent producers for 85% of that 60%. This avoids media groups setting up local production subsidiaries and benefitting from these funding structures directly themselves. And finally, a certain percentage of the local content should be defined as Young Audience Content Fund (YAC) approved/developed as well.

For the avoidance of doubt, my suggestion is that this system would not replace license fees, it would come on top of such fees and would be separate from development and production funds such as the YAC fund and Tax Credits. In the medium term, the need for a YAC fund would diminish and producer contributions from the content fund would replace its production investments.

There would be conditions on the use of funds from the content fund, such as a requirement to spend at least 80% of the part of the budget funded from UK sources within the UK. There would also be requirements to use a majority of UK lead talent and for the production to qualify as UK content under the BFI’s criteria.

A final advantage of this system would be that it would reward producers for producing content that gets viewed and it would make independent producers more independent, as they would have legislation and financial resources to strengthen their position in the industry. It is a circular model where large amounts of money stay inside the system rather than being paid out to shareholders. This regenerative model would support the development of a truly diverse UK media landscape, with opportunity for new talent and established talent alike to access funding for local, representative content.

In today’s world, where many of our campfires have turned into shared screen experiences, we can use this new approach to make room for storytelling that is reflective of the rich and diverse story worlds that make up the UK today. Simply by giving UK talent the microphone, we will enable them to continue to tell their stories to the UK audience and share them with the world.

What people are saying...

Discuss this article in the forums.

By Tom Van Waveren

Tom van Waveren began his career in animation at Nelvana in 1996 as Director of its London office. In 1999, Tom moved to Copenhagen to head up Egmont Imagination as its President where he was involved in the production of over 100 hours of animation, including Paz, Rex the Runt, Little People and Hamilton Mattress, and the distribution of Lizzie McGuire. Tom started his own company Hoek, Line & Thinker in 2004 and merged his pipeline of projects with CAKE in 2006. Since that date, he has been responsible for scouting, development and the executive production of all CAKE content.

Tom's Profile

The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)