It’s no secret the production of public service programming for kids in the UK has experienced years of decline due to a number of factors, such as restrictions around advertising, tax break reductions and the rise of online platforms.
Now, the British Film Institute’s newly launched US$75-million Young Audiences Content Fund is aiming to change course and bring audiences back to Ofcom-regulated TV channels with more quality homegrown shows. It also hopes to create periods of exclusivity for new content so the channels will become known as destinations for children’s content.
As head of the YACF, Jackie Edwards enters the funding landscape as passionate about her new role as she was during her decade-long tenure at BBC Children’s or her time as a development, financing and production freelancer at the onset of her career.
After joining the British pubcaster in 2008 as content manager for CBeebies and executive producing shows such as The Octonauts and Clangers, Edwards worked her way up to head of acquisitions and independent animation in 2015 where she remained until her departure in February.
When the position at BFI emerged, she says it was too good to pass up.
“The BBC is a great institution and I’m very proud of the programs I worked on, but this job offered an irresistible opportunity to do some good in the sector and connect to new young talent and ideas,” says Edwards.
Opened for submissions on April 1, the three-year pilot fund (part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Constable Fund) is designed to strengthen the supply and variety of children’s programming in the UK, in both animation and live-action across all genres, including entertainment, education, comedy, drama, arts and culture and factual and religion.
It designates up to US$75 million (£57 million) in production and development funding for content that targets audiences up to 18 years old. The content must be broadcast on free-to-access, Ofcom-regulated TV channels and online platforms. To secure production funding, applicants must have a written commitment from a broadcaster and/or another funding body for at least half of their production budget. The fund will support up to 50% of production costs, but applicants must secure the remaining financing. The YACF production guidelines state that potential eligible broadcasters include, but are not limited to: ITV, CITV, Channels 4 and 5, STV, S4C, E4 and BBC Alba. Additionally, submissions must be made by or through a company registered and centrally managed in the UK, another state of the European Union or the European Economic Area.
For development, the YACF provides up to 5% in financing for new voices and emerging producers for which a broadcaster letter of intent is not required. Types of costs covered by the fund include the development of treatments, pitch documents, series bibles, formats, scripts, pilots and animation tests. And 5% of the total fund is earmarked for programming that features UK indigenous languages, such as Welsh and Gaelic.
Now that the fund’s door is open, Edwards and her newly appointed team are preparing for the upcoming influx of applicants. Her team includes former BBC Children’s in-house development producer for animation and puppetry John Knowles as production executive; ex-Disney Channel EMEA scripted exec Harriet Williams (The Evermoor Chronicles, The Lodge) as development executive; Gill Biddle as project manager; factual talent agency pro Chandan Shergill as fund coordinator; and former Sheffield Doc/Fest marketing assistant Aisha Jan as administrator.
While no other appointments are imminent, the fund could potentially bring on extra staff later this year. “We’ll see how it goes over the next few months as we gauge the flow of applications and as more people learn about the fund,” Edwards says. “We’ve had a massive amount of interest by phone and email so far, so I can see that a healthy stream of applications could potentially turn into a torrent in the not too distant future.” She adds that the assessment process for production funding applications may take up to 12 weeks, and for development applications up to eight weeks, but the fund is hoping to reduce the turnaround times to ensure that projects get to screen as quickly as possible.
From a creative point of view, the intention of the production fund is to not impose on the decisions of the broadcasters, but rather to stress-check the applications and be as supportive as people require, says Edwards. “We won’t be giving detailed script notes, but we will make sure that what is described in the application is [what is] being delivered.”
The development fund for new voices, meanwhile, will allow a greater level of creative input and outreach. To gain access to regional talent and commissioners across the UK, the YACF’s executive team leverage the BFI’s existing infrastructure and network of partners.
The support comes after 10 to 15 years of decline in the production of public service programming for kids in the UK, with broadcasters spending roughly 40% less in 2017 than they did in 2006, according to Brit competition authority Ofcom. As a result, repeats comprised the majority of kids content on commercial children’s channels (98%) and public service broadcasters (91%) in 2016. And the BBC accounted for 87% of all homegrown kids original programming by public service broadcasters that same year.
Edwards sees the fund’s drive for plurality as a positive way forward. “The BBC are of course in scope because they are a free-to-access Ofcom-regulated public service platform, but the main point of the fund is about encouraging a different tone of broadcaster voice in the landscape,” she says. “Giving children an opportunity to see meaningful content throughout their childhood and young adult life is crucial and we haven’t been doing enough of it in the UK. The fund is our chance to make some brilliant content that reflects the lives of British audiences and I hope it will create a big cultural shift in the children’s broadcast landscape in the UK.”
To help people with questions about the YACF’s priorities, its requirements and types of content sought after by Ofcom-regulated broadcasters, the BFI kicked off outreach today at the 2019 BFI & Radio Times Television Festival in London with Edwards holding court alongside key industry executives including Channel 4′s head of features and formats Sarah Lazenby; ITV’s head of digital channels and acquisitions Paul Mortimer; S4C content commissioner Sioned Wyn Roberts; and BBC Alba’s commissioning editor Bill MacLeod.
During the panel, Mortimer revealed that ITV already has one children’s project submitted to the fund and is awaiting a green light. Roberts of Welsh-language broadcaster S4C noted the importance of the YACF’s extra fund for indigenous languages, but because S4C’s yearly budget is US$8.2 million which has to be spread across 55 hours of programming per week, the channel needs to be mindful on quality and is only looking for about one or two new projects a year.
Additionally, Alison Bakunowich, the SVP and GM of Nickelodeon UK and Ireland and Milkshake!, said in a prepared statement that it has “a number of potential projects in development that it hopes will qualify for the YACF and is excited about the prospect of creating new UK original children’s programming that will add to our local commissioning strategy for Milkshake on Channel 5.”
For content creators, the fund’s production and development application guidelines are available on the BFI’s website.