The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

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

Public Service Broadcasting For Children And The Commercial PSBs

Máire Messenger Davies gives her perspective on the context for this debate and the importance of understanding how children's media experiences are changing and the extent to which there is continuity.

As I write, it is World Book Day and my social media timelines are full of children dressed as the Gruffalo, and Paddington, and the Worst Witch, all characters from books that they have both read and, more likely, seen on television. The relationship between children’s books and TV shows is symbiotic and has been from television’s beginning, as Anna Home, former head of children’s BBC, describes in her book about British children’s television, 'Into the Box of Delights' (1993)[1] – the ‘Box of Delights’, being itself the title of a book by John Masefield, dramatized for children by the BBC in 1984.

However, although children’s book publishing – a highly commercial enterprise – receives the kind of culturally respectable attention conferred by a special Day, the same never happens for children’s television. Why should this be? This article takes a look at some of the value and other judgements lying behind the never-ending effort – the ‘fight’ to use Home’s word -  to get children’s television the appreciation it deserves, the most recent bout being this very campaign by the Children’s Media Foundation (CMF).

It is all the more galling that these special attention events never happen for children’s television, because sometimes the TV version is better than the book, in my opinion. As Anna Home reminded me, in a recent interview,[2] looking back on her own long career in children’s television, "Children’s has never been considered top class stuff [within the industry]. It’s always been a fight – for recognition, for money." And yet a lot of it is "top class stuff". I loved the 'Demon Headmaster' books by Gillian Cross but I thought the 1990s TV versions were more scientifically complex, dramatic and thought-provoking and they were a huge hit with the audience, beating even adult shows in the ratings.  It was good to discover – thanks to my nine year old granddaughter – that there is a new version of 'The Demon Headmaster' (CBBC, 2019). But I would not have discovered it from any fanfares on the part of adult show-business media or even from the Radio Times, which once had regular special pages devoted to children. And when it comes to more ‘top class stuff’, look no further than 'Horrible Histories', still going strong on CBBC. Terry Deary’s books are great. But when you add the songs, and the costumes and the brilliant comic actors and scriptwriters, you have a television masterpiece. In 2011 HH won Best Sketch Show at the British Comedy Awards – a remarkable achievement for a ‘mere’ children’s programme.

Note that all these shows I’ve mentioned are from the BBC. The BBC is described by Patrick Barwise and Peter York in their recent book, 'The War against the BBC' [3], as the main source of children’s public service material currently and so it is. But it was not always so. When we conducted our study about children’s television published in 'Dear BBC', [4] with over 1400 children round the UK, ITV programmes competed on an equal footing with BBC. In one of the sample weeks that we studied, 'Byker Grove', the BBC's children's 'soap' set in the North East, and 'Blue Peter', competed with ITV's comedy 'Woof!', and the informative 'How2' (thankfully now resurrected in a new series, 'How', on CITV). In the children’s top tens, ITV’s dramas 'The Tomorrow People' and 'Children's Ward' competed on equal terms with the BBC’s 'Byker Grove', and 'Grange Hill'. 

Children’s broadcasting and regulation

Nowadays, there is a much less substantial thread of PSB provision on the commercial channels – CITV, C4 and C5. The fact that there is any at all is no thanks to legislation. In the 1990 Broadcasting Act, children’s programming was made a protected category, partly thanks to a campaign from producers, researchers, parents and activists, in a group which was a precursor of CMF, called British Action for Children’s Television, (BACTV).  Commercial PSBs – ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 – were awarded licenses on condition that they provided generically diverse material, accessible to different age groups, at times when children were available to view.  The 2003 Broadcasting Act dropped this requirement, and, allied to the ‘junk food’ advertising ban of 2006, led to the commercial PSBs ceasing to provide children’s programming on the same scale as they had done previously. According to the 2003 law, children were no longer seen as an audience that a public service broadcaster was bound to serve. Imagine if there’d been a similar law defunding children’s libraries.

The latest regulations regarding children, as expressed in the channels’ various broadcasting Codes (see websites)[5] say nothing about providing diverse, age-appropriate content as the 1990 Act provisions did. The only regulations relating to children concern the protection of child performers – a very important consideration of course (see Davies and Mosdell, 2001). [6] Nevertheless, there is still some content provision on the commercial PSBs, not least because it is clearly in broadcasters’ own interest to cultivate young audiences, as Alan Horrox, formerly of Thames TV, and Tetra Productions, pointed out to us in our 'Dear BBC' study:

"Broadcasters need children because they grow up into adult audiences, which is what broadcasters need. … The second commercial reason is … there's a very, very sizeable adult market for children's products which children are crucially influential in. It's also a fundamental fact for all channels to feel young, including middle aged audiences like myself, youth is a tremendous asset."  [7]

ITV’s CITV is an all-day channel, consisting mainly of animations, many of them American and some repeated from previous years. One interesting feature that positively distinguishes it from the better-resourced CBBC, is that it runs all day from 6 am and on into prime time, ceasing at 9 pm. Some of the material in this later, very competitive slot, is aimed at older children and I caught an extraordinary drama series called 'World of Weird', about an Australian family with rather disturbing zombie parents, living in an Irish B & B in a house that looked as if it had once belonged to Father Ted – a comedy echo supported by its casting of Pauline McGlynn as the local school’s head teacher. The final CITV show at 8.30 pm was a sparky documentary, 'Mission Employable', a really innovative programme using young presenters, doing signing and voice-over to explain to children, both hearing impaired and not, how to get a job as a gardener, with gardening tips added. I loved this, and I do hope that its intended audience has been finding it. Channel 5 has a three hour dedicated slot for young children early every morning – 'Milkshake'. Most of the shows are animation but 'The World According to Grandpa', is an innovatory exception; it is mainly live action, with the magisterial Don Warrington, of 'Death in Paradise' and much other fame, explaining electricity to his little granddaughter, first via a charming folk tale, then with the real science. This show is one of the programmes helped by funding from the Young Audiences Content Fund (YACF), a £60 million grant from the DCMS, administered by the BFI, to support children’s production – some of the programmes it has supported are listed below. It goes without saying that the commercial channels’ programmes are interspersed with a great deal of advertising, mainly of toys. Channel 4, once a bastion of educational programming, is not providing any children’s material at the moment, that I could see but, again, thanks to the YAC Fund, it produced a one-off special at Christmas 2020, Quentin Blake’s 'Clown'.

The importance of ‘place’

One-off specials aren’t enough though. If we’re thinking of true public service value, we have to bear in mind the unique characteristics of the child audience, especially young children, and the fact that their lives are constrained by other schedules. Favourite activities need to be predictable. All the digital channels do recognise this. Their slots and regular programmes are in the same place and time (though way down on the EPG) and children (and perhaps more importantly parents) know where to find them every day.  And the programmes, though recorded, exist in a ‘real-world’ situation; they are topped and tailed with actual presenters talking to the actual audience, featuring actual children in the audience and their actual birthdays and pets. The value of this direct address – an important public service value -  is that it signals this territory belongs to them. The idea of a children’s schedule as protected space goes right back to the beginning of children’s television, as Home’s book describes. Despite the media’s uncoupling of the real world from the digital one, and the irrelevance of real time and place made possible by technology, children’s lives do still depend on regular daily scheduling and a sense that they are part of the public sphere as things happen. Children also still rely on having kind, dependable adults to talk directly to them, and all the children’s channels’ presenters fulfil this function.

However, there is one area for older children which – as also for adults – absolutely must be rooted in the here-and-now and that is News. The commercial PSBs do not provide  children’s news programmes as they once did, for example Channel 4’s 'First Edition', although, aided by the Young Audiences Content Fund, Sky Kids offers a weekly news programme called 'FYI News specials', which deal with ‘issues of particular relevance to children and "explainers to help children to understand events in the news and in their lives." But the BBC has offered children’s news continuously since 'Newsround' was introduced in 1972 and, given its privileged position and funding as the primary public service broadcaster in the UK, so it should.

At the beginning of the pandemic last year, when children could no longer go to school, and had to learn at home, the BBC earned praise for the way it immediately cleared BBC2’s schedules to air Bitesize educational and informational programmes for children – a true public service response. Almost simultaneously, the regulator Ofcom allowed the BBC to cut back its provision of the award-winning 'Newsround' from 85 to 35 hours a year and to reduce broadcast bulletins on children’s channel CBBC from three to one a day in favour of on-demand distribution on the CBBC/Newsround website and on iPlayer. This was despite objections from a variety of groups such as producers, the Children’s Media Foundation, the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, educators and academic researchers. If ever there was a case of bad timing it was this. Once the scale of the Covid crisis was known, and children (and parents) had been forced out of their everyday routines to face a frightening and very uncertain future, it would have been a true act of public service to put 'Newsround' back where it was before 2013 – at 5 pm on BBC1.

I realise this is an extremely radical suggestion – but why not be radical in times like these? Putting Bitesize on BBC2 was radical; hiring ‘celebrity supply teachers’ like Marcus Rashford, for the CBBC schedule was radical too.  Imagine if 'Newsround' had been aired just after the regular press conferences from Downing Street, with an explanation of what the announcements meant for children and their families. Imagine if some 'Newsround' reporters, including the programme’s young reporters, could have asked some questions on behalf of the nation’s children and young people. Instead, this radical show – still doing a good informative, if much curtailed job - can only be caught live early in the morning, repeated in the evening. There is, of course, news material on its website – but there is still evidence that children prefer news in live broadcast form rather than searching the web for it  (see also Carter et al, 2009). [8]

Where is the child audience?

But do children watch TV any more? Aren’t they surfing the web all the time and playing games on YouTube? I was struck, when looking at Ofcom’s latest (2019) [9] data for children’s viewing habits, by the fact that the majority of 5-15 year olds – 74% - watch programmes as live (i.e. when broadcast), compared with 61% for SVoD (e.g. Netflix) and 49% on catch up. What surprised me even more was that the figures for 3-4 year olds and 12-15 year olds watching TV ‘live’, were exactly the same – 75%. When it comes to VoD, as we might expect, the older children increasingly outnumber younger ones until we get 88% versus 65% in these two age groups. The Ofcom data also show that these high numbers of children watching material, as aired, have hardly changed in the last five years. The child audience these days is sometimes seen as hard to find, compared to the 1990s and early 2000s, because of all the new platforms and because of the internet; much academic research on children now focuses on their use of online digital material. The TV set, which, however, we have all learned to love again during the pandemic (see The Guardian, Saturday 6thFebruary 2021), seems currently to be of less scholarly interest. I would suggest that this lack of attention to the importance of broadcast TV is a mistake. And it would seem that the BBC agrees with me; it has recently announced that the digital-only BBC3, having produced many programmes popular with the ever-elusive youth audience, is returning as a broadcast channel.

Hope for the future

This seems to me a promising development. The Young Audiences’ Content Fund, [10] mentioned above, the £60 million grant from the DCMS, administered by the BFI, to support the production of children’s content across channels other than the BBC, is another hopeful development. Some examples of programmes supported by the fund are:

  • 'Sali Mali' - S4C - (ages 0 to 4) – in Welsh
  • 'Go Green With The Grimwades' -  Channel 5 - (ages 0 to 7) – environmental issues / protecting the environment
  • 'The World According To Grandpa' - Channel 5 & S4C (ages 0 to 7) – cross generational family dynamics
  • Quentin Blake's 'Clown' Channel 4 (ages 0 to 11)
  • 'Lacklan, Boy at the Top' -  BBC ALBA -  (ages 8 to 11) – Scottish Gaelic
  • 'Rùn'  BBC ALBA - ages (8 to 11) - Scottish gaelic
  • 'Sol' - BBC ALBA- (ages 8 to 11) – teaching elements of grief – created in Celtic languages Irish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic
  • 'Don't Unleash the Beast' CITV (ages 8 to 11)
  • 'How' – CITV - (ages  8 to 11)
  • 'FYI News Specials Sky' – (ages 12 to 14)
  • 'Letters on Lockdown' - E4/All4 – (ages 12 to 18)
  • 'Rap Therapy' Channel 4 -(ages 12 to 18) – teaching kids about mental health
  • 'First Dates: Teens' - E4 - (ages 16-24) [11]

The current funding project is a three year pilot, but judging from the diverse and imaginative collection of programmes in the above list, it is to be hoped that it gets put on a more permanent footing.

Why does children’s programming matter?

When it comes to answering this question, Anna Home continues to make the point first made in an interview in 1997:

"Children have a culture which is very specific and although they watch programming that isn’t made for them, they need programming which is geared to their own culture, and their own perception and their own levels of awareness, and just as I don’t think anyone should say let’s kill off children’s literature, I don’t think anyone should say let’s kill off children’s television". [12]

Not only should they not kill it off – they should celebrate it. Maybe we should think about a World Children’s TV Day?



[1] Home, A. (1993) Into the Box of Delights: A history of children’s television. London: BBC Books

[2] Anna Home interview with M. M. Davies, February 2nd, 2021

[3] Barwise, P. and York, P. (2020) The War against the BBC: How an unprecedented combination of hostile forces is destroying Britain’s greatest cultural institution . . . And why you should care. Dublin: Penguin/Random House

[4] Messenger Davies, M. (2001) Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere, Cambridge: CUP.

[5] Broadcasting Codes

[6] Messenger Davies, M. and Mosdell, N. (2001) Consenting children? The use of children in non-fiction television programmes, London: Broadcasting Standards Commission

[7] interviewed in Messenger Davies, M. (2001) Dear BBC, ibid.

[8] Carter, C., Messenger Davies, M., Allan, S., Mendes, K., Prince, I. and Wass, L.  2009. What do Children want from the BBC? Available at

[9] Children’s media use and attitudes report, 2019. London: Ofcom

[10] YACFund website

[11] Thanks to Charlotte Prentice, of Multitude Media North, for this information.

[12] Dear BBC ibid. and Anna Home interview with M. M. Davies, February 2nd, 2021

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By Emerita Professor Máire Messenger Davies

Máire Messenger Davies is Emerita Professor of Media Studies at Ulster University, and a Visiting Professor at the University of South Wales. She has a BA in English from Trinity College Dublin and, after a journalistic career in local newspapers and national magazines, she obtained a PhD in psychology at the University of East London, studying how audiences learn from television.

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