The BBC’s plans to launch two new digital TV channels for children has unleashed a wave of opposition by commercial rivals who claim they will `distort the market,’ and seems to have spurred a spate of competitive channel-launching activity as well.
Greg Dyke, the pubcaster’s new director general, discussed the BBC strategy during his keynote MacTaggart lecture address at the annual Edinburgh International Television Festival on August 25. Dyke outlined how the two niche networks, one for preschoolers and one for six- to 13-year-olds, will form part of the BBC’s new seven-channel digital blueprint.
The kids channels, penciled in for launch next fall, will run during the daytime on BBC3 and BBC4, the relaunched Choice and Knowledge respectively. BBC1, BBC2 and News 24 complete the seven-channel lineup, but the initiative will need the approval of government ministers before it can go ahead.
Disney Channel jumped the gun on the separate tot and kid demo digital plans with its recent announcement quadrupling its digital bouquet in the U.K.
Despite voicing concerns that at least two of the 10 kidnets available in the U.K. may fail if Dyke gets his way, Paul Robinson, Disney UK managing director, announced last month Walt Disney International Television’s expansion of its single-channel U.K. pay service to a four-pack digital channel offering as of September 29.
This makes the U.K. the most Disney-fed TV audience on the planet, with 400 more hours airing weekly on the two newly available channels-the preschool-centric Playhouse Disney (5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.) and Toon Disney (24-7)-plus a new time-shifted entry, Disney+1, which airs the existing 7 a.m. to midnight Disney Channel grid an hour later.
Dyke, who in his days as a commercial broadcaster was never regarded as a champion for kids programs, believes it is important that BBC Children’s has a presence on the electronic program guide in the digital future, alongside familiar names like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Fox Kids. This is one reason why he has decided to invest in two new children’s services, although Dyke seems determined to increase the presence of children’s fare across all BBC services. Following protests from lobbyists, the BBC’s highly regarded speech radio network Radio 4 will reintroduce regular children’s shows starting early next year.
It is unclear how much money will be invested in the new TV services, but sources suggest the BBC is planning to spend `tens of millions’ (pounds, not dollars) on the children’s channels. Dyke believes there is a strong argument for publicly funded children’s networks that are free of advertising and concentrate primarily on British shows. The BBC’s own research shows that parents agree.
In addition, there has been widespread criticism in the U.K. of the high proportion of U.S. material shown by existing children’s channels, a fact recently underlined by the Broadcasting Standards Commission.
The prospect of serious competition from the BBC, which has a high reputation for kids material (particularly drama) and an extensive library of children’s programs, is causing alarm in the commercial sector.
Nickelodeon UK commissioned a study of the economic impact of the proposed channels, which it will present to officials as ministers consider Dyke’s proposals. Disney’s Robinson says the BBC’s plans would lead to unfair competition and distort the market, and that it is not the job of the license fee to replicate material that is available elsewhere. Per Robinson, ‘the BBC would be better off building up its core channels BBC1 and BBC2.’
Taking a completely different tack, Granada Media chief exec Steve Morrison thinks the best way to counter the influence of U.S.-dominated children’s channels is for companies like Granada and the BBC to collaborate on a Best of British kids service.
If Dyke’s plans get the green light, which seems likely, they will be overseen by the BBC’s new head of children’s Nigel Pickard, a former colleague of Dyke’s during his days in the commercial sector.
In addition to the BBC and Disney channels, it is understood that ITV is planning to join breakfast station GMTV, which currently broadcasts children’s service GMTV2, to launch a daily children’s service on digital net ITV2.