Nigel Pickard has been in his new job running children’s programs at the BBC for less than six months, but a clear break from the old regime is already very much in evidence. Key parts of the CBBC schedule have been tweaked, and a new commissioning strategy, involving longer runs of high-profile series, is beginning to emerge. But the most far-reaching change of all in the pipeline are the ambitious and costly plans for launching two new BBC digital children’s channels, managed and fully funded by the pubcaster.
To round things off, later this year, probably in the fall, Pickard intends to provide CBBC with a new look as part of a re-branding exercise. He hopes this will ensure that in the multichannel era, CBBC remains totally relevant and in touch with the lives and aspirations of its ever-more-demanding audience, now faced with around a dozen rival channels from which to choose.
‘We’ve got fantastic core programming, but there’s no doubt that CBBC is a very poor kids brand,’ says Pickard. ‘It has huge potential, but at the moment it is about individual programs. It’s so wrapped into the BBC as a whole that it has not been allowed to be a distinctive kids zone. It should be like a kid’s bedroom; it should look like their own area and reflect their own personality. At the moment, it’s very much under Auntie’s skirts, and we need to release it.’
These are brave words and a remarkably candid assessment of his new domain’s chief weaknesses. But Pickard, the former head of children’s at ITV, now his main terrestrial rival, has spent his entire career in the commercial sector, so he brings a genuine outsider’s perspective to the task at hand at the BBC and the problems it faces in the digital era.
He admits that the sheer size of the operation (around 30 hours a week of kids programs compared to ITV’s ten and a half) can be daunting. ‘I am enjoying the job, but the scale is frightening,’ Pickard says.
If the British government gives the BBC the green light to launch the new digital children’s services, the initiative will more than quadruple the hours he is responsible for and involve a hike in the children’s budget from US$58 million to in excess of US$130 million, most of which he promises will go into original production.
This is one reason why Pickard is giving so much thought to the rebranding project, originally planned for spring, but now pushed back until the fall. He explains: ‘Whatever we do, we’re going to have to live with for quite a long time. The worst thing would be to rush in and have to live with an error.’
The first of the new channels, preschool-skewing Playbox, could be up and running by the summer, with the second network, targeted at six- to 13-year-olds, following this winter. The industry consultation on the proposals ended at the end of February, but a decision by the government could be derailed by a general election that’s expected by the end of spring.
The plans are being fought every inch of the way by the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon, which argue that they are anti-competitive. For the BBC to win its case (and most observers will be surprised if the government rules against the corporation), Pickard will have to demonstrate that the channels offer a real public service alternative. Hence the commitment to British-made programs and public service values.
‘They will be public service to the core,’ he insists. ‘It is a proposition that is different to everything else that is now available. We’re not aping what other channels do. Everybody who’s seen it says it’s great.’
One crucial advantage to launching digitally is that CBBC will finally have a presence on BSkyB’s electronic program guide; the exclusion is a considerable handicap for the Beeb at present, and an edge for commercial kids channels in the six million or so U.K. homes that subscribe to Sky Digital.
While much of Pickard’s overall strategy is tied up with work on the new channels, there is a lot to be done in fine-tuning CBBC’s output across BBC1 and 2. There are, for the time being, no plans to change the current system that gives CBBC access to the schedules on weekday afternoons (BBC1), Saturday mornings (BBC1) and Sunday and weekday mornings (BBC2).
However, Pickard is determined to introduce, wherever possible, common junctions so that audiences know exactly when programs are shown every day. ‘Our diversity is one of our great strengths, but in a multichannel world, having different start times on different days of the week is a problem,’ he says. ‘The prime-time schedule is far more predictable than the children’s schedule. At the moment, CBBC is made up of programs that are five, 10, 15 and 25 minutes long. It will take time, but over the next 18 months, I want to smooth that out. This will mean changing some lengths. I can’t see it affecting drama, but it is likely to affect some of our entertainment formats.’
One scheduling tweak designed to stop kids zapping was to move News round from 5 p.m. to 5:25 p.m. so that it plays immediately before Neighbours, enabling Blue Peter and youth dramas such as Grange Hill and Byker Grove to start at 5 p.m. He claims the move has already increased ratings. Despite greater competition and a scrappier ITV (which recently started stripping CITV), Pickard is convinced that CBBC can capture 30% of the available children’s audience.
‘ITV had a very strong opening three weeks in the New Year. They’ve got some good programs there,’ he points out, not bothering to suppress a grin. (It was Pickard who commissioned them in the first place.) ‘There’s no doubt that stripping has given us a run for our money, but the thing about a stripped schedule is that you’ve got to keep feeding it. We’re on a par now, but I would like us to be better and I think we can be, although we won’t achieve it overnight.’
In this respect, a top priority is turning around the fortunes of CBBC’s Saturday morning flagship Live and Kicking, now well and truly beaten by ITV’s SM:TV Live, a reversal of a decade’s dominance by the Beeb. Pickard hopes the show will evolve into a more successful formula, but admits that unless things start to improve by the fall, he may have to wield the axe. He explains: ‘Live and Kicking is a priority, and we’re working hard on it. Everything that is happening with the show is positive. All the graphs are going the right way.’
If Pickard is reluctant to give details of the changes he has in store for Live and Kicking, there is no doubt that he wants to bring a more populist edge to CBBC. ‘Public service broadcasting can be popular as well. Sometimes we’re not quite populist enough in our approach. With certain shows like The Really Wild Show and Short Change, I am sure we can persuade more kids to watch.
‘The basic concept of these shows is fine, but there is some fine-tuning to do. We have to ensure they’re accessible enough and their visual style is genuinely attractive. Do kids believe they are represented well enough, and is some of the content pitched too old or too young? Have we lost our sense of direction?’
Pickard also wants to see improvements in comedy and would be delighted to champion a British version of Sister, Sister, a challenge for drama head Elaine Sperber. Game shows also need refreshing, and with this in mind, the department is seeking a successor to long-running kids game show Chucklevision.
On the plus side, he is amazed at the durability of CBBC staples like 40-year-old Blue Peter (hence the extra episodes ordered last year), Grange Hill and News round. ‘Some people might make jokes about it, but Blue Peter is still the most recognizable kids show in the U.K.,’ Pickard maintains. ‘The mix and quality of items is fantastic. Grange Hill is a show that after 21 years, still manages to reflect the lives of its audience.’
In terms of acquisitions (which take up around 15% of the CBBC budget), Pickard singles out Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys and The Woody Woodpecker Show for praise, together with Keenan and Kel and Smart Guy. ‘The U.S. is still great at doing kids sitcoms,’ he says. ‘They maybe be studio-based and recorded with canned laughter, but the characterization is really strong.’
The size of CBBC’s MIP-TV shopping list depends on what happens with the digital initiative. But if the department is given the go-ahead by the time Pickard sets sail for Cannes, he will need to fill some slots on the younger channel where there is a gap for stop-frame and 2-D animation series, particularly in 10- and 15-minute formats. Mindful of the political sensitivities, any material would have to be re-voiced for British audiences.
‘France, Germany and the Nordic countries are now producing great animation, especially in the preschool area,’ Pickard reckons. ‘Generally we’re not looking to acquire huge amounts because we’re more interested in co-productions and presales.’
There is also an opportunity for half-hour toons for the seven and up crowd on both BBC1 and 2-’something in The Wild Thornberrys area,’ Pickard says. ‘We don’t need another superhero because we’ve just bought Jackie Chan Adventures, but we would like another 30-minute sitcom and live-action drama for the older audience. We’re not looking for masses and there doesn’t have to be loads of episodes, but it must be high-quality.’
Having said that, under the new regime, many in-house commissions are now certain to have longer runs. This makes it easier to find co-production partners and build a more coherent schedule with increased opportunities for appointment-to-view shows.
Pickard says: ‘In drama (which represents roughly one-third of his budget) and animation, we’ll start doing two-year deals and take 26 episodes up front. That doesn’t mean that we’re always going to commission 13 episodes of drama. There will be times-for instance, a book adaptation-when we’ll only want six. Across the board, information programs will also be given longer runs. Scheduling can’t be fragmented; there’s got to be some consistency to it. If it works, it’s brilliant. The downside is that [if it doesn't], you’re stuck with it.
‘Nowadays in multichannel homes, there is no forgiveness if you lose the audience’s attention. You have to create a schedule that has no weaknesses, whether it’s credits, commercials or junctions. You’ve got to hold their attention all the time. A few years ago, if you had viewers at the top of an item, the chances were you would hold them throughout the show. Now audiences might come back and cherry-pick what they want. We have to create an event from the moment they switch on.’