The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

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

Carrying The Baton: BBC Children’s & Education

The Director of Children’s & Education at the BBC makes the case for the provision of public service media at scale through a healthy, high-quality commissioning slate. The article also highlights the value of restoring public service competition for UK children’s attention through initiatives like the Young Audience Content Fund.

Since becoming the Director of BBC Children’s and Education last September it has been a real honour and pleasure to become involved in the delivery of public service edutainment for children, this being my motivation for moving across from the commercial TV sector.

Because of our unique publicly funded position it’s not for me or the BBC to suggest how the wider market might be shaped in the future, but I hope I can usefully share some of my thoughts as to how I see us continuing to evolve and deliver a top-class public service that entertains, educates and informs young audiences.

The best thing about my time in this role so far has been overseeing content for children that really makes a difference.  Back in January we reacted quickly to deliver Lockdown Learning, an initiative to reach all UK children with a mix of educational and edutainment content to help them keep learning during schools’ shutdown.  It meant rapid-turnaround collaborations across all areas of Children’s and Education and with the support of the wider BBC. I was extremely proud to witness the positive reaction of the public and the value it brought families at a difficult national time.  This is a great example of what only the BBC can do, and we are going to continue providing this educational and edutainment content beyond the pandemic, making another 30 hours of TV programmes this year – part of an ongoing resource for children and teachers, online and on TV, so we can reach everyone through our BBC Bitesize websites, our CBBC and CBeebies networks and of course with BBC iPlayer.

With inclusion & diversity being such an important subject for society right now I have also taken great pride in the range of content we make that addresses this subject, some of which we recently created to celebrate UK Black History.  Not just one piece but many formats for all ages celebrating Our Black History Heroes, as well as a 'Horrible Histories British Black History' special for our 7+ audience, or our 'Magic Hands' format for both D/deaf and hearing pre-schoolers celebrating Black History Songs on CBeebies, not to forget an extensive range of educational content on BBC Bitesize including the experiences of soldiers from the Caribbean and South Africa in World War One.  Being free from the commercial pressures of advertising and set schedules, we have the ability to respond to current themes our audience is exposed to with bespoke content to inform, educate and enrich their lives, their curiosity and understanding of the world around them.

I’ve highlighted the output above to underline that we are in the business of delivering public service content for children - it’s not a discussion topic for us, it’s what we do. And by public service I mean a range of innovative and high-quality content reflecting and representing UK culture and communities, delivered in a safe space that parents and children can easily access.  The BBC has always been at the heart of UK public service provision at scale. But we face large challenges.

The biggest one is remaining relevant to kids.  We all believe that public service media matters.  Our audience needs to believe it too.  We have to make content which is both nourishing and that they want to consume.  It's imperative that children can see British values, culture, locations and diverse representation, in all genres: drama, factual, comedy and, under our latest plans, animation. But being British and public service isn’t a reason in itself for kids to choose us.  They are used to and enjoy children’s content from all around the world that other platforms, including global giants, provide for them and competition is getting harder and harder.

I’m glad to say that we still reach an enormous audience – across TV and iPlayer, BBC Children’s combine for over 1.2bn minutes of content viewing every week. Yet there is huge pressure on our TV channels, where like everyone else we have seen the impact of the big tech platforms.

Policymakers and parents have a big stake in what we do, quite rightly. They have a tendency to always evaluate our content from the same angle: that it should be educational.  Important, but it misses something vital.  Our output mix must be highly entertaining too if it is to continue to attract children to our platforms. Those of us in the children’s industry know this, and it’s never been more vital now that kids can access on-demand such vast streams of pure entertainment from global competitors.

With such a ferociously competitive market it is important that we continue to provide public service content at scale, and this we do; annually we commission over 450 hours of new, original content with most of it featuring UK kids in UK locations.  In a typical year we work with around 50 independent production companies.  Even in the Covid-disrupted year just passed, we commissioned 32 independent productions, two thirds of them from qualifying indies.  And we’re pleased to state that five of these commissions came from new diverse producers, building on our practice over many years of working with both small and large companies.

Each year we provide more than 10 drama series just on CBBC – more original British drama for this age group than any other platform. We also deliver a wealth of factual and factual entertainment shows, including the comedy-talent incubator that is 'Horrible Histories', and the highly educational yet entertaining 'Operation Ouch' which medics have credited as causing kids to lose their fear of hospital visits.  'Newsround' is still the only daily TV and on-line news service for UK children. 'Blue Peter' remains a centrepiece of our output, the only weekly live magazine programme for children in the UK, fostering citizenship among kids and issuing this last year more Badges than ever before in its 60-year history (an incredible 113,000).

We do completely unique things for pre-schoolers, bringing Shakespeare classics to life, mounting ballet specials and ensuring everyone’s welcome and represented thanks to the likes of 'My World Kitchen', 'Our Family' and 'JoJo and Gran Gran', the first ever animated preschool show portraying a black British family. We often look to innovate and create new formats, inspiring the creative industry in bringing them to life.  Drama for pre-schoolers barely existed before we produced 'Katie Morag' a few years ago, then followed by 'Apple Tree House' and now 'Molly and Mack', with two well-known book adaptations for this age group 'Biff and Chip' and 'Princess Mirror-Belle' currently in production.

It’s a truly impressive portfolio which is further supported and enhanced with best-in-class digital and interactive assets for our websites, apps and social platforms which deepens the engagement children can have with the video content we deliver.

Our unique funding model gives us the breadth and flexibility to take creative risks with subject matter that needs deep editorial development.  We work closely with our indie partners from pitch to transmission to help deliver sensitive projects.  Not many platforms would commission a programme like our 'Something Special', which requires intensive planning and support for the contributors involved.  Similarly, our recent 'Newsround' special 'Let’s Talk About Periods' sought to bring out into the open an area in which many children lack information and can lead to them feeling uncomfortable about their bodies at a critical time in their life.

And of course, our education efforts during this pandemic highlighted the value of being able to deploy significant resources at short notice working with many partners to do so.  It would need another article to cover our plans for BBC Bitesize, 'Tiny Happy People' or 'Own It'. These are three phenomenal free support resources for children, parents and teachers which our Education team deliver all year round.

So, for me it is vital that we can continue to support the creative industry with such a wide range of content that inspires new generations of children. And we embrace competition in the form of more public service content.  We welcome the additional 187 hours added into the market over the last two years with the help of the Young Audiences Content Fund, adding to the 976 first-run origination hours we have created over the same period that have helped us reach over 10 million children.  We look forward with interest to any forthcoming performance analysis of the YACF-supported commissions and their impact on young UK audiences.

I’ve talked about how proud we are to produce public service content at scale, yet in the market now we find ourselves in the strange position of looking through both ends of the telescope at once.  Swing it around to look at the financial power of the global tech companies, and our scale rapidly diminishes.

To respond to this we have to realise, for good or ill, that on-demand is here to stay.  In the streaming world preferences tilt towards consuming higher volumes of content, but our budgets are not limitless, and we must find a way to compete with what we have. And we have a lot of great local creative talent and innovative content brands that UK children love.

We’ll focus on commissioning titles with higher impact that also have a local feel to them: impact meaning a combination of editorial ambition, production values or the volume of episodes created.  Already we have extended runs for 'Malory Towers', 'Operation Ouch', 'Jo, Jo and Gran Gran' and 'Horrible Histories', to name a few, noting that some of our most popular shows are also the most public service ones.

Animation can be just as great public service as any other genre, and we have great ideas and talent in the UK that I want to tap into with this very popular medium, I want to build more British titles such as our commission of 'Danger Mouse' a few years ago.

The aim is to take our public service provision forward in a changed world, to maintain our place in the hearts and minds of UK children. We’re not afraid to evolve, and I know from everyone who I’ve worked with in the children’s industry how amazingly adaptable and creative our sector is.  It’s a privilege to lead BBC Children’s & Education at a time when it plays such a significant part in British public service content for kids, a part that has become larger in recent years due to shrinkage elsewhere.  It’s great to see thoughts going into how the wider market might generate better outcomes for young audiences, and we would welcome any sustainably-funded measures which increase children’s access to UK public service material.

As I’ve spent more time in the BBC with the teams who produce our content I have found their sense of mission very inspiring.  I think this spirit carries through into what we deliver, which I hope in turn reaches each new generation of viewers.  Many people have told me that the ideas and values embodied within what  they saw as children have stayed with them forever,  and helped to form who they became as an adult and citizen within our society.  To provide content which has this kind of impact, while at the same time entertaining kids and making them happy, is a terrific purpose to have.  I have picked up this baton from the many talented individuals who have gone before me in BBC Children’s & Education.  We’ll keep running with it, and we hope a way can be found to have more join us in the race.

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By Patricia Hidalgo

Patricia Hidalgo is Director of Children’s & Education at the BBC. She is responsible for developing and implementing creative and editorial strategy for BBC Children’s services across all platforms, with a focus on the strategic future direction of media consumption and business models.

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