Jeanette Steemers (University of Westminster)
After the BBC’s shock funding deal with the DCMS and the Treasury just after the election, it is sometimes easy to forget that public service broadcasting, and the BBC in particular, have a special remit to serve children and young people. Yet the young are often marginalised because they don’t have a vote, and they can’t make their views know in the same organised way as adults. The BBC Charter Review Public Consultation (Green Paper) offers an excellent opportunity both to remind ourselves about the value of publicly funded services for children and to ask if current provision is delivering what adults and young people want and need (although they don’t always want the same things).
At times like these, when the threat to the BBC’s structures, regulation and funding seem existential, we are told that children’s programming sits at the ‘heart of the BBC’s remit’ (see PACT submission to BBC Trust Public Value Test, February 2015), but often without much further elaboration. Since the BBC Trust’s last bland review of children’s services back in 2013 these have rarely been the focus of any further public debate about children’s provision and public service output.
Unsurprisingly, the government’s Green Paper continues a long tradition of marginalizing children, by mentioning them just seven times in its 86 pages. The key sentence on children’s services comes on page 57 under the heading ‘Contestable Funding’ where the Government notes that:
“For example, children’s programming is an area in which the BBC has a near monopoly, as highlighted in the most recent Ofcom PSB Review, and a small amount of contestable funding could introduce greater diversity of providers and greater plurality in public services provision.”
This statement goes hand in hand with the question about whether levels of funding for certain services or programmes should be protected (or ring-fenced) just as the BBC has been asked by Government in recent years to set aside ‘protected’ funding (for broadband roll-out, digital switchover, local TV, the World Service and S4C). Looking at the importance of ensuring the BBC’s independence from government, it is questionable whether governments should be deciding how the BBC should spend its money when it should really be accountable to an independent regulator. Who decides what needs ring fencing? Moreover, apart from the concern over any proposal for ‘contestable funding’ – shorthand for allocating licence fee income to non-BBC players – the statement in the Green Paper about the BBC having a near monopoly over children’s programming is simply not true.
The BBC does dominate the commissioning of UK-originated first-run children’s TV programming (88%), particularly of drama, news and factual programming (see Ofcom, PSB Annual Report, 2014, p. 4), but it does not have a near monopoly on children’s content, only on UK-originated content. There are multiple suppliers out there in the marketplace, but barely any of them are commissioning UK-originated children’s programming, because it does not make sense to them economically. In 2013 commercial multichannels (Disney, Nickelodeon, Turner etc.) broadcast 136,311 hours of children’s content, but only 111 hours were first-run UK originations, a decrease from 280 hours in 2010 (Ofcom, PSB Annual Report, Annex 6, p. 9).
In fact the BBC’s near monopoly on the commissioning of UK-originated children’s television content is largely a result of earlier government mistakes. In 2014 the BBC spent £84m on first run originated hours for children, with barely £3m spent by commercially funded public service broadcasters, ITV, Channel 4 and Five combined. Hours of first-run UK originated children’s programmes declined from 916 hours in 2008 to 666 hours in 2013, with the BBC accounting for 585 of those hours. Yet the roots of the decline can be located much earlier. When the 2003 Communications Act put children’s content under Tier 3 public service provision, part of the broader public service remit where Ofcom has no power to set quotas, it effectively spelt the death knell for competitive commissioning between the BBC and its commercially funded PSB rival, ITV. ITV, with the honourable exception of internationally attractive series like the recent remake of Thunderbirds, has virtually withdrawn from commissioning original children’s content since 2006, a withdrawal hastened by the decision to ban advertising for junk food and fizzy drinks around children’s programming in 2007.
The problem with a contestable fund is that it might mean less money overall if the Government decides to top slice BBC funding to pay for it, diminishing financial provision all round. Other options such as direct government funding or levies on commercial players seem unlikely in the current political climate. Second a contestable fund might mean programming gets commissioned, but that still leaves the issue of how to fund its distribution in a more complex distribution environment. There are also issues around ensuring that contestable funding delivers value for money, as well as identifying who will commission and curate it. If a regulator like Ofcom is given the power to allocate contestable funding, can the regulator be both a commissioner of public service content and also an organisation that holds broadcasters to account. It might make more sense to reintroduce quotas on commercial PSBs (as PACT has suggested), but this also seems an unlikely move from the Government.
Perhaps we should not worry. John Whittingdale recently positioned children’s content as part of the BBC’s remit alongside “high-quality drama, risky material, arts and culture, news and current affairs” religion and education, in part because he thought it might not be ‘viable on a commercial basis’. If children’s provision, as a classic case of market failure, is safe even within a potentially narrower definition of the BBC’s public service remit, then should we even be worrying at all? In Whittingdale’s world, UK originated children’s content seems guaranteed to survive in a landscape of multiple providers such as YouTube, Netflix, Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, all of whom cater for a transnational children’s market, and who are rapidly moving to on-demand distribution.
I am not persuaded that contestable funding, which will be complex and require proper accountability safeguards, will work, but these are early days, The Green Paper has just been published and the framework for the discussion is not yet finalised, never mind the arguments themselves. It is vital, at this early stage, that we do not allow the discussion around children’s content to be marginalised or diverted into a debate about contestable funding or market failure rather than the broader principles of children’s programming. Unfortunately if we are not careful that is where the debate will be heading, and the combination of children’s content and contestable funding is there for reasons that might have more to do with industry concerns than with ensuring that children can engage with a rich and diverse range of content.
A contestable fund might appear very attractive to small independent producers who struggle to find funding for their ideas from both commercial and PSB players, and for whom the BBC seems arrogant, distant and slow, but the BBC is not there to service the independent production sector. The BBC is there to provide distinctive quality content for children, content that must extend in future far beyond television programmes if it is to connect with children and provide part of the broader rationale for the BBC’s continuing existence.
The BBC does need to invest more in its children’s services which have not been ring fenced from recent savings initiatives and it does need to strengthen its service licenses to sustain investment and ensure that it continues to produce a broad range of output (unlike most of its competitors who rely on US content and animation). The danger of contestable funding is that it will not stop at children’s, and as other genres are cherry-picked, will result over time in a much diminished BBC, and a much diminished BBC may not benefit the children’s production sector either.
The new Charter offers the opportunity to require the BBC to deliver programmes and services that will connect with children and imbue an understanding of public service if encapsulated in a broad range of quality content. Doing it will serve the needs of children, but it also serves the needs of the BBC – without that connection then today’s children will see no need to engage with the BBC as adults and may have abandoned it by the time the next Charter renewal rolls along in 2027.
Jeanette Steemers is Professor of Media and Communications and Co-Director of Research of the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster. A graduate in German and Russian, she completed her PhD on public service broadcasting in West Germany in 1990. After working for research company, CIT Research, and international television distributor HIT Entertainment, she rejoined academia in 1993. Recent publications include Creating Preschool Television (Palgrave), The Media and the State (with T. Flew and P. Iosifidis) and European Media in Crisis (with J. Trappel and B. Thomass). She publishes widely on public service broadcasting, UK television exports and the children’s media industry. Her work has been funded by the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust and the AHRC. She is currently working on a 3 year AHRC funded project on ‘Orientations in the Development of Pan-Arab Television for Children’ with Professor Naomi Sakr. This article is an amended version of an article that first appeared on the London School of Economic’s Media Policy Project Blog on 17 July 2017.