The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

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

Why Public Service Media Need To Place Our Trust In The ‘Lean In’ Generation

Japhet's article breaks new ground with provocative ideas for how public service media content providers can reach out to Gen Z, an audience that has effectively rejected linear TV channels and passive media consumption.

In the early days of interactive TV development, we spent a great deal of time debating the value of ‘lean forward’ and ‘lean back’ viewing and engagement, and how to build moments of both for young audiences.  The competition between television, online and games platforms for their attention was already underway.  The issues we discussed then have become ever more urgent, as 12-15 year olds now watch less live TV than YouTube, and less time watching any TV programmes than playing video games.  Less time leaning back, and more time leaning forward.

But perhaps the key value that will attract younger viewers back to Public Service Media isn’t leaning forward or back – it’s about leaning in.

‘Leaning in’ or ‘leaning into’ is a phrase whose meaning has mutated multiple times over the last ten years.  Notably, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book, ‘Lean In’, pushed the phrase into common use in business circles, with an emphasis on female empowerment - going for what you want and getting it done.  But while that meaning has faded alongside Facebook’s reputation, the phrase has persevered.   Now, it combines the old school sports usage of putting your weight behind an action  – lean into a curve, a pitch, a punch – with Sandberg’s more emotionally laden idea of aspiration and belief, as well as the practical sense of taking action to support that conviction.

It was a couple of years ago when I was pitching a writer on an idea I had for a Star Wars based project that I first remember hearing the phrase used this way.  “I could really lean into that!”, he said, meaning he loved the idea and would enjoy working with it.  I started to notice more and more people leaning into ideas – an expression of support, passion, believing in something.  And doing something about it.

It makes sense that this phrase has become ubiquitous now.  We are witnessing the emergence of the ‘Lean In’ generation: Young adults who have been shaped by interaction all their digital lives – click, like, vote, choose, share and play again.

This is the precise audience segment for which I was responsible ten years ago, when these young people were part of the CBBC remit of 6-12 year olds.  I was an in-house BBC executive producer, the editorial lead for CBBC’s websites and interactive content.  CBBC was in its heyday, when both the channel on air and the online offering regularly topped a million users in a given week.  The BBC Children’s iPlayer had been launched at the end of 2008 to great acclaim.

We knew we were talking to a remarkably active and activist generation – new platforms allowed them to engage with our programmes in much more personalised and empowered fashion.  We encouraged kids to make their own content with our brands, writing collaborative stories for Tracy Beaker, submitting items to Newsround, making games with our characters as well as playing them. In 2013, we even ran a competition online to select a new host for Blue Peter.  We trusted kids and gave them greater control of their experiences with content.  Whether we recognised it or not, we were teaching them to take charge, make choices, to ‘lean in’.

But the research was already warning us that YouTube was becoming the most popular destination for children 6 to 12 in the UK, even though it was a service for 13 plus.  My final task on staff at the BBC in 2014 was to launch YouTube channels for CBeebies and CBBC, in an effort to create journeys back from YouTube to BBC platforms.  As this generation has become potential licence fee payers, they have drifted away from the BBC’s services to sign up for Netflix, Disney+ and other streamers.

Late last year, Ofcom released its third annual report on BBC performance.  Once again, the decline in younger audiences for BBC services was highlighted.  According to the report, time spent with the BBC by 16-34 year-olds now stands at less than an hour a day, down 22% since 2017.  The largest drop of all is among those aged 16 to 19.

Ofcom’s report claimed that young adult users find the iPlayer confusingly general – the core public service concept of ‘content for everyone’ - whereas the streamers, with their more rapacious data harvesting and algorithms, deliver ‘content for me’.  The BBC can’t compete on these terms, because as a public service institution, it cannot track user behaviours and preferences as closely as its competitors.  AI and algorithms  that provide the tailored experience of a Netflix homepage aren’t available at the same level of granular data detail to the BBC.

In a recent blogpost, I contended that the BBC has another way to create stronger links between individuals and BBC content.  And it’s through that other great area of debate – the licence fee.  Many resent paying the fee.  Some have bought into the false narrative that the BBC wastes public money on high salaries and overheads.  But most feel, with more evidence, that the BBC doesn’t reflect their lives and interests (another theme in the Ofcom report, largely expressed by users from lower income households or regions further from the south east).   It doesn’t feel like the BBC is for them.

This has to change.  After all, the BBC belongs to the public.  We should have a say in what the BBC produces.  For the ‘Lean In’ Generation – the activist, game-ified, digital natives in their late teens and twenties – this would come as naturally as liking a post.  Rather than presenting us all with a binary choice – pay or don’t pay, watch or don’t watch - we need to let licence fee payers choose how to spend their licence fee as members of the BBC community.  We need to be commissioners of our own content.

Imagine a cross between the iPlayer and Kickstarter.  Commissioners place their development slates on the site, with target ‘pledge points’ from licence fee payers required to green light any content.  Licence fee payers get 157.5 pledge points (equivalent to the £ amount of their fee) to pledge as they choose.  You could spread your points across twenty ideas, or place it all on one.  You could commit your funding to a specific genre you love  – say, natural history series or comedy specials or politics podcasts.  Suddenly, you are a stakeholder – your choices are reflected in the content getting made.  The BBC can keep you up to date on your personal selections, with updates from production and access to early trailers.  The content makers can engage with you and other pledges – a built in audience test group for their ideas. You can share the updates with your friends, making you an advocate for the content and helping bring more of your peers back to the BBC.

This system could also become a submissions platform, opening up the BBC to a new range of diverse voices and ideas.

Of course, engagement with such a system would be optional.  Many won’t have the appetite for gamification of their licence fee payment, and that’s fine.  Plus the areas of greater public need, such as Children’s, News and Learning, will need to be ring-fenced.  And commissioners, people with immense curatorial expertise, still need to influence content choices, so a formula for input from the pledges and the commissioners would need to be developed.  But this kind of approach could not only re-energise younger audiences around BBC content, but it could also create far greater transparency and understanding of how your licence fee gets spent, and how much of it goes directly to content that you value.

Could a Kickstarter style commissioning process work for other public service media?  Channel 4 faces many of the same issues as the BBC with younger viewers who are central to the channel’s remit.  Teenagers and young adults remain highly desirable targets for advertisers.  Their lighter viewing habits make them elusive and hence even more valuable – and critical for the economic survival of Channel 4, and its important role as innovator and incubator of young talent and diverse voices.  Advertisers are pinning their hopes on Advanced TV: an advertising approach built around tracking users via apps across smart TV sets and other devices for the enhanced total video data they provide.  If a brand can target their ideal consumer with personalised rich media messaging via what was once the greatest medium for mass reach, there is hope.

But what if brands could see the proactive choices of viewers before they watch, rather than after the show via ratings reports?  And even more than that, what if brand sponsors could become partners with audiences in greenlighting choices from commissioning slates?  Imagine how they would leap to sponsor programmes effectively commissioned by the audience itself!  They would be throwing their weight behind the projects young viewers care about it, joining them as advocates for and enablers of the content.  Brands may find that advocates for a show they sponsor not only convert into consumers of their products but even bring their activist instincts with them, engaging with their brand in positive ways too.

Youth focused brands already know the power of advocacy. Some have been mirroring the behaviours of the audience, leaning into social issues that matter to their target consumers.  Nike’s strong anti racism messaging, Dove Skincare’s self esteem campaign, even Ben & Jerry’s eco ice cream warriors, show the power of brands to align with and even influence consumer opinion.

In their search for new ways of reaching the TV audience effectively, advertisers are likely to respond positively to the concept of viewers as co-commissioners.  But channel controllers, producers and even regulators may well balk at the idea of ceding control.   The issue they will have, I suspect, is not really about control, but about trust.

It requires a leap of faith – for public service media to trust our viewers as much as they trust us.  One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the reaffirmation of what Ofcom has long reported -  that younger audiences still trust public service media.  Can we make that trust a two way street and build a stronger, more valuable relationship for life with Generation Lean In?

After all, commissioners and content makers already spend significant money on insights from experts so they can ‘listen’ to the audience and make smart choices for them.  Why not also let the audience speak for themselves and share in the choice of what gets made?  What better way to make sure that our public service media is giving Britain a voice in the world and the public a voice in what we say with it?

The BBC and Channel 4 can’t compete with the global streamers in scale, data collection or spend.  But they can form more meaningful relationships with younger viewers around a community of trust. Perhaps by  ceding some control,  we  can encourage this ‘Lean In’ generation to be advocates for the core public service values of inclusivity, accessibility, innovation, creativity, and accountability.

That’s a goal we can all lean into.

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By Japhet Asher

Japhet is the director of Polarity Reversal Ltd, where he creates IP for a variety of platforms. He also consults with publishing, digital and other media companies to develop ideas, strategies and products. He started out as a writer and documentary maker, then went on to become a partner in the ground breaking animation studio Colossal Pictures, culminating in the TV series he created for MTV and the BBC, 'Liquid Television'.

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