The UK production community has created some of the world’s most successful, unique and high-quality children’s programs over the years. Now, as chief executive of the UK’s trade body for independent producers, I suppose you would expect to hear that from me.
However, the roll call really does speak for itself. Dangermouse, Thunderbirds, Bob the Builder, Noddy, My Parents are Aliens and Charlie and Lola are just a few of the domestically produced series that have fired the imaginations of generations of youngsters in the UK and around the world. Which is why it’s especially shocking that children’s programming in this region is officially in crisis.
A bad situation becomes dire
The fact is there has been a steady decline in the level of new UK children’s series shown on commercially funded public service broadcasters (ITV, Channel 4 and Five) for several years. ITV stopped commissioning new domestic kids programs 12 months ago, and since Christmas, it has cut the number of children’s hours shown on the main ITV1 channel from eight hours to two. Five has also just declared it’s shutting down its weekend Shake block, dealing another blow to the sector. This situation, in effect, makes the BBC the sole commissioner of non-preschool public service programming – a position it did not court and does not want.
This is despite the fact that children’s is a key public service genre under the Communications Act of 2003. For the UK’s commercial broadcasters, children’s programs simply do not generate the sort of advertising revenue garnered by more adult-oriented fare. And this general downward trend has been further exacerbated by recent Ofcom restrictions placed on unhealthy food advertising to children.
While Pact accepts Ofcom’s recommendations and absolutely understands and supports the need for children to lead healthy lives, the unintended consequences will result in a significant reduction in the amount of money UK commercial broadcasters invest in new British children’s programming. This will have widespread implications for all producers of kids and animated content in the UK.
Based on available data, Pact calculates that commercial broadcasters invest approximately US$68 million a year in new domestic children’s shows. While it’s difficult to predict what the exact loss of investment in original kids production will be, Ofcom estimates the total loss of advertising revenue for commercial broadcasters across all genres will amount to roughly US$76 million.
Considerably more is at stake than just the initial loss of original commission financing. Children’s programs account for 15% of all UK TV exports – the highest genre after drama and feature films. As Pact member and Millimages UK chairman Jonathan Peel notes, the loss of commissions is already driving production out of his company’s London office and into other territories.
A further consequence will be a decline in the UK’s ability to train and foster key animation talent and skills. Our children’s production ranks are renowned for developing highly skilled people who go on to work in other television genres or sectors. Kids production provides a microcosm of all television genres, allowing people to cut their teeth in drama, entertainment, factual or animation, before moving on to other areas of television or other media, such as the video game industry. Once lost, however, there is every chance that these skills will be gone for good.
Power to the people: Getting parents on board
So what is Pact doing to help its children’s producer members who, without some sort of intervention, will surely face an uncertain future? Since the middle of last year, we have been actively trying to raise awareness of our plight amongst those in the UK who have the power to make a difference.
Ofcom has already launched a major review into the current state of television for kids. This review will gauge the full extent of the threat to high-quality UK programming for younger audiences. We’ve also been working hard to bring the situation to the attention of UK government, ministers and parliament, and have been helped in this task by a concerted letter-writing campaign. At press time, more than 170 letters had been sent to MPs from Pact members concerned over cuts in program funding by commercial broadcasters.
Alongside this protest by post, the Pact children’s and animation policy group submitted a detailed response to a public inquiry into public service content held by MPs on the Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee. I joined Mike Watts, chair of the children’s and animation policy group and managing director of Novel Entertainment, in giving evidence to the committee two months ago.
During the examination, various MPs asked us to assess the impact of the Ofcom ban, ITV and our proposal that short-term and long-term funds should be created to replace the annual loss of some US$44.6 million in commissions caused by ITV’s withdrawal.
Once that evidence has been gathered, this all-party committee will produce a report, to which the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport will respond. In our submission, Pact has asked the committee to support our request that the Secretary of State hold an urgent inquiry into the future of funding for children’s programming.
Crucially, it looks like we also have UK parents on our side. According to a YouGov survey of 2,551 adults commissioned by Pact, the majority of parents agree that homegrown children’s programs are culturally important. The survey found 70% of parents polled feel that children’s programs made in the UK contribute to the nation’s cultural identity. And 66% of parents believe UK-produced programs provide a shared cultural experience for the whole family.
Responses also highlight how parents like to share their favorite children’s programs with their kids – 77% of them have fond memories of classic children’s programs and feel their kids would appreciate watching them.
So far, we are cautiously encouraged by the response we have had from parliamentarians. However, convincing the government there is a market failure is quite possibly the easiest part of the challenge ahead. The more difficult task will be coming up with a sustainable way to fix the problem.
It’s not our job at this point to suggest what such a mechanism might be, although there are a number of examples to point to around the world, from tax breaks to production funds.The key is that some solution is found to replace the rapidly shrinking investment from broadcasters in new UK kids programming – and quickly.
In addition to my day job as chief executive of Pact, I’m also a parent who enjoys being able to watch a wide variety of kids TV shows – some new and some old – with my own three boys. The trick now is to ensure that I’m not part of the last generation of UK parents able to do so.
If you’d like to share some thoughts or suggestions concerning
the causes or impact of this major industry issue, please email KidScreen Editor Jocelyn Christie (firstname.lastname@example.org)