BBC juggles mandate, budget and plans a new kid channel

Amid a lot of kidcasting competition, the U.K. pubcaster must piece together a sked that fulfills many (often conflicting) programming requirements. Factors for consideration include: stipulations as to how much of the sked must come from which sources, integrating kids shows...
November 1, 1999

Amid a lot of kidcasting competition, the U.K. pubcaster must piece together a sked that fulfills many (often conflicting) programming requirements. Factors for consideration include: stipulations as to how much of the sked must come from which sources, integrating kids shows with the rest of the schedule, and the mandate of offering the diverse programming expected from the public broadcaster. This last requirement is perhaps the trickiest, requiring a balancing act between offering a measure of brave, edgy and perhaps ‘uncommercial’ choices, and the fiscal reality of being a public broadcaster (a flat budget). The flat budget dictates the prudence of a long-term commitment to shows with commercial potential.

Oh, and throw the plotting of a new dedicated kids channel into the mix, too.

Exercise extreme jigsaw-puzzle prowess to provide a forward-looking sked with something for everyone that maximizes internal and external resource pooling. And make it new-channel-forward compatible.

The new fall schedule for the BBC children’s department contains a healthy range of drama series, a new heavily promoted 260 x 20-minute preschool offering called Tweenies and a groundbreaking social action series for Sunday mornings called See You In Court.

What’s more, kids commissioning chief Roy Thompson used his schedule launch to reveal a two-stage strategy for the rollout of a dedicated digital kids channel.

In the first phase of the plan, penciled for November, Children’s BBC will air preschool programming all day during digital sister channel BBC Choice’s downtime-giving it a potential audience of around 1.5 million. Subsequently, the plan is to unveil a new broadly based kids channel with its own identity and budget.

Currently, Thompson has a program budget of about US$90 million a year, which he primarily uses to fill weekday afternoon slots on BBC 1 and morning slots on BBC 2. In addition, he oversees parts of the weekend schedule-most notably Saturday morning, where the BBC’s flagship kids magazine Live & Kicking resides.

The size of the children’s budget has been flat for a couple of years, but Thompson says he makes the most of it by ‘improving internal efficiencies and working with co-production partners.’

The most high profile of these partners is the BBC’s own commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, which is a partner on projects like Tweenies and Teletubbies. Under kids director Mark Johnstone, Worldwide has identified a number of planned kids shows as commercial opportunities for the corporation. These include animations like Rotten Ralph and Angelmouse, preschool properties like Noddy and Yoho Ahoy and dramas like S Club 7.

Arguably, Thompson has a tougher task than anyone else in U.K. kids TV. Not only is he expected to ensure diversity in the line-up, but he is required by law to take shows from both in-house and indie producers.

He also has an internal commitment to take 20% of the shows from outside London-though fortunately, he can turn to the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol, BBC Scotland (makers of Fame Game) and indie companies like Zenith North (makers of Byker Grove)-to help him meet that requirement. Although he says commercial considerations do not impinge directly on his decision-making process, he is also highly conscious that if he commissions projects with off-screen appeal, Worldwide will supplement his budget.

The fall shows speak loudest about Thompson’s priorities. Tweenies, for example, looks as though it has been given a long-running platform to amortize production costs and help merchandising and licensing.

But Thompson says the new show continues a tradition at the BBC for airing long-running series for preschoolers, a tradition that stretches back to the Play School series. ‘I think little children like to have landmarks in the schedule,’ he says. This philosophy extends to programming for older kids. The BBC’s magazine format, Blue Peter, has been running for just over 41 years and this year was given a major overhaul to keep it fresh. Long-running kids drama Byker Grove is also being subjected to a review process called Byker Grove 2000, which will see it revamped and increased in volume.

Thompson is particularly proud of his range of classic and contemporary drama-a genre that is generally viewed as an acid test for the strength of the BBC’s kids output. This fall will include The Magician’s House from indie Kudos, which goes into the jealously guarded, family-oriented Sunday tea time slot, comedy dramas Monster TV and Belfry Witches, and the ‘tough’ Pig Heart Boy, which looks at the ethical dilemmas for a terminally ill child who is offered a xenotransplant that may save his life.

‘It’s not easy viewing but that is what the BBC has to be about,’ says Thompson. Another tough piece, See You in Court, uses teenage actors to reconstruct courtroom dramas. Kids play judge, attorneys and accused in a bid to de-mystify the machinations of the criminal process for a young audience.

Thompson has also looked for ways to integrate his own activities with those of the main schedule. This has been most notable with Children’s Proms in the Park-a spin-off from BBC 2′s highly successful classical music concerts The Proms. He is also debuting factual series Dinosaur Detectives, a concept that will complement the BBC’s forthcoming factual flagship Walking with Dinosaurs. Subsequently, he hopes to roll out the Detectives franchise into other subjects.

Thompson is insistent that despite the temptations of Worldwide’s cash, he is never swayed from his core responsibility to serve the U.K. kids audience. But he is not naive either. ‘I might find myself with five or six projects which are all suitable for the same slot-and one of those might have extra appeal because of its obvious commercial potential. But I absolutely have to want to make something. It is up to Worldwide and BBC Production to understand my priorities and develop things I want to commission.’

If they come up with the right idea, then the benefits to Thompson are not simply financial. There is also the prospect of widespread off-screen promotional support for the network’s characters.

Without taking his eye off the terrestrial ball, Thompson says his priority is to get the BBC’s new kids channel right. In the short term, he will have 11 hours to fill on BBC Choice, but he is also developing a concept for an entire channel devoted to kids, still to be approved by the many BBC bosses.

Already, new director-general Greg Dyke has affirmed his desire to see a kids channel up and running. ‘The BBC management knows that the future of the BBC depends on kids today watching it and staying with it,’ says Thompson.

Thompson says the new channel will have its own budget and will make the most of existing production know-how. ‘We can take advantage of the vastness of what we already do. We have a whole production team worki ng on a single daily news bulletin Newsround. The channel would give us the canvas for expanding our activities in areas like that. I am also exceedingly keen that interactivity and on-line go hand in hand with the new channel concept. It is a vital part of our public service remit that we take advantage of technological developments.’

As for the competition (ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Nick UK, Fox Kids, Cartoon and Disney), he says it is no more intense than at any recent time. He claims that the BBC and ITV still outperform the thematic kids channels during their time slots in multichannel homes.

Although it is not Thompson’s job to designate how commissioned production companies raise their budget, he is also doubtful that the BBC will do too many more co-productions like last year’s link-up with Disney on Microsoap.

‘That show works very well but may prove to be unique. I doubt we will see many more partnerships like that with competitors.’ With the Disney point of contact on Microsoap, Elaine Sperber, now working inside the BBC as head of kids drama, the personal relationship that led to that series being made has also gone.

Each time Thompson is interviewed by members of the press, he is asked what he would like to see in the schedule that is currently missing. Invariably, his answer is ‘a U.K. version of Rugrats. I wish we could produce a high-profile, competitive, half-hour animation series like that for older kids.’

The problem, he insists, is not creativity, which is to be found in spades in the U.K., but the economics of production. ‘Funding that sort of show would be difficult for the U.K.’

He doesn’t believe commercial co-pro partners are necessarily the answer either. ‘That works in preschool. But it is really tricky to make an animation series for older kids that you can be proud of and has commercial success.’ The nearest the BBC has got so far are the European Broadcast Union co-pros Animals of Farthing Wood and Noah’s Island, which were executive produced by Thompson’s globe-trotting colleague, head of acquisitions and co-pros Theresa Plummer Andrews.

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