The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

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

Time For Another Revolution?

A timely reminder as to why we should care about public service media for children, as well as some radical ideas on how we can meet the challenge.

It feels odd, having created 'Grange Hill', and watched it run for 35 years, that there appears a need to even ask if children’s media content is worth preserving. Is that not a question containing its own answer, illustrated by our rich heritage of output?

A heritage that stretches back to BBC Radio’s 'Listen With Mother' in 1950 and follows a commonality across subsequent generations and technology platforms, to offer quality content to our children. Content that also provides parents with a welcome diversion. A safe space that will occupy children, even keep them quiet every now and then, and, hopefully, be educational, while parents can get on with other things, secure in the knowledge that the electronic babysitter has been vetted, is safe and will not lead their offspring astray. Something that has been amplified across the pandemic.

The fact that DCMS has provided funding to the Young Audiences Content Fund also suggests that the principle is still accepted, even though mechanism of delivery has become unclear. And that, perhaps is the most pertinent point. Why, or how, did we get to this point of doubt?

The answer to that is embedded in the British system of revolution: to make great structural change, then have the debate about what we really meant to achieve. It is why we are still debating the 1870 Education Act, which established the principle of state education, but never settled the argument about what sort of education. And why, despite the blueprint drawn by the 1942 Beveridge Report, we still do not have a coherent framework for welfare and social care.

Public service media for children fits neatly into this milieu, recognising that it is a surrogate for the future of public service broadcasting as a whole. The two are inseparable, because without the latter, the former would not exist. It was the publicly funded BBC that pioneered the concept, with ITV forced to follow as part of their public service obligations, or price, for being given a monopoly on television advertising in the 1950’s.

And for a time, between the 1960-80’s, a typically British compromise worked and children in particular were well-served with strong programming across the schedules. It also worked because of the technological limitations of transmission. A transmitter pattern set out in the 1920’s for radio only provided scope for two national television channels, making entry difficult but regulatory control relatively easy.

As technology marched on and brought the potential for more channels and greater competition, regulation became more complicated  and in the quest to retain a balanced ecology, every other commercial broadcaster also had to accept public service conditions, including programming for children, while the BBC was encouraged to become more commercial. But not too much.

Gradually, throughout the 1980-90’s, with ITV’s monopoly on advertising slowly eroding, the obvious compromise was to start easing their onerous public service remit,  just as questions started to emerge about the purpose of the BBC itself. With new entrants like Sky and Channels 4 & 5, often staffed with ex-BBC people, the purpose of the BBC itself came under scrutiny along with whether the Licence Fee, another 1920’s legacy, was still justified and/or for use solely by the BBC. And within this recurring debate about regulation one question seemed to go unasked. How many public service providers do we really need?

That question is not about how many entertainment platforms we need, but in the age of concern about fake news, cyber bullying, grooming, scamming and the digital divide, more a cultural question of whether we, as a society, want and are prepared to fund a curated, trusted safe space for our children’s consumption.

To the British revolutionaries that in itself may sound too radical, but before they knee-jerk and reach too quickly for the concept of plurality, the euphemism for competition, let’s just pause for a moment and focus on what we mean by public service. We do not hear clamours for plurality in health, education or policing, so in a digital age when access to broadband is now being considered on a par to other utilities, should we not also consider public service content in a similar light, linked and more integrated with other public services?

If this last year has taught us anything, it is the need for public funding where and when necessary, the need for accurate and well-informed information, and that plurality and competition can also be about harvesting best practice rather than driving out competitors. From history, we know the birth of another great British institution, 'The Archers', came from a union between the Department of Agriculture and the BBC. This is not something to be shied away from, especially as the combined media budgets of the major Whitehall Departments probably match, or even eclipse the terrestrial programme production budgets.

From my own experience, with 35 years of 'Grange Hill', 21 years of 'Brookside' and 'Hollyoaks' still running, I learned that one of the best resources available to contemporary storytellers is a good relationship with other public services. We are all in the births, deaths and marriages game, with a bit of crime thrown in.

Each year, before sitting down to write the overall storyline for 'Grange Hill', I would talk to educators, teachers and pupils. I would criss-cross the country, visiting schools, comprehensive to public, urban, suburban and rural, ostensibly to talk about what it was like to write for television, and during the Q & A’s I would ask them, initially, what they wanted to see on screen, then as things progressed what we were getting right, or wrong. If I heard the same tales on the majority of visits it meant they were of general concern and, as such, relevant areas for drama. The perennial frustrations over school uniforms, homework, hating sports, bullying and occasionally their favourite and not so favourite teachers, but amongst them were always issues like discrimination, inequality and, of course, social justice. Especially that wonderfully coherent youthful sense of right and wrong. Black and white. Something all children are born with.

Why could boys do such and such and girls could not? And, vice versa. Why do teachers use humiliation as a control mechanism? Why can’t girls wear trousers? That wasn’t a vice versa issue, but another common issue was representation. Why couldn’t they have a say in how their schools were run? That one went straight in to Series 2 and was one of the early controversies that, with hindsight, helped propel the show to its later campaigning success when some of those who had been first in to criticise it as a work of subversion realised, perhaps like their predecessors at the Dept of Agriculture, that it was reaching the very children they themselves were failing to reach. It was, actually, in the Reithian tradition to inform, educate and entertain.

That took a few years, and the support, courage and commitment of the BBC Children’s Department, and in particular the then Executive Producer of Drama, CMF Chair, Anna Home, to reach that point, but it was a journey fortified by the growing audience appreciation.

Within that is another important point. It is often not about systems but people and their willingness to back their own hunches and make the system work. It is about creating a secure environment in which they can operate. Although meeting Anna was one of those right moment, right time, right idea convergences, to get there I had also criss-crossed the country trying to convince one of the big five regional ITV companies that made children’s programming that a drama about school was a good idea. All five immediately rejected it. Why would kids want to watch something about school after being there all day? They completely missed the point. Because it was relevant to their world.

Of course, several years later after the success of 'Grange Hill' was obvious, the ad-sales folk at ITV tried to persuade me to switch, but by then I knew I would never have been given the same level of commitment, or longevity, as the BBC. For them, and me, it would have been a short-term gain but without the true public service remit, rather than their piecemeal, perhaps burdensome licensing obligation, there would have been too many pressures to compromise. Advertisers were far less forgiving back then.

That is not to do a disservice to advertiser-funded programming, more a recognition of the ingenuity that went into constructing a system to manage the scarce public airwaves that allowed a balanced eco-system to evolve. The BBC, across its by then two channels, more than covered the inform and educate parts of the Reithian public service mantra, while ITV, with its Theatre, Cinema and Bingo Hall founders, settled more at the entertainment end. Each pushed and fed off each other. Talent, new blood and ideas easily flowed back and forth. ITV matched and often pushed the BBC into areas like animation, local drama with regional accents and Saturday morning scheduling, another godsend to every parent.

Recognising and appreciating this balance was another important step in my empirical journey. That to make a real difference, to make a meaningful contribution to social debates, there are three imperatives. Trust, scale and longevity. Each builds on the others. Grange Hill could only have achieved the heights it did at the BBC. The BBC Children’s Department had the scale to imbue a philosophy in its staff, it already had the trust of the nation and, most importantly, it had a distant horizon. Because of all three it could afford to take risks, as well as taking the time to fine tune and get things right. In thinking on the future of children’s content, size matters.

The best example of how all this can come together was the Zammo drugs storyline. To portray this issue properly it was set over two years, Series 9 & 10. One year to show the dangers and descent into drugs, the next to illustrate a path to recovery. The programme worked with SCODA (Standing Committee on Drug Abuse) and eventually co-operated with the global Just Say No Campaign, something that took the cast to meet Nancy Reagan in The White House. Something that would probably be more feted today in the new era of projecting Britain’s soft cultural power.

On the first point, I believe the answer is yes. There is both a demand and room for another long-running contemporary drama for the 'Grange Hill' age-range of 8-16. All the usual rites of passages still exist, even if they are reinterpreted as cyber bullying, sexting, ghosting or grooming. Zammo’s storyline helped to change the way people viewed drug abuse, more as a social consequence than criminal delinquency, one leading to the other. Imagine the possibilities of being plugged into the Twittersphere.

And yet. And yet. It is all very well knowing what is a good thing. The question of how, remains. That inevitably takes us to the money and, more importantly, where does it come from and how can it be sustained? The DCMS fund is a welcome intervention, but through the application criteria it is clearly a subsidy for the existing broadcasters and at £57m over 3 years, nowhere near enough. In either cash or time.

From my own journey, you can be forgiven for thinking I would like to return to some nostalgic golden age. But that would be wrong. All golden ages are only the ones you worked through. And just as Grange Hill’s first year intake graduated and were replaced by a new cohort, so each generation finds its own touchstones. What worked back then would not work now. We no longer have a balanced and easily controlled regulatory framework. There is no such thing as territory in the digital universe, with VPN’s making national boundaries ever more porous. But we should learn from history. The challenge ahead is not about controlling accessibility but exploring the point those five ITV companies missed with 'Grange Hill': relevancy.

The challenge is to provide a safe and trusted, curated destination.  That stretches beyond the BBC to both the secondary public service broadcaster, Channel 4, and the commercial licenced services, but it is not about them per se. Who sits where and when. The real debate is, what to do with the public’s willingness to still provide the greatest tool we have for social intervention. A willingness to provide the revenue.  Overall, it is about the cultural compact through which the public still considers it a ‘good thing’ to fund public service content. Our two main public service providers, BBC and Channel 4  are licensed to collect c£4.5bn per year. The most pertinent question is what, collectively, do we want to do with that level of cultural funding in the future?

Having made the point about scale, reach and longevity, the BBC is an obvious place to start, but it should not be a simplistic demand that it does more, or less, of everything. It is time, coming up to its own centenary when we need to take a look back and ask if it is a good thing worth preserving, and if so, if we were starting again, what would we want it to do. Whether the Reithian refrain is still valid. And how should we fund it?

My guess, in the post-Covid world, would be to keep two out of the three, but accept that the third, entertain, needs closer scrutiny. Not due, as we constantly hear, to the threat from Netflix, Amazon Video, Disney et al, for they are not competitors to our public service broadcasters. They are the disruptors of the film industry. Streaming is not the threat, it is only a tool, like the BBC iPlayer.

So if we were starting again we would probably want our publicly-funded media providers to do what has been asked of the BBC since the 1920’s and Channel 4 nearly four decades ago. Promote our shared cultural values, history and, by being more diverse, look for the current gaps and unheard voices. This has often been referred to as the market failure model, but television has never really been a true market. Merely a controlled space. The real model, actually, is public service social intervention. Public health, clean water, policing, fire and rescue were not the result of market failure, but clearly needed social interventions. Is not a safe, well-curated and trusted space for children’s media content equally important?

So I would suggest we would start with a new mantra: inform, educate and innovate. 'Listen With Mother', 'Blue Peter' and 'Grange Hill' were innovative at the BBC. As 'Tiswas' and 'Rainbow' on ITV and much of Channel 4, including 'Broookside', of course. So a key part of redefining what we should expect from our public service providers would be innovation. Constantly searching for new ideas, new people, new ways of doing things. In many ways the creative development lab through which people and ideas develop, but are free to blossom commercially, while the publicly funded lab retains an interest in the IP guaranteeing a return on its investment. How to Bake Off while holding on to the recipe. A way of having our cake and eating it, perhaps.

Nor would we now think of a new, specific tax for funding. It was the only mechanism available in the 1920’s and now, a century later it feels and is anachronistic. In today’s digital environment we would probably go to something like VAT. Collected at the point of purchase and remitted to government. Why not then consider adding something to every phone and broadband contract? Just like the additional costs added to our community charges to fund non-Council public services like the police and fire and rescue, why not add a ‘cultural precept’ to every phone bill?

According to the ONS, 95% of homes have a TV Licence, exactly the same number of homes that have mobile phones. Yet there are around 79 million mobile phone contracts. A cultural precept of £60 a year on each would provide the same level of funding as the current BBC Licence Fee, without all the issues around criminality, over-75’s, hotels and hospital pricing, or costs of collection. So, why not a quid or two to fund children’s content?

Then there is Channel 4. Currently licenced to collect around £1bn in revenue. After 40 years I would suggest that its original remit of providing a platform for those unheard voices and independent production has been a resounding success, but perhaps now is also time to reconsider which diverse voices are not being heard properly. Is there not an argument for looking at whether we need Channel 4 as a stand-alone public service provider anymore, or could it be merged into a new, singular, redefined public service content provider, with its £1bn revenue, or a substantial part of it, going toward children’s media content?

Across the landscape, the commercial broadcasters should be unshackled from pretending to be part of the full public service mantra, returning to their roots as purveyors of indigenous live-action entertainment, cut free to maximise commercial opportunities, while removing the fears and opprobrium around advertising and sponsorship. No child reaches school without years of bombardment by well-intentioned publishers of educational content or manufacturers of educational toys. Indeed, no child even gets home without the intervention of the clothing and feeding industries. Fast food may be off limits, but what about the nappy manufacturers and pedlars of soothing creams? It is at the parents, not the children, that such advertising and sponsorship can be aimed.

Of course, a review on this scale will face challenges, not least from those reaching for the little bit pregnant cliché, for that is what it is. It is also, well, not just passe but daft. No one seems to worry about institutions like The Guardian, FT or Economist being tainted by taking advertisements. Indeed the Scott Trust model for The Guardian, where its commercial interests underpin the survival of the newspaper, is worthy of comparison.

In summary then, the question of whether public service content for children should be protected and adequately funded should be a given. Achieving it will be complex, but no more so than the digital landscape children themselves learn to navigate. Instead of falling back on a hopeful belief that short term widely dispersed production funds will find an audience, the need is for a more strategic social intervention. Children’s media should be a fundamental part of a review of how we wish to fund public service content.

Above all though, the need is for a public service children’s content provider of scale, with the resources, infrastructure and horizon to mesh with our other national public service providers, including cross-funding. Zammo illustrated how a good storyteller can achieve far more than any government nudge unit. And, incidentally, how it can resonate down the years. Following the release of the Zammo storyline on DVD,  the front page of the Daily Star on 9th October 2019 had the headline: BRING BACK GRANGE HILL TO SAVE BRITAIN! How’s that for a piece of real-world data?

Hyperbolic, and flattering, but I often find myself in conversations with 40-50-somethings, from all walks of life, going out of their way first to ask if something like 'Grange Hill' would work today, then secondly to tell me they wished there was something of its ilk around now. For their own children. To offer a touchstone during the rites of passage journey. Not all the answers but, like that Zammo storyline, pointing to where they might find them. Or at least find a way to start a conversation. Give them strength to contact a helpline.

Finally, another thing British revolutionaries like is the least worst system of everything.  So, having been successful once, tried other things and found them wanting, perhaps we should go back to something imperfect but at least better funded. We could, of course, simply bumble along waiting for the next revolution, or, force closure on the current debate? Making the Young Audiences Content Fund a permanent intervention would be a good opener.

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By Sir Phil Redmond

Sir Phil Redmond is a great advocate and ambassador for Liverpool and Merseyside. He was considered innovative throughout his television career at Mersey Television and created a number of ground breaking drama series including Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks.

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