Behind the BBC success story: returning faves and new original productions

At a time when commercialism in children's television appears to be in the ascendancy, there is no question that U.K. public broadcaster, the BBC, is more than holding its own in its marketplace....
November 1, 1998

At a time when commercialism in children’s television appears to be in the ascendancy, there is no question that U.K. public broadcaster, the BBC, is more than holding its own in its marketplace.

Despite the increasing penetration of Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and Fox Kids, the BBC increased its share of audience during the latest spring period.

On weekdays, its share among children ages four to 15 rose from 33.4% to 35.1% year on year. ITV, by comparison, dropped from 36.8% to 31.3% for this demographic in the same time period. In cable and satellite homes, the BBC defied expectations by recording a 1.2% increase in share among children ages four to 15 throughout the spring. Again, ITV dropped by 1.4% in the same period.

The BBC’s success lies in continuing to provide a wide range of children’s programs, according to head of children’s commissioning Roy Thompson. ‘There is no future in us doing the same as cable and satellite,’ he insists. ‘To compete effectively, we need to look different. We have to offer children a complete lineup of factual, entertainment, animation and drama programs.’

Thompson underlines the point with his new fall schedule, which he unveiled in September. Among the new shows that he has high hopes for are Sort It, a new kids problem-solving show that began airing on Sunday mornings in September. He also singles out two high-quality dramas: Microsoap, a BBC/Walt Disney Television International co-production, and Children of the New Forest, an independent production from U.K.-based producer Childsplay.

Thompson stresses, however, that the BBC schedule is also built on the return of popular established series. ‘We’ve been making successful programming in-house for a long time. We are entering our 40th year with magazine show Blue Peter and have revamped Record Breakers with the athlete Linford Christie as host. By scheduling big shows that continue to deliver, we have the opportunity to introduce new ones into the mix and give them a chance to build loyalty.’

The fall schedule costs around £23 million (US$38.9 million) and accounts for roughly 524 hours of programming. Over the course of the year, the BBC spends £40 million (US$67.6 million) on original children’s programming, with a majority going into fall and winter. The overall children’s programming budget, including acquisitions, is £55 million (US$93 million), a figure that has been stable since 1996-97.

Currently, the schedule consists of a weekday slot between 3:25 p.m. and 5:35 p.m. on BBC 1 and a flexible two-hour daily block (typically 7 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. and a half-hour slot later in the morning) on BBC 2. This latter block is a relatively recent innovation, and is home to the preschool hit Teletubbies by Ragdoll Productions, reruns of magazine shows and reruns of acquired animation. On weekends, the BBC runs around four hours of programming on both Saturday and Sunday in the mornings.

Thompson claims that the BBC’s commitment to kids is as strong as ever. As proof of that, he points out that there will soon be more children’s programs on the BBC’s new digital channel, BBC Choice, which launched on September 23.

Although the BBC’s budgets per hour for shows on Choice are very low-£6,000 to £10,000 an hour (US$10,000 to US$17,000)-the imminent introduction of a one-hour weekday slot and weekend blocks during the afternoons is seen by observers as the first move toward the creation of a full-fledged BBC children’s channel on digital television.

As far as the main analogue services go, Thompson is ‘always seeking more originated programming for the schedule, like [hit dramas] The Demon Headmaster [by the BBC] and The Queen’s Nose,’ which returns this fall.

However, he is increasingly having to look for efficiencies and flexible relationships. Microsoap, for example, is groundbreaking in being the BBC’s first-ever co-production with WDTI. ‘Like everyone else, we have to make the money go further,’ says Thompson.

Thompson professes to be happy with the schedule’s balance. He is not shy about airing factual programs such as magazine show It’ll Never Work and the daily children’s news bulletin Newsround, both produced by the BBC, claiming that ‘factual is capable of doing just as well as drama. The key is for us to support new factual shows by putting good entertainment shows around them.’

If there is a weakness, he admits that, ‘I do sometimes wish every animation was as good as Rugrats. We have some animation series that I am very proud of, like Noah’s Island, and I wish I had more of those.’

John Mills, the managing director of Telemagination, which produces Noah’s Island on behalf of the European Broadcasting Union, currently has two shows on the BBC-the other being Wiggly Park. He says: ‘Despite all the pressures in the market, the BBC still brings a quality benchmark to children’s programs. As a producer, it is a strong calling card if the BBC supports your series.’

As a co-producer, Mills says the BBC remains as supportive as ever, though he acknowledges that the market has gotten tougher. ‘The opportunities are fewer than they used to be,’ he says. ‘Producers can’t regard the BBC as a banker anymore. They have to be looking at ways of working with foreign partners and with the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. The positive thing about the BBC, however, is that you know the money is ultimately going to go on the screen.’

As for the BBC’s relationship with indie companies, Thompson is adamant that the corporation pulls its weight. In addition to Children of the New Forest, he cites examples such as Zenith North’s returning soap Byker Grove and The Queen’s Nose from Film & General.

HIT Entertainment is another company that can boast increasingly strong ties with the BBC. Creative director Kate Fawkes says: ‘Our first experience with the BBC was with Brambly Hedge [by Cosgrove Hall], which they scheduled beautifully for us on Christmas Day. They also did a very good job of trailing it.’

HIT is currently working on a 13 x 10-minute model animation preschool series called Bob The Builder for the BBC, and has strong hopes that it will become as popular and lucrative as Woodlands Animation’s often-repeated classic Postman Pat. ‘The BBC has taken the publishing rights, which means Bob will be promoted as part of a stable of great comic characters. That will be a good focus for our own licensing and merchandising efforts.’

For the future, Thompson is confident that the BBC’s insistence on original production will help keep it ahead of the pack. ‘The big question in this country is when will the thematic channels start making more British programs? When they are making the same proportion as us, then kids will really start to benefit.’

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