A BBC for the Future may bolster UK kids TV scene

A £60-million pilot fund for commercial broadcaster public service content and the removal of in-house production quotas are among the provisions found in the UK government's White Paper that outlines plans for the renewal of the BBC Charter at the end of this year.
May 12, 2016

A White Paper, entitled A BBC for the Future: A Broadcaster of Distinction, issued by UK government culture secretary John Whittingdale today lays out proposed changes to the BBC Charter that, if put into effect, will bring more diversity and competition to the children’s programming market in the territory.

A BBC for the Future establishes a blueprint for the Beeb to become more open, creative and distinctive than ever before. If it adopts the provisions laid out in the White Paper, the BBC would continue to collect the currently government-mandated TV license fee for the next 11 years, or the length of its next charter, while also experimenting with other revenue models, like subscription-based video. Additional sources of revenue would also come from this fall’s closure of the current iPlayer loophole, which allows people to watch shows via the BBC’s catch-up services without paying the annual £145 (US$209) household license fee.

In terms of how the proposed changes will directly impact the kids TV landscape in the country, the government has unveiled a contestable £60-million (US$86.7-million) pilot fund for public service content from commercial broadcasters. Approximately £20 million (US$29 million) would be allotted to the fund per year over a two-to-three year trial period beginning in 2018/19. The fund will be available to create TV or online content for what UK broadcast regulator Ofcom has deemed under-served genres, which include children’s programming (along with formal education, religion and ethics, and arts and classical music).

The fund is designed for commercial broadcasters and will be paid for with money previously not spent on broadband funding. In other words, this isn’t a matter of redistributing current funding earmarked for the Beeb’s leading children’s channels CBeebies and CBBC, but rather a new source of investment designed to stimulate production within public service broadcasting in areas where the BBC has held a near-monopoly.

The proposal is being welcomed with open arms by the The Children’s Media Foundation, the UK-based industry advocacy org.

“We were very concerned with rumors of a contestable fund coming, which could have potentially meant that it would be taken from BBC license fees and handed over to commercial organizations to make public service content. It’s really interesting to see how they’ve taken this on–it is a compromise and offers a live experiment with real money,” says CMF president Greg Childs, adding that it will be interesting to see if the funds will fall into a series of small projects or if they will be more stimulus-related.

“By 2021, we should have a better knowledge of what stimulates public content in the kids market. So without messing too much with the BBC’s proposition, it’s a solid base for British kids,” he notes.

The move is timely, says Childs, pointing to the fact that UK residents are hoping to see more British-made TV content.

“In the UK, only 1% of the thousands of hours of programs is a newly made UK origination. This will help combat that. But the plans still needs refining if we want to get truly public service content,” he adds.

At the moment, A BBC for the Future outlines that the fund will be applied solely to English-language programs aimed at UK audiences on platforms that have significant reach. It also cites that applications for funding will be considered by a small panel of industry figures, who will be appointed by the organization administering the fund. And all applications will need to have secured distribution on a free-to-air broadcaster or online publisher.

While funding content is one thing, creating it is quite another. The White Paper has also proposed the removal of in-house production quotas in a move that will empower commissioners to select a broader range of content from indie producers.

The BBC’s current TV quotas require a 50% in-house guarantee, with 25% of commissions coming from open competition and the other 25% from indie producers. A BBC for the Future proposes a 75% allotment for open competition commissions, along with a 25% quota for indie productions, which would take effect by 2019. The proposal goes further than what the BBC had agreed upon with the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT) in December 2015, and opens the door to full competition in television for children’s, sports, non-news related current affairs content and returning series.

While the production quotas won’t necessarily make a huge dent in the amount of programming that gets made, Childs says the indie sector will be happy with the new landscape.

What is ruffling a few feathers for Childs and his colleagues is the way in which the BBC will  be governed down the road. In tandem with proposed plans to move under the regulation of government agency Ofcom, a new unitary board will be established to govern the corporation, replacing the BBC Trust.

“The kids audience deserve a free and independent BBC that’s well funded and well supported by a government that’s not interfering with its mandate,” says Childs.

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