The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

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

What Now? What Next?  What If…?

Drawing together the themes contained in this report, the director of the Children’s Media Foundation sets out the challenges we face and shares some ideas to inspire new solutions.


Having spent the last 10 years as Director of The Children’s Media Conference, considering the issues and potential for kids' and youth media in the UK; public service content for young people has been on my mind for much of that time.

For that reason I was thrilled when the Children’s Media Foundation Executive Group proposed the “Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?” project. The report has been informed not only by the contributions of an eclectic mix of essayists, but also by the many conversations with external experts and countless internal debates at CMF.  My article is an attempt to pick up some of the ideas discussed, and to propose some possible futures for further investigation. Hence the title: “What now? What next? and What if?

What Now?

The current situation in the UK is that public service content is delivered for children and young people primarily by the BBC - on scheduled television, online, and through the BBC’s iPlayer, with the content funded by the Television Licence Fee. Complementary services come from the three commercial public service broadcasters, ITV, Channel 5 and Channel 4 in return for broadcasting privileges which are now, for the most part, irrelevant - the last outstanding one being prominence on the EPG.  In Wales S4C delivers a Welsh language service using designated funding from the Television Licence Fee.

De-regulation in 2003 meant that there was no longer a requirement for the three commercial public service broadcasters to commission children’s or youth content, which led to them abandoning the younger audience.   With little investment, other than from the BBC, Ofcom has, since 2007, consistently warned that there is failure in the children's marketplace in its Public Service Television reports.  Recently Ofcom was granted powers to once again require the PSBs to carry children’s content – on dedicated services such as CiTV or E4 if appropriate. At about the same time and after much lobbying by CMF and others, a new government initiative created a pilot fund for “contestable content” dedicated to the Children’s and Youth Audience, the Young Audiences Content Fund (YACF). Its three-year remit was to disburse £57m towards development and production projects. Invoking its new powers, Ofcom elicited commitments from all three commercial broadcasters to carry more children’s and youth content, creating the appropriate conditions for take-up of projects part financed by the YACF, leading to, in the last couple of years, a resurgence of new content on CITV channel, Milkshake! and E4.

But as this revival takes hold, once again it is Ofcom’s research that reveals the big issue now: the flight of the younger audience from linear public service providers to on-demand platforms, user-generated and shared content platforms, notably Netflix and YouTube.

How has this failure to retain the audience happened? Two missed opportunities spring to mind.  In 2009 the planned on-demand service Kangaroo - a joint venture of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 – was killed by the Competition Commission in a misguided attempt to keep the market favourable to nascent service providers.  To quote the Guardian at the time: “This is a severe case of analogue thinking in supposedly digital Britain”. In 2011, to address the problem of market-failure in public service in the UK, the CMF actually proposed a VOD service aimed at children, funded by a mix of government and Lottery funding, with sufficient budgets to commission content and maintain a platform to deliver it.  This might have held onto that migrating children’s and youth audience, had it been available early enough to establish itself. It was ignored. A government without the foresight to save Kanga, was really not going to be that interested in Roo.

What happened more recently is even more concerning.  In 2017 BBC Children’s announced major additional spending – £34 million – some for the older children’s audience, and some for the roll-out of what was essentially a kids’ iPlayer.  There was talk of personalisation, an iPlayer that would “grow up with you”: an attempt to address some of those fundamental preferences young people are showing in their media choices. It did not materialise.

We are now in a landscape in which the traditional method of providing public service content is under threat from audience migration to platforms which are not necessarily safe for children and increasingly light touch regulation - both online and in television.  The Young Audiences Content Fund is having an effect but the commercial broadcasters are not keen to put in much funding of their own; and the BBC is under increasing scrutiny from government and constantly facing cuts, which impact the children's and youth audience as much as any other.

What Next?

Looking at the medium term the threats to public service content for young people are fairly clear.

At the BBC the government has the licence fee in its sights. Like a dog worrying a bone, it skirmishes with it, backs off and then regroups and attacks again. Forcing the corporation to take responsibility for over-75’s free licences was the first crisis.  Followed by the threat to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee.  Both of these options would reduce the BBC’s operating revenue.  Longer term there has been renewed talk of converting the licence fee to a subscription-based system.  This would propel the BBC into direct competition for loyalty with Disney+, Netflix and many others.  In the opinion of the Children’s Media Foundation, subscription would ride a coach and horses though the eclectic, non-partisan, curated nature of public service content.  The CMF is all for audience choice, but also cultural and societal good, and that requires a secure income stream that is responsive to the audience but not immediately beholden to its whims.  The threat to the BBC in its current form, will colour the medium-term landscape as far as children, young people and public service content are concerned.  And of course, the flight of this audience to other forms of viewing will potentially increase BBC weakness in the face of the financial onslaught.

There is little doubt that the Young Audiences Content Fund is - for the government - another front in the covert war on the BBC.  While the CMF supports it absolutely as a fantastic method of getting more funds into children's production in the UK, the recent budget cut, wiping 25% off its value, suggests that the government intends to stick to the original timetable for closing the pilot in 2022.  Why? Because 2022 coincides with the mid-term examination of the Television Licence Fee. It was always the stated intention to roll examination of the effectiveness of the Fund into discussions about the Licence Fee:  if the Fund is to continue then it will be financed by top-slicing the Licence Fee and the BBC will have to give some of its funding to the YACF.  At DCMS this is considered logical as ostensibly, that is where the money came from in the first place.  At CMF it is considered a disaster as the inevitable result will filter down as cuts to the children’s budget at the BBC. It would be “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. The YACF was meant to address the lack of budget at the public service broadcasters in light of reduced ad-revenue etc.  This money needs to be replaced not by the BBC, but by market intervention.

CMF will be lobbying hard for YACF to continue with funding provided through innovative new approaches: lottery funding or levies for example. Lottery money is not impossible: the Cultural Fund finances film through the BFI (coincidentally - the parent organisation of the YACF).  This provision was not in the original scope of the Lottery Cultural Fund. It was added as a result of lobbying.  Funding children’s content in a similar way would be a popular decision amongst the public.  Levies are already being applied in France and could at their simplest be a tax on advertising and subscription revenues at the on-demand providers. Levies or their equivalent get support elsewhere in this report, notably from Lord Vaizey and, in more innovative ways, from Tom Van Waveren in his contribution.

The CMF itself was born on the back of a levy. In the 1950’s a small levy on every cinema ticket, helped revive the British film industry in the face of massive post-war US competition. The Eady Levy was hugely successful, leading to a new wave of UK cinema and to the creation of our original organisation, the Children’s Film Foundation, which funded over 140 kids’ feature-films.  We are proof that levies can work!

The process of reviewing the Licence Fee - is already under way and will conclude in April 2022. The government has gathered a panel of the great and good in broadcasting to advise them on the future of the Licence Fee, with this remit:

The PSB Advisory Panel will advise ministers on whether public service broadcasting remains relevant and what a modern PSB system should contribute to economic, cultural and democratic life across the UK. It will explore if current funding and governance models are fit for purpose. 

The panel will also support the government in considering the issues raised and recommendations resulting from Ofcom’s ongoing PSB Review.

Panellists will be expected to look at the impact of technology on audience habits and expectations as well as the financial sustainability of broadcasters and the overall structure of the TV market. This will include things such as video streaming.

One of the members of the panel, Lord Grade said: “Our public service broadcasting remit has served the nation well for over 80 years, but the time has come to review its relevance for the digital age and maybe redefine it."

In this ‘digital age’ then, it is disturbing that the Ofcom review mentioned in the remit hardly mentions young people and not a single member of this advisory panel has anything other than marginal experience of the children’s audience

And yet all the commentators - and so many of the articles in the CMF report, are clear that children and teens lead the way when it comes to the take-up of digital services and, perhaps more importantly, when it comes to evidencing new habits and practices: demanding immediacy of access, ubiquity across platforms, the potential to interact and participate, and the space to make as well as watch.

Not only are the younger audience not being served by this government process, but the process itself is flawed if the young are not understood as the driving force of change.  Having read David Kleeman's excellent article about the Metaverse, and how public service content might work in that scenario, I wonder whether the great, good and old on the DCMS advisory group can even hope to understand the changes that lie ahead. 

We already have a generation of children for whom the habit of watching the BBC stops at age 5 or 6. This is precisely the situation faced by PBS in the USA, initially due to the success of the commercial channels, and now fuelled by all the additional competition online. In fact, some of those traditional channels – notably Disney – have morphed into on-demand services and more will follow.  For a long time, the US public service provider has lost its viewers at 5 and regained them at 55.  Not a recipe for public approbation and support. As Anne Longfield says in her excellent article: “If you want to engage kids, you have to go where they are.”

And that’s online.

Delivering content (public service or otherwise) intended for children online raises concerns about the use of algorithms for search and recommendation. The problem of proximity of content is still an issue even with YouTube Kids’ app. The US Congress has recently queried the reasoning for the autoplay function (screening another video as soon as one ends) being “always on” in the app, and the possibility of unsuitable content finding its way onto a child’s stream of viewing. The failure of the children’s iPlayer was no doubt connected with data collection and profiling. Online safety is then part of the “what next?” equation.

In the medium term we could well see significant changes in the governance and regulation of web platforms – and as a result, in their design. Already VOD operations and user-generated VOD (such as YouTube) come under a European regulatory regime and UK regulations fall into line with that.  It’s light touch and not far removed from “self-regulation” but the precedents have been set.

Meanwhile the UK government has tabled the Online Safety Bill with a clear intention of setting standards for websites, particularly in their dealings with children. The envisaged regulation is fairly toothless, but the principle of standards of the real world applying online, is a start.

The Children’s Media Foundation backs calls by 5Rights and others for child-friendly design by default.  The next few years will see various battles over how this might be implemented – in the USA, the UK and Europe, but I believe change will come – partly because the wild west nature of the internet has started to affect politicians and the political process. It means the giants’ days are numbered.

So, looking at the next few years and asking “what next?” I think we will see more content delivery online, with further attempts to make that delivery safe.  We will see further attacks on the BBC’s source of funding, we may see Channel 4 privatised.  We may or may not see the Young Audiences Content Fund revived – I fear with Licence Fee money attached.   And we might see the public service broadcasters relieved of their obligations to serve the younger audience as they move away from PSB status.

Which begs the question of how the YACF will function in the future if the PSBs are no longer the ultimate recipients of its largesse…

And that brings us to Act 3. 

What If…

In this section I would like to float some ideas that are not fully-formed but I think worthy of discussion.  They deal with possible futures for delivering public service content to young people.

For any of these plans to succeed they need to address:

  1. The purpose of public service content – particularly in relation to the young and their special needs. This includes its universality, and consideration of what genres and even forms of content it should include.
  2. How public service media should be funded.
  3. Who creates it.
  4. How it might be delivered.
  5. How it should be regulated.

Definitions of public service and its meaning for the young have been considered in several ways in this Report. For my part, public service media should serve up relevant, age-appropriate stories – fictional and factual – that help people understand their world and the wider world around them.  It should equip young people to assess what is true and to understand how they might be deceived; it should ensure that young voices are heard; reflect diversity of thought, culture and humanity; should challenge and stretch, surprise and intrigue the audience; offer variety, range and choice. It should entertain with underlying purpose and should inform in an entertaining way and above all engage its audience.

But it doesn’t have to be delivered in a linear fashion. What might public service games look, or indeed feel like? I don’t mean a few ancillary add-ons to the CBeebies website but might there be a public service “quarter” in the Metaverse?

And for that matter, as social connection is now frequently an important aspect of gaming, what might public social media be?  This doesn’t necessarily mean “what does the BBC do in Facebook?” – rather what if Facebook or Tik Tok were the BBC…

I have been known to ask what a public service fridge might look like. In all seriousness, we are moving into a future in which the internet of things and AI seamlessly envelop our lives, feeding on data to learn and providing ever more personalised service.  Should this be a purely commercial activity, or through combinations of regulation and funding, are there public service alternatives? Will anyone on the DCMS Advisory Panel on the future of public service media ask about public service white goods…?

With young people, collection of data is the sticking point. The current system of safety online is built around the flawed U.S. COPPA Regulations which do not allow data harvesting from children under 13 without the consent of parents. But children are using YouTube, Tik Tok and others, either by falsifying their age or by accessing content without being logged in.  Has the time come to consider some form of regulated data capture from children, so that they can benefit from what AI, if used responsibly – or more to the point, if used with a public service purpose - has to offer?

Jeremy Wright, Secretary of State at DCMS from 2018-19, at a recent event which explored the concept of online ’good‘, (not the usual online ‘harm’),  when considering young people, asked whether we should reconsider the approach to collecting data from children:  if AI cannot learn from children, then how can it serve children well by mirroring what a child is concerned about or interested in, how a child feels and what a child knows and needs to know at various life-stages.

If the BBC’s iPlayer for kids hit the buffers over data collection, that is surely evidence that it’s time for a rethink.  This becomes particularly relevant if we move into a future in which the discovery of public service content might no longer be associated with a channel brand, or even a dedicated player for on-demand, but could be encapsulated in an algorithm.

What if… we opened up the number of public service providers rather than narrowing it down to the BBC?

What if…. anyone could apply for public funding to create content, provided they committed to adhere to certain public service principles, potentially arbitrated or curated by a body not unlike the YACF, or a publisher version of the BBC?

As an aside – what if the finance for that public service fund came from a mixture of a modernised version of the Licence Fee – based on a simple tax on households, advertising and subscription levies, Lottery funding and government funding for public communication and education?

What if… that content could then be sold at subsidised prices - given it had been, in part, funded by the public service system - to any channel or platform that might want it as part of their content mix?

What if… a public service algorithm existed – potentially operated, maintained and adjusted by the BBC – which instead of pushing advertising or more of the same or similar content, as the recommendation systems do now, it used a subtler method of creating some serendipity, assessing the value of the recommended content, prioritising content which had been tagged as public service and so on?

What if… that algorithm was made available to all platforms and content providers, on the understanding that they offer it as a service to their subscribers or users who wished to take the public service route through their media choices? At this point it becomes particularly interesting and relevant to the children’s market, where parents might want to ensure their children received a more varied diet than they might otherwise experience.

Taking it a step further, what if Ofcom replaced the concept of prominence on the EPG with a mandatory requirement that all operators take the public service algorithm and make it available by choice to their users?

I recently discussed the idea of a public service algorithm with Mark Little, a former executive at Twitter, currently sitting on the advisory group for the future of Irish public service media. Some of these ideas grew out of that conversation. To quote Mark directly:

The public service algorithm (PSA) would - in tech terms - be a contextual recommendation system rather than a behavioural one. It would recommend the next piece of content based on the topics appearing in the first piece of content. In a perfect world, the system would show the young person a list of the words, topics and people in the piece of content they searched for and ask them to choose the keyword they want more of. So, it could plot a journey of understanding for the young person based on their intentional interest rather than stalking their browsing history.

I think the concept of a public service algorithm would work best where the content experience is owned and operated by the public service content providers. But it could have applications where a platform like Netflix is obliged by prominence rules to include a public service media option - then the PSA would be a collaborative venture.

The final option is a high-quality public media content source which could be syndicated on to websites. This could be a good version of the very bad business model at the heart of content recommendation engines like Taboola, which offers all the spurious random click-bait stories that clutter so many news sites.”

My final “what if…?” asks where in any future public service content system is the place for young people themselves as makers and sharers of content? All of the above options should take this into account.  By diminishing the power of the commissioning system, it should be possible to envisage a scenario in which young people who might have been YouTube influencers could achieve revenue from the YACF and respect from their audience by producing content which complies with a set of public service rules that should be understood by all young people as result of their education in media literacy and critical thinking.

I doubt questions such as these are in the minds of the DCMS Advisory panel or Ofcom as we go into the decision-making on the future of public service content in the UK.  But they should be.  In the medium term, maintaining the BBC and its funding is vital - especially when other public service broadcasters may, despite the success of the Young Audiences Content Fund, be moving away from their obligations.

However, in the long run the BBC cannot continue to paper over the cracks of the growing audience loss to other services, a loss most prominent in the younger demographics, and a loss it would now be near-impossible to turn around. So more radical thinking about the role of the BBC, of the regulator, of technology for delivery – especially AI, of the sources and disbursement of funding and the meaning and purpose of public service content – all of these need to be considered now.

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By Greg Childs

Greg Childs is Director of the Children's Media Foundation and worked for over 25 years at the BBC, mainly as a director, producer and executive producer of children’s programmes. He created the first Children’s BBC websites and, as Head of Children’s Digital, developed and launched the children’s channels, CBBC and CBeebies.

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