The UK Government is moving forward with its 2016 proposal to inject up to US$81 million (£60 million) in production and distribution funding over three years to bolster locally produced original children’s TV content.
Announced on December 30 by Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, the fund will launch in 2019 and will be available for broadcast content on commercial public service broadcasters (PSBs) including ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. It will also be accessible for other free-TV networks, on-demand services, and possibly online platforms.
For producers, funding will be available for creators to receive up to 50% of production and distribution costs of original TV shows. The cap was determined to ensure that the scheme does not require an individual state aid approval from the European Commission. Content from new, diverse backgrounds, and shows made across the nations and regions of the UK, will also be a particular focus.
The fund was originally proposed by the UK Government in a white paper entitled A BBC for the Future in May 2016, leading to a consultation that closed in February 2017. Provisionally appointed fund administrator the British Film Institute (BFI) is currently working with the UK Government to finalize details of the fund, which will be published in a policy paper within the next six months.
The funding, according to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DDCMS), comes as the output of children’s television from PSBs in the UK over the past decade has been in decline, with spending dropping by US$74 million (£55 million). The new pilot fund, which comprises unspent funds from the Government’s previous license fee settlement, is aimed to create more variety in the market, where in 2016 the BBC accounted for 87% of all first-run UK originated children’s programming by PSBs.
Whether Viacom-owned Channel 5 will seek to bid for the fund remains to be seen, as the network’s head of children’s, Sarah Muller, says it will need to assess details of the upcoming policy paper.”We have read with interest the UK Government’s response to its consultation on a contestable fund and in particular the decision to focus the fund on children’s TV,” Muller says. “We look forward to reviewing the government’s paper that sets out how the fund will work when it is published later this year.”
Channel 5 is currently committed to airing 600 hours of UK-originated kids programs. It also recently revamped its popular Milkshake! preschool block and launched its first-ever Milkshake! YouTube channel. As for ITV and its children’s channel CITV, a spokesperson says the broadcaster welcomes the government’s announcement, but ITV will not seek to bid for the fund.
“The contestable fund is intended to sustain investment in genres of TV content that the market finds increasingly hard to sustain,” says the ITV spokesperson. “As we have said previously, while ITV would not seek any contributions itself, we believe that there is a case for the fund to be focused on children’s content to maximize the fund’s impact and effect, and we welcome the Government’s announcement regarding the next stage of the fund’s development.”
Looking at the fund’s broader intentions, it’s also aimed to bolster the 2014 introduction of a children’s TV tax break for animation and new powers given to Ofcom by the Government via the Digital Economy Act 2017, which allows the UK media regulator to introduce children’s content quotas on commercial public service broadcasters where it sees fit.
(Ofcom released new programming quotas for first-run UK-originated children’s shows on the BBC in March 2017 requiring CBBC to broadcast at least 400 hours and CBeebies to air at least 100 hours per year. Ofcom could also potentially regulate ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 to commission and carry more content for children, under new powers granted to them in an amendment to the Digital Economy Act proposed by Baroness Benjamin in late 2017.)
According to Greg Childs, editorial director of London-based nonprofit The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF), the funding has been a longtime coming.”This is a vindication of all the hard work of CMF volunteers and supporters, campaigning and lobbying over 10 years to persuade politicians and policy makers first that there was a significant problem in the supply of UK content for UK kids,” Childs says. “And it shows that there could be a practical and workable solution.”
The CMF’s ambitions for the fund are that it should focus on stimulating content set in Britain and target under-served audiences for young people, including the 10+ demographic.”The CMF is very keen that the content, as much as possible in a part-funded system, is essentially British in setting, in the characters and voices, in the topics addressed and in tone. And there will need to be some form of cultural test for that,” Childs adds. “We’d like to see it aimed, in part, at the underserved 10+ audience, which is where the point of delivery becomes interesting. It was CMF that suggested a broader approach to distribution than simply the existing commercial public service broadcasters. When the government considers how the fund should work they should also explore how it could attract commissioners from other outlets, including the VOD platforms, to contribute funding. The big issue there is whether there can be universal access under those conditions. That’s what needs to be worked out.”
According to the DDCMS, the Government remains open to the distribution of content on a range of platforms, including on-demand and online, should they have an appropriate reach and be free at the point of use. It states that further work will be needed to consider whether content broadcast only online will be eligible, given concerns raised by consultation respondents about discoverability and lack of regulatory standards.
Another particular aspect of the fund the Government has stated is that it will need to flesh out with the BFI concerns “additionality”—one of the consultation’s six evaluation criteria—and whether indigenous regional language content could be considered eligible as part of the nations and regions criteria.
From a production perspective, John Rice, CEO of Irish/UK prodco JAM Media, says the fund is good news for the industry. “There will be more details coming as the year progresses, but in terms of what we know so far it’s wonderful to see an injection that will help stimulate the whole sector,” Rice says. “Coupled with the new excess funding from the BBC and, of course, the UK tax credit, the fund will create a rich and fertile landscape for UK children’s producers.”
“There will be more hours of quality children’s content serving not only British audiences, but audiences the world over,” Rice adds. “It will establish new players and aid in the growth of established ones. That said, I will want to know if the funding will be repayable, if there will be any kind of equity position, if it’s a grant or a loan scenario and if there will be a cultural point system for the UK regions.”