The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

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

Once upon a time, there was a broadcaster… responding to the distributed risk of children’s programme production and consumption

Once concentrated around a small number of public service broadcaster-producers, programme production for children now occurs not only through these traditional relationships, but increasingly in the non-public-service sphere and across a number of production models, from traditional commissioning to self-publishing on browser-based platforms.

This contribution argues that the widening of the market for children’s programmes has had two consequences in relation to risk. Firstly, organisational risk is distributed outwardly from broadcasters to individual producers. This is most-commonly framed in financial terms, but also includes the diffusion of institutional intelligence and the loss of advocacy traditionally housed in broadcasters. Secondly, the risk to consumers is distributed away from public-service broadcasters and the regulator to individual viewers and families as children’s media consumption takes in an increasing proportion of unlicensed online content.

The broadcaster-facing regulatory model has failed to match pace with the economic, technological and cultural shifts in children’s programme production and consumption. The distinction between traditional broadcast and online content production is not reflective of children’s platform-agnostic viewing and the producers’, rather than the broadcasters’, visibility to the consumer is increasing. With a reduced centre-of-gravity traditionally provided by the broadcaster, producers lack a self-regulation, advocacy, and support network. Given the mixed landscape of children’s media consumption, such support should not be based upon platforms and technologies but upon the act of producing children’s content.

The cultural constant of children’s programme consumption

Children’s programmes play a part in forming and reflecting our early lives. Readers of a certain age will remember television programmes that they grew up with and be able to recall the plots, characters, shared hilarity and fear, and excitement at sitting down to watch the latest episode of their favourite shows. ‘That they grew up with’ is a key phrase. Those stories, personalities and characters became part of our lives – household and playground names shared with families and friends. Television programmes brought the world to us and us to the world. We could, at the best of times, see ourselves reflected on screen and experience the unfamiliar. We not only learned about ethics and morality but also found respite from the mundane and worrisome.

The television schedule, and the physical television itself, were significant structuring elements of our lives. The adult schedule, for a short time in the late afternoon and early evening, gave way to our world. Parents, siblings and carers had the opportunity to either share in that world or retire to their own boring grown-up activities safe in the knowledge that we were in good company.

This, of course, is an idealised and nostalgic rendering of what some might refer to as a golden age of children’s programmes. The reality for many was different, particularly given the middle-class White British dominance of programme production, concentrated in a very few broadcasters’ hands. Over four decades, however, the decentralisation of production, from in-house to independent production, the move of children’s programmes onto their own channels, the addition of more broadcasters, and the growth in online content platforms has significantly expanded the range, availability, and aims of children’s programmes. Critically, however, while the economics of production have changed almost beyond recognition, the cultural value of children’s programming has not. Children’s programmes retain their formative, structuring influence on children’s lives and the need for children’s media to embody public-service values, regardless of the mode of production or consumption, remains critical.

The disaggregation of children’s programme production and consumption

In the 1950s there were two places where children’s programme production and consumption were concentrated: at the BBC and the ITA studios (colloquially known as and latterly becoming ITV.) In 1985, the BBC branded its children’s output as Children’s BBC, shortened to CBBC, which launched as a discrete digital channel, alongside its sibling for pre-school viewers, CBeebies, in 2002. CITV, the children’s offering from ITV, launched in 2006. In the intervening years, dedicated children’s channels began broadcasting on satellite, cable and digital services (The Children’s Channel in 1984; Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network in 1993; The Disney Channel in 1995; Pop in 2003,) several spinning-off sibling channels (for example, Cartoon Network launched Boomerang in 2000 and Toonami in 2002.)  With all but the BBC’s content being funded by advertising revenue, there was a fragmentation of the total spend on children’s programme production, so more-cheaply acquired content tended to dominate over original production on the commercial channels, while original content occupied a higher proportion of the BBC schedule.

The UK launches of Apple TV in 2007, Netflix in 2012, Amazon Prime Video in 2014 and Disney+ in 2020 provided consumers with additional sources of children’s programmes and producers with additional commissioning opportunities for original content. In addition, the prevalence of on-demand platforms available on a number of digital devices – now the norm rather than the exception – means that the physical television set and the programme schedule have a decreasing grip on the structure of children’s media lives.

Perhaps most disruptive to the children’s programme landscape, and challenging the term ‘programme’ itself, is the entry into the market of browser-based social-media video-hosting platforms, including Facebook and Flickr in 2004; YouTube in 2005; Whatsapp in 2009; Instagram in 2010; Snapchat and Twitch in 2011; and TikTok in 2017. The relationship between platform provider, producer and funding in these cases ranges from a purely self-publishing (and ultimately pay-per-click) model, through to sponsorship and product-placement deals. From 2012, YouTube provided in-house production facilities and support for content-creators through YouTube Space. YouTube producers are often found via ‘channels’ and the platform launched a dedicated children’s app, YouTube Kids, in 2015. Such are the contradictory divergences and convergences of the market for original children’s content that the BBC is planning to move its in-house children’s and education production teams into BBC Studios in order that they can compete for commissions from other broadcasters and platforms.

There are now more platforms and publisher-broadcasters of children’s programmes than ever before. This provides far greater opportunities for the broadcast of original content and for a far greater diversity in that content. The structuring and curating influence of the physical television and the linear television schedule has been eroded. This provides greater viewer choice but also means that shared viewing experiences are far fewer. Both the production and consumption of children’s content have been disaggregated to the point of individualism.

Independent production as a distributed risk network

What became known as the UK’s independent television production sector was greatly stimulated by the formation of Channel 4 in 1982. Formerly restricted to working in-house for broadcasters or competing for the limited number of original content commissions, television producers now had available to them a whole channel dedicated to publishing independently produced original content. This market was further stimulated by The Broadcasting Act 1990, which introduced the independent production quotas, requiring public service licensed broadcasters to commission 25% of their content from independent producers. The Communications Act 2003 allowed independents to retain intellectual property rights in their content, with the consequence that broadcasters offered lower production budgets, distributing the risk of programme funding to the producer.

Through the 1980s and 90s, producers who had learned their trade on film productions and as broadcasters’ employees set up shop as independent production companies and began competing for schedule space and budget. At the time, these independents were portrayed as an innovative and entrepreneurial vanguard. Through the 2000s, however, the high levels of risk experienced by small independents led to them merging and seeking to become acquired by larger organisations, creating what became known as super-indies. Some super indies had turnovers as large as smaller broadcasters. They were able to spread risk through portfolio diversification and had more revenue to fund programme development – a resource-intensive process which precedes approaching broadcaster commissioners with programme pitches which may or may not succeed. Such is the uncertainty and risk for the independent producer seeking commissions that this century has seen ever more independents seeking the security of partnership with larger companies, including international and domestic broadcaster studios.

The actual independence of independent producers carries a great deal of emotional import. Creative autonomy, the excitement of risk-taking on uncertain programme pitches and the fleeting chance of making it big hold a certain attraction. However, the realities of paying employees, supporting families and maintaining a professional identity as a producer are ever present in the mind of the independent producer. Independence is a trade-off between financial risk and creative autonomy. Many owned independent producers retain what they refer to as an independent culture – an organisational identity and way of approaching production which is distinct from their owning studio.

Independent producers are not independent, but rely on sets of negotiated dependencies. They are dependent on their production teams, on broadcaster clients, on policy-makers, and on the shifting cultural trends of the viewing public. The producer is a hub at the centre of these dependencies, capable of creating the complex synergies required for programme creation, but also exposed to the risk of this complex web breaking down. The producer’s role is concerned with forging and maintaining interpersonal and interorganisational relationships. It is ultimately a social role, and a lonely one.

In my research, talking to independent producers revealed the lonely risk-management that was at the centre of their role. They cherished their production teams, worried about the viability of their companies, and were frustrated at the challenges of getting original content commissioned. Those that had forged ownership deals with larger studios appreciated the support and security that this provided. Those that had maintained their true independence faced the day-to-day threat of career-ending failure.

What also was revealed was a desire for, but a remarkable lack of, collegiality and support among producers. Independent producers are, of course, in competition, and they are also competitive in nature. Whatever attempt the producers I had spoken to had made to create mutual support networks had failed. The overall picture was a rather solitary, risk-infused day-to-day existence leading teams on creative adventures.

Both this recognition and the fact that independent production companies find many ways of organising their existence and behaviours, referred to in academic literature as production cultures, means that portraying independent production as a sector, while facilitating the measurement of economic and cultural influence on a national and international scale, masks the individual and greatly diverse experiences of working in this way.

Many older independent producers learned their trade working for broadcasters or large independents, striking out alone when the time came for them to express greater creative autonomy and to experience a riskier, and potentially more profitable, environment. This currently happens less. There are more job opportunities for production workers in independent companies than in in-house broadcasters. This has two implications. Firstly, the vast institutional knowledge of the major public service broadcasters is no longer diffused through the wider trade. Secondly, the responsibility for learning on-the-job is distributed between the independents. Employees often work on short-term and freelance contracts, moving between companies to gain experience and making career-developing moves in doing so. Once centralised in public-service broadcasting, the underpinning principles of production and responsibility for learning them have become distributed across a wide and disparate network.

Self-publishing - the ultimate risk distribution network

As the Ofcom Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report 2019 shows, scheduled terrestrial television holds ever decreasing attraction for young viewers. With the prevalence of smart-device ownership among younger consumers comes a greater engagement with social-media based publishing platforms, with YouTube preferred to both video-on-demand and scheduled television by 5-15 year-olds.

Prevalent on these platforms are vloggers. These producers are often also presenters, forging seemingly one-to-one relationships with their viewers, who are potentially able to communicate directly with them, sometimes in real time. While some may have some media education, few if any have learned their craft in the employment of broadcasters and are self-taught. Viewing of regular online streamers and vloggers reveals that there are some elements of community between producers, who may ‘name-check’ or guest on each other’s posts, and there may be an element of peer-assisted learning or learning through co-observation as producers strive to make more attractive content. Predominantly, however, the self-publishing producer’s life, and professional risk, is even more individualised than that of the independent television producer.

With far lower overheads than traditional television production, however, this individualised risk-reward relationship makes good business sense for the most successful producers. Some producers have the support of sponsoring companies who may provide, as well as content to cover - such as commercial goods to promote - production equipment and some training. Producing, of course, is not only the physical creation of content, but the editorial oversight of its values. Rather than television production in the UK, which was founded on public service values, self-published online content was founded on principles of individual popularity. Clicks, likes and subscriptions provide the self-publishing producer with self-validation and revenue.

For the time being, and sometimes only tacitly, television production in the UK remains influenced by its public service foundations, online self-published content has no such history. This is not to say that the values demonstrated by a great deal of self-published content are incompatible with those of public service television, but those that are demonstrated are learned in an inferential fashion and are also influenced by a far greater range of cultural values. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the diversification of content, within bounds, serves to widen the range of experiences available to consumers. What we understand in the UK to be public service values are, it would seem, obvious, but this is in fact the result of very specific culturalization over generations. Producers of children’s programmes for television in the UK have both tacitly and explicitly learned how to adhere to the editorial guidelines and regulation of public service television.

Ofcom’s regulation of online and traditional content continues the increasingly challenging task of ensuring the wellbeing of media consumers. There is, however, a great difference between defending child consumers from explicitly harmful material and promoting content which offers the very best of what children’s television and its contemporary analogues can provide. Television retains, and online content promises, a vast developmental resource for children. The Ofcom Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report 2019 states, however, that fewer parents now than five years ago consider the benefits of children viewing online content to outweigh the risks. With the distribution of production, and its risks, being more widely distributed, so also is the responsibility for risk mitigation decentralised, sitting ultimately with, in the best case, the concerned parent or carer and, in the worst case, the child consumer.

Responding to distributed risk in children’s programme production and consumption

This contribution does not aim to paint independently-produced or self-published children’s content as inherently dangerous. Neither does it argue for a recentralisation of children’s programme production, consumption and regulation. Four decades of television and media policy and global economics have ensured a wider and more open market in production than ever before. The genie is very definitely out of the bottle and will not be put back in. The contemporary context of the individualisation of risk for both producers and consumers comes with great opportunity as well as challenges.

Over the space of four decades or more, children’s programme production and consumption has moved from a coherent, culturally ring-fenced, trusted and safe space, where risk was centralised in a very few licensed broadcasters, to an open, disparate, and diverse space where risk has been distributed to individualised producers and consumers. Taking the landscape as a whole, producers no longer want to be told what to produce and child consumers do not want to be told what to watch.

So, how may we respond to this challenge and maximise this opportunity? Top-down regulation has limited impact on the fine details of content production and consumption, but it is in the fine details that excellent, memorable and beneficial content distinguishes itself from the rest. These fine details represent a search for excellence in production. A divided production base, however, cannot benefit from institutional learning, support, and advocacy and the wide distribution of content across platforms makes the very best content harder to find for consumers.

A response to these circumstances should include a shift in what is considered the independent production sector and how this is represented. The exclusion of online and social-media production and quasi-professional content-creators from the standard industrial classification of television production reflects neither the contemporary landscape of children’s media production nor consumption. Removing the platform-based classification-gap between traditional and emergent production and consumption models would allow for a coherent approach to governing, guiding and supporting all creators of children’s content, bringing television and online producers together, reflecting the mixed landscape of children’s media consumption and infusing it with the values of public service.

This shift in perception makes it even more clear how disparate and disconnected children’s producers actually are. Independent production across broadcast and online platforms demonstrates a far greater diversity in both organisational culture and content than was present 40 years ago, but producers are provided with far less institutional memory and support than was available to the traditional in-house producers. We need to consider, therefore, how to both maximise this diversity while also supporting independent producers’ learning and support needs, in the interests of providing child consumers with excellent content and their families with greater trust in that content. Television producers and online producers have much to learn from one another, but the current broadcaster-focused and platform-specific policy models do not provide a forum for them to do so nor a platform from which to advocate their work.

What is at stake are the ethics and morality of children’s programme production and a care for both the producers and consumers of this content. Just as the risks of production and consumption have been individualised and distributed, so must we distribute the support for and advocacy of those wanting to make the most of this unprecedented opportunity.

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By Dr. Karl Rawstrone

Dr. Karl Rawstrone is a Senior Lecturer in Media Production and Deputy Head of the Department of Media Production at Bournemouth University. He completed his PhD with the University of the West of England in 2020. His thesis is entitled Negotiating Dependence: Independent Television Producers in England.

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