Commercial kids channels in the U.K. are claiming victory following the government’s announcement that public broadcaster the BBC will have to consult the public before launching any new digital channels. Currently, the corporation is in the final stages of planning for a digital kids rival to U.S. spin-offs such as Nick UK, Fox Kids, The Disney Channel and Cartoon Network.
The requirement to consult over new channels is the quid pro quo for a BBC license fee boost reckoned to be worth an extra US$2.2 billion over the next seven years. The move is designed to reassure existing players that the BBC will not be allowed to duplicate its activities without giving a good reason why.
Although the U.S. thematic channels belong to massive media groups that dwarf the BBC, they have allocated small budgets for programming in the U.K. and fear that a BBC-backed rival will undermine their competitive position. One of the most ardent critics of the BBC’s plans is Nick UK, which has US$15.7 million a year to spend on programs compared to the BBC’s US$94.7 million.
Nickelodeon International managing director Karen Flischel claims to be ‘pleased’ with the government’s decision. ‘We will now look for Secretary of State Chris Smith to follow through on his pledge,’ she says. ‘We are seeking a fair competitive environment and further clarification of the BBC’s public service role in the digital arena, particularly in the children’s programming sector, which is already broadly serving kids via eight commercial networks.’
The BBC’s position is that competing in the digital and on-line environment is vital to its long-term welfare. A decision not to launch a kids digital service would be viewed internally as tantamount to handing the kids market over to the U.S. thematics. However, the power of the corporation is underlined by its ability to introduce massive preschool properties like Tweenies and Teletubbies to the market via free-to-air networks BBC1 and BBC2. Tweenies alone is expected to generate US$40 million in licensing and merchandising revenue this year.
Fox Kids Network Europe managing director Marc-Antoine D’Halluin is not convinced the launch of a BBC kids channel is ‘the best way for tax money to be spent.’ He also thinks such a channel will struggle to compete with their commercial rivals. ‘Operating a kids block is very different to running a channel. I don’t know whether they are equipped to do it.’
The digital picture is further complicated by the imminent launch of SDN’s Nursery Channel and ITV’s firm plans to launch a CITV-branded kids network. In recent months, the market-leading commercial network has been advised by Joan Lofts on the best way to construct such a service. Lofts, who was formerly head of programming at both Disney Channel UK and TCC, has now come on-board full-time as director of broadcasting for ITV2.