The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

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

Not Waving, But Drowning – An independent children’s producer’s perspective

As a respected producer, Anne Wood calls on government to recognise the production sector faces an almost impossible situation and is rapidly losing the talent and specialist expertise to serve the needs of the UK children's audience.

Once upon a time in the United Kingdom every broadcaster originated children’s programmes.  It was an accepted requirement, integral to the privilege of broadcasting.  It was built into the BBC Charter from the beginning.  Children’s culture was recognised and perceived as important.  This premise was consequently also adopted by the ITV companies.  The then Independent Broadcasting Authority took a keen and serious interest to ensure that home grown children’s programmes were delivered.

In April 2021 when Ofcom examined children’s viewing habits during lockdown, the headline was:- ‘Traditional TV a turn-off as children switch on to YouTube and Netflix’.  UK children’s television was presented as quaint and as antiquated as videos; eliminated by technological change.

This perception began as long ago as 1988 when children’s programmes were abolished from Channel 4.

For a time, between 1993 and 2002 when CBeebies and CBBC channels were set up, the regulating authority offered some protection.  Then, in 2003, Ofcom was established to assess whether the PSB Broadcasters, taken together, transmitted a suitable range of high quality programmes for children and young people.  With no individual responsibility, ITV companies could begin to withdraw.  In 2006 Ofcom published details of restrictions intended to limit children’s exposure to advertising of food and drink products high in fats, salt and sugar.  “Alas” wailed the companies – “this means we can no longer afford to continue the expensive business of originating new children’s programmes”.  Further funding was withdrawn.

For a time, sales of ancillary products filled the funding gap but this, too, soon failed.  The subtle, and not so subtle, shift to programmes that could be merchandised ended abruptly.  ToysRUs finally collapsed in 2018.

In 2003 the Communications Act made originating new children’s programmes non-essential for ITV.  The interests of broadcasters were paramount.  At one blow, the internal market for children’s programme making virtually disappeared.  Once the competition from ITV was removed, the BBC was the only independent customer remaining.  International buyers look first to a programme’s success in its home territory but with only one real UK destination there was effectively no home market.

The removal of competition was not good for the BBC; it was not good for programme making and it was especially not good for children’s television culture.  This is the cold, hard world of money.

There is a belief among those who deal in money for its own sake that the market always adjusts itself.  We, in the British children’s television production business have no market and, consequently, we have no money.

Those of us who have campaigned for years to address these inequalities had a small success in engineering the Young Audiences Content Fund, now nearing its end.  Broadcasters, for the most part, including the BBC, closed ranks against it.  They, and we, knew that the money would soon run out.  £60million, welcome though it was, was never going to close the funding gap.  For comparison, consider that in 2005, one series of 'In the Night Garden' cost £14million.

'In the Night Garden', very successful though it still is in the UK, never achieved Teletubbies’ international success.  In the Night Garden is more firmly rooted in the culture of nursery rhymes.  It refers not to a computer generated universe but the gentle woodland world of so many bedtime stories.  It belongs to the same story-telling culture and is equally highly valued in countless UK households with young children.  This cultural issue is important.

There will never be another 'In the Night Garden'.  This is not because there is not the talent to create one, but because we are now in a place where there can never be the money.  Lacking opportunity, the talent will wither and potentially die.

How can children not enjoy the glitz and glory of the skilled North American giants?  They already pick up its language and absorb the fantasy.  Why should they not?  These networks have instant global reach, the same content for all children no matter where they live.  The media landscape has changed and it will go on changing but underneath it all, children’s own perceptions remain the same.  They also need to recognise reflections of their own experiences.  They need, as one child put it, stories to make them “feel good inside”.

'Teletubbies' briefly demonstrated that we can compete but that was long ago and far away - before the transition to brave new technology.  Imagine trying to sell the 'Teletubbies' concept to any of today’s big competitors?  Live-action teddy bears with screens in their bellies and antennae on their heads living far away in a dome in a field?  What does any of it mean?  It is in fact a conversation with young children themselves, from their point of view.  It succeeded the world over.  It was not done to reassure adults or funders.  It was done to make children smile.  It had the combined funding support of BBC Children’s, BBC Education and BBC Worldwide but its overnight success was due to 12 years’ previous experience of making programmes for ITV and observing children’s responses to them.  There was a belief that quirky and eccentric, though it seemed, it was embedded in an understanding of the internal lives of young children.

Over the centuries, ideas of childhood have changed.  Medieval society absorbed children invisibly into the adult world.  Victorian society sentimentalised them.  Early 20th Century society urged them to higher things.  Our century once more treats them as mini-adults.

In the UK children’s programme making has been allowed to become niche.  As this is written, in the first week of May 2021, across all available children’s channels, excluding the BBC, animation, particularly North American animation, dominates.  At the BBC there is a dilution of live action UK drama in favour of reality shows frequently aping adult television.  For younger children especially there is a crowding of 4 and 5 minute animated episodes.

Another headline from April 21st this year quotes “Children rediscover the joy of reading during lockdown”; of course they did.  They had more time and just possibly a surfeit of similar continuous programming from the small screen had failed to fully satisfy them.  Left to themselves, children will always find new alternatives which is why it is so important that there should be diverse television alternatives for them to discover.

Lack of money is crucial to the demise of the independent children’s television sector but at the heart of the problem lies a deep cultural issue that needs to be addressed.  Other nations have systems for safeguarding the equal rights of children to access indigenous work.  In the UK, children’s programme production is tolerated only on the most minimal terms.  The whole infrastructure that supported a thriving, internationally successful children’s production sector has been dismantled and displaced.

Casting around for solutions, it is easy to find disadvantages with quotas with sponsorship with regional funding.   It is unlikely a Fairy Godmother/Father will appear to address this situation.  We must make our own happy ending but we can only win if there is a level playing field.  We can only win if children’s shifting television culture is acknowledged.  Government intervention is not a popular idea but when the picture is one of increasing desperation, what are the options?

Unless securely funded competition within the home market is restored, innovation will fade away, the UK’s place at the cutting edge of the children’s television industry will never be regained and children will never have known a difference.

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By Anne Wood CBE

In 1984 Anne Wood founded Ragdoll Productions, whose work is loved by children around the world.  Since then, Ragdoll has produced more than 1,500 programmes aimed at the youngest viewers, including a number of award-winning shows, particularly the hugely successful 'Teletubbies' and 'In the Night Garden'.

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