The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

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

Why is public service television for kids so important?

Nicky and Simona write about their first-hand experience of using public service media funding to help children learn about the world and share how their audience has responded to the opportunity to engage with news programming that is made for them.

Children’s TV is currently in the spotlight. Since 2006, funding for children’s public service content in the UK has declined by 40%. Ofcom has highlighted several areas of concern, one of which is the limited range of programmes that help children of all ages understand the world around them.

As children growing up in different decades, we both feel we were lucky to experience a golden age of children’s television. From the moment we got home from school, until grown-up telly began, we were able to watch a whole host of amazing programmes on terrestrial TV, from factual shows like 'The Really Wild Show', 'Magpie' and 'Blue Peter', to dramas like 'Grange Hill', 'The Wild House' and, of course, a daily dose of 'Newsround'. All of these programmes informed and shaped our world view.

Fast forward to the dawn of a new Millennium, and the world of media for young people – for all of us – was beginning to take a very different shape.

Now, in 2021, the way the world consumes information has changed dramatically. There are 24/7 news channels, radio, newspapers, and screens in many formats, whether PCs, tablets, smart phones or even watches, delivering the internet and social media. (The average age children get their first phone is seven and a half. That’s six years earlier than a decade ago.) The world is literally at children’s fingertips. Information – and misinformation – is a greater part of their lives than it ever has been before.

For adults, world events can be shocking. But our life experience enables us to put it in context. However, for children trying to make sense of the world, this overload of information is desperately alarming. So, it is not at all surprising that the NSPCC, and its ChildLine service, report a huge rise in anxiety and mental health issues in children.

The UK’s only children’s newspaper, First News, polls its readers every week about issues that children encounter in their daily lives. The current Covid-19 pandemic and associated wider health worries, street crime and terrorism are big fears in their lives, along with worries about Brexit and North Korea, and whether they will ever be able to afford a home of their own. Most of this anxiety is rooted in things they have read, or videos they have watched, online. So, there has never been a more important time to ensure young people have far greater access to truthful, accurate and non-sensationalist content that engages them.

As providers of children’s content and, more widely, as a society, we have a duty and a responsibility to counter the abundance of fake, untruthful and scaremongering videos online with content that educates, informs and is empowering. We also need to give children a voice. Underpinning everything that our independent production company, Fresh Start Media, stands for is the fact that, while children are 27% of the world’s people, they are 100% of the future. What hope is there for that future if children do not grow up with an understanding of the world in which they’re growing up and a sense of their place in it.

The great tragedy is that ease of access to information should be a positive development for children. But, the world of media, in all its forms, is falling short in delivering content for them that is honest, informative, positive, enriching, uplifting and helps them to develop healthy values… and in the place where they access it. Children are watching, on average, 15 hours of online video every week. Their online viewing has outstripped their watching of traditional television – which is increasingly accessed via online catch-up services and VOD platforms rather than via traditional broadcast. Kids no longer see traditional TV as something special – it just lives alongside online platforms. So, the challenge is to create innovative, interesting and entertaining content that means children make an appointment to view. That means investing money and investing in talent.

But, what are children watching online? From around the age of ten, they’re taking part in social gaming, they’re on You Tube, watching a lot of user generated content, on Instagram and watching celebrity stories on Snapchat and Tik Tok. So, are we ok with that? That in the most formative years when children are discovering the world and forming opinions about themselves and other people, that we’re leaving it up to chance what they happen to come across online?

Or, should we be creating more quality content on traditional channels, along with more safe places and platforms online, to help children grow up as well rounded, accurately informed, inspired and caring individuals.

I’m sure we all agree on the answer!

Children need, and want, well-made TV content that feels relevant to them, wherever, whenever and however, they watch it. It also inspires them to make their own content – evidenced by the abundance of young YouTubers.

So, this is why Public Service Broadcasting for children is more important than ever, as a beacon of the high standard of content that children deserve and, culturally, “GB Future” needs.

CBBC remains the British broadcaster that airs and commissions the most quality content.

But, other than CBBC, which has the benefit of the licence fee to draw funds from, the main broadcasters either do not have targets, or are not meeting them, for quality original content for children – particularly in the 10 to 14-year-old age range. Why? Well, mainly that will be money.

Channel 4 is on record saying such programming is not commercially viable for them. But, we cannot give up on these young people because of financial reasons. The money must be made available… because the price is way higher if we do not open children’s eyes to the real world, engage with them, challenge them, empower them, promote tolerance and understanding and help them to become active, global citizens of the future, whether through factual content, entertainment formats or drama.

To Sky Kids’ credit, they have just commissioned another year of 'FYI' from Fresh Start Media. FYI is Sky TV’s children’s news show, presented by kids for kids – their own view of the week’s news. Sky Kids is not a PSB. They don’t need to fund FYI. But, they do it because it’s the right thing to do. Head of Sky Kids, Lucy Murphy, and commissioner Ian France, are backing the show for a fourth year because they know it is important for kids to see the world in context, to have a voice, and to be agents of their own future. The addition of extra funding from the BFI’s Young Audience Content Fund has augmented the budget to produce spin off shows like 'I Don’t Get It' explainers about important topics and issues, 'Kidversation' reports and documentaries as 'FYI Investigates' with children around the world. Our 10 to 15-year-old team presents in-depth reports, and we make it our mission to get as many other young voices on the programme as possible, making it relatable for our audience. From reports about child refugees, debates about prejudicial school uniform rules, young people campaigning to end food poverty and children questioning the Prime Minister on issues relevant to them, we give children the opportunity to share their views, not to be talked at.

Since 2019 'FYI' has received 11 nominations including an RTS and a Ros D’or Award and won the Voice of the Listener and Viewer Award. 'FYI' continues to grow and has evolved from a weekly news show into a trusted source of information where children know they can not only learn about the national and international conversation, but they can contribute to it, too.

However, the future of the YACF, which has made much of this possible, hangs in the balance. Alarmingly, the pilot of the Young Audience Content Fund (YACF) is concluding having received around £13m less than first expected. That means, around 20 projects will lose out on the chance to secure funding. Around £27m has been spent on 42 productions since the YACF’s launch in 2019 and the fund will have a further £10.7m to spend on production and development in its final year.

Whether the fund, which has been a lifesaver for quality children’s content, will continue is being decided upon imminently. If they knew, children across the country would be holding their breath – as all of us in children’s independent television already are.

Sophie Chalk from the IBT (International Broadcasting Trust) wrote an illuminating report called “The Challenge of Children’s TV” when the YACF was in its infancy. The IBT works with the media to ensure that audiences remain engaged with global issues. It regularly publishes research and organises events to encourage a greater understanding of the changing media landscape.

Sophie says that children’s media is rightly under scrutiny at the moment. Her report warned about the real danger of an over-reliance on the BBC leading to a lack of variety in programming and that it was crucial that a more plural supply of children’s content is achieved.

The IBT’s goal is that children in the UK grow up with access to media which informs and engages them with the wider world, but the organisation reports that excellent content is increasingly rare. Sophie highlights, too, the fact that online, unlike television, is not regulated and it is mostly driven by commercial considerations. She agrees that Public Service Broadcasting has a crucial role to play in ensuring that children have access to accurate information about global issues and events.

Everybody that contributed to the IBT report said that there were tangible benefits of children having a better understanding of the wider world. Content which explains global events has the potential to allay their anxiety, encourage greater social cohesion, and help children develop into democratically engaged adults.

The IBT, Unicef UK and First News commissioned a poll of 1000 children aged 9 to 14 across the UK. 80% of the children we surveyed said they were interested in the world outside the UK; 86% felt it was important for them to know what was happening in the world but only 9% said that they knew a lot about other countries. The disparity in these numbers is alarming.

53% of the children told us that they would like to see more TV or video about other countries for the following reasons:

  • to understand what it might be like in that country (61%)
  • to understand what people might be experiencing (54%)
  • to understand events that are happening in the news (47%)
  • to understand what is right and wrong (44%)
  • to understand what animals might be experiencing (35%)
  • to see if I can help (23%)
  • to make decisions for my own actions (20%)

It is clear from this research that there is a significant appetite amongst children for information about the world that is currently not being met.

The report concluded that the development of video content for 10-14 year olds needed to be prioritised to provide them with more regulated, curated information about global issues – that they clearly had an appetite for it, and are currently underserved by TV provision. That means the YACF has to stay – if anything, to be increased, rather than cut.

The changing media landscape, and the associated commercial pressures, makes children’s content particularly challenging but the IBT says: “Shows like Sky’s 'FYI' demonstrate that innovation is possible and has the potential to bring new audiences.”

New audiences like these audience members below

Scarlett, 13:  I am a weekly viewer of 'FYI Sky Kids news'.  The show is wonderful to watch because it informs young people like myself about what is going on in the world.  I hear about politics or world issues and sometimes I don’t quite understand them myself when I see things on social media or in the newspaper.  'FYI' is informative because it explains the current events to young people my age and is told by other young people so I relate to it. I particularly like the segment called “I Don’t Get It”... All the issues are relevant and always explained so well.  Another segment I enjoy is “Our World”. I love learning about kids my age and seeing what they are up to. I find them so inspirational. 

Ruby, 13: I love watching 'FYI' because they always talk about so many different things. I also love it because they ask questions about things I am thinking about. All the news is for adults but 'FYI' talks about the things that matter to me. It’s great that the programme gives us a voice.

Trey, 13: I like 'FYI' because it informs us with what's happening in the world in a child friendly way.  It's a place where young people can express and share their opinions on certain topics. It makes us have a voice in politics because, after all, we are the future.

We cannot give up on these children, and millions of other like them. Public Service Broadcasting is key to their futures, the future of our nation and the wider world.

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By Nicky Cox MBE and Simona Karabyn

Nicky Cox is founder and editor of children’s newspaper, First News, reaching 2.6m+ readers a week in more than a third of UK schools. She is also CEO of Fresh Start Media, specialising in making programmes with young people for young people – like Sky TV’s FYI. Simona Karabyn joined Fresh Start Media in 2019, and has worked primarily as the co-Producer and Programme Editor of weekly Sky News and Sky kids news show, FYI, alongside Executive Producer, Chris Rogers. Prior to joining Fresh Start Media, Simona worked as a freelance Television Producer.

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