The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

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

Children’s Television: The Canary In the Coal Mine 

What lessons can we learn from the changing regulatory and broadcast landscape on the UK’s public service offer for children and young people?

The current conversation on the future of public service broadcasting in the UK has been strangely quiet on the subject of Children’s television. The relative silence is rather puzzling given the interesting lessons the wider telly community could learn from the children’s experience and quite frankly, what happens to public service broadcasting when a heady combination of deregulation, lack of prominence and an economically hostile environment prevail.

Children’s public service telly often leads the way, whether it’s tackling challenging topics, making properly representative television that tells our stories authentically and compellingly, or finding imaginative ways to finance the production of shows that don’t involve selling your home or a kidney (though don’t rule either out).  The latter skill has been key over the last decade or so, but generally true forever – broadcaster tariffs perfectly illustrate the funding divide between telly for grown-ups and children.

This historical inequity was compounded with a series of unfortunate events; relaxation of quotas, removal of TV tax credits, advertising revenue reductions and restrictions on ads placed around kids TV.  The market began to fail and by 2018, Ofcom’s children’s content paper described the devastating impact – broadcasters spent 40% less in 2017 than they did in 2006, with 98% of programming in 2016 being repeats, with the BBC accounting for 87% of all first run UK originated children’s programmes by public service broadcasters. Something needed to change.

Following some lively campaigning by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Children’s Media, CMF, PACT and Animation UK amongst others, a large proportion of the ‘Contestable Fund’ was dedicated to the development and production of children’s television to try to attenuate the decline of the industry and encourage plurality within the sector.  In April 2019 the DCMS-supported Young Audiences Content Fund (YACF) opened its doors, and in two short years has done much to re-vivify the children’s landscape, spending £27.1M on 45 productions, greenlighting 187 hours of brand new content for this country’s young people, that is free and accessible to all. The Fund has also supported the development of 115 brand new projects which, during the last year, has proven to be even more of a vital resource for production communities.  These projects are currently converting to commissions at a rate of around 10% (the BFI Film Fund conversion rate is around 5% as a comparison) and shows that the structure and process that a little resource brings definitely gets results. It is also proving the point that great content with a real relevance will equal great audiences - with shows such as 'Go Green With the Grimwades' and 'FYI I Don’t Get It' and 'Kidversations' and others recommissioned in the extremely short time since they launched.

These projects are helping people to upskill, they are creating jobs and supporting company growth all around the UK and in a sector that was on its knees.

These are strong benefits for a sector that has an awful lot to offer to the economy if it is enabled to thrive.  It’s a sector that is globally respected and is being economically re-energised, which is exciting to see.

But these aren’t the main things that makes the YACF important. What is vitally important is that YACF is helping restore what was lost to the young people of this country – television that is made for them, that properly represents them and reflects their lives.

At all times, never mind pandemic times, public service broadcasting enriches all lives, but nowhere is this more so than during your childhood and teens, when you are learning who you are, how you fit in and how to be.  It is a cultural touchstone as well as informing, educating and entertaining.

In the last two years, YACF has supported shows that speak uniquely to the lives of young people in this country, whether it is current affairs like 'FYI Investigates' (Sky News, First News, Sky Kids) or 'Election 21…If I Were First Minister' (S4C), game shows like 'Don’t Unleash the Beast' (CITV), Factual Entertainment such as 'How' (CITV) or 'Meet the Experts' (Milkshake!), Ob Docs like 'Go Green With the Grimwades' (Milkshake!) or factual entertainment shows such as the rather lovely, instructive and uplifting 'Teen First Dates' (E4).

This content is priceless.  Echoing an Ofcom report, in a survey we conducted during last year’s See Yourself on Screen Challenge, 75% of children reported that they don’t recognise children that look or sound like them on TV.  I’ll say it again.  75% of young people don’t feel seen or heard or represented.  We should care about that.

Media is our cultural glue – it shows us our world, gives us our cultural sense of self. It helps shape our communities and informs our citizenship.

With the increasing dominance of the global commercials and the streamers, PSB’s find themselves drawn to sometimes unflattering comparisons about the range of glossy content; the curation, the coolness, the gazillions of content spend.  These new platforms offer more choice, sure, they can show us a different cultural tone of voice, and a producer can get their show fully financed – all good things.  They also carry a lot of Public Service originated content that has little in the way of attribution back to the place they came from and were funded by.  The streamers are noisy and currently well resourced, lightly regulated and taxed, are commissioning loads and block-booking studio space in the UK – it’s disrupted the local production economy in both positive and negative ways.

But when it comes to content - telly from everywhere for everywhere - global TV, as it were, represents nowhere in particular.  More content, but less that is specifically about us and for us.  We should care about that too.

The YACF has been something of a game changer for producers and also for broadcasters that are seeing the value in content that is bespoke to young UK audiences.  The Fund is supporting a lot of brilliant new public service content that will sit in places that are free to access, regulated and safe.  It’s supporting the rebirth of a once strong sector, which is a help, but it is not the whole answer – regulatory encouragement is vital to ensure that there is sufficient resource for commissioning new content and, in the children’s sector, we could always do with more resource.

Fundamentally, content is what we should care most about – it’s very easy for a conversation on the future of public service media to get waylaid and confused by platform chat.  Great content is what draws an audience, not a pretty interface or a snazzy algorithm that gives you more of the same (which is sort of the antithesis of public service really – we should be broadening horizons, right?).  Content is still very much king.

So now is the time to talk about a future where public service content is made and freely broadcast in this country - it remains a crucial and central part of UK life and should be cherished.

Now is the time to point to the lessons of Children’s public service telly - how neglect, lack of regulation, prominence and resource risk leading to market failure, can be hugely detrimental to our cultural lives.

We need to teach our colleagues and friends in the wider broadcast community our lessons – few understand or take an interest in our sector or our audience, even though kids and teens are 25% of all audiences and absolutely 100% of the future.

The children’s public service broadcast experience shows us what a sector economically and culturally in free fall looks like. Children’s was the proverbial canary in the coalmine.  Government intervention via the YACF means the canary is miraculously alive, but still in intensive care.  The canary will need further support to fully recover and fly again.  The bigger birds should heed the canary’s story.

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By Jackie Edwards

Jackie is Head of the BFI Young Audiences Content Fund, and is responsible for the successful implementation of this game-changing UK Government initiative to stimulate the provision of public service content for audiences of 0-18.

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)