In a series of columns leading up to the Second World Summit on Television for Children in March, Anna Home, OBE, the retired head of BBC Children’s Television and the chair of the summit, discusses some of the issues facing producers and broadcasters of children’s television.
* * *
Children are a discerning audience and they deserve quality. Television is one of the most formative and educative influences. It can stimulate creativity, raise awareness and encourage participation.
Of course, children want to relax and be entertained but they do not want-nor do they deserve-a non-stop diet of action, adventure and noise. This is the kind of cultural climate that leads to ‘dumbing down.’ I hope the new regulation in America, which requires broadcasters to provide at least three hours a week of ‘educational’ programs for children, will lead to some innovative programming.
One of the questions that will be debated at length during the forthcoming Second World Summit on Television for Children is what does the future hold for children’s television? It will certainly be an increasingly competitive environment, as more and more children throughout the world gain access to more cable and satellite channels. Correspondingly, competition increases to acquire landmark programs, mainly animation, and the number of blockbuster series that underpin schedules will increase.
As buyers compete for big series, the prices rise. In many cases, deals are done between public service broadcasters and the new channels for windows, whereby each can share in the programming. This is fine for the moment, but what will happen when the competition becomes really hot and channels seek to identify their brands even more clearly? The incentive to make deals will disappear, leaving national broadcasters needing to find money for sole rights.
Simultaneously, many terrestrial channels are being squeezed for money. This results in both positive and negative effects for the broadcasters. The positive is that program makers have to find new ways to do things and new ways to be creative. The negative is that commissioners play it safe and recommission longer and more cost-effective runs of proven strands, thus reducing the opportunity for innovation and experiment. Also, the national channels’ limited airtime means less variety and less choice.
Equally, it becomes more difficult around the world to raise the money for high-quality drama, especially drama requiring period settings or special effects. In these cases, co-production-not in itself a bad thing-is essential, but yet another hassle for the producer, and one that can lead to unacceptable compromise.
However, there is again an upside. A number of European broadcasters wanting to raise the profile of European animation came together to create two series: The Animals of Farthing Wood and Noah’s Island, which were cooperative ventures between 17 participants that worked both financially and creatively to produce a truly European product. Programming like this has to be supported by merchandising and licensing, otherwise it cannot be properly funded. The problem here is keeping the balance between exploitation and providing a genuine add-on.
Children today have more programs to choose from than ever before. What is important for the future is that that choice is genuine and that the programs provide real entertainment, information, drama and plenty of quality animation. And, at least a reasonable proportion of those programs should originate in the country of broadcast, specifically for the children of that country without a view to the world market. This is more likely to be achieved if countries can maintain a well-funded public service broadcaster and have effective regulation of the commercial sector and new media.