As the COVID-19 pandemic stalled kids productions in the UK, BBC is banking on new quick turn-around pandemic-focused content to fill any programming gaps that arise, as well as to help children cope, says Cheryl Taylor, BBC Children’s head of content.
When COVID-19 hit the UK in force in March, it became clear that the pubcaster would have to step up to deliver new content for kids stuck at home, she adds. And, she quickly learned the BBC wouldn’t have to look too hard for those shows. Hours after the UK government announced that the country would be going into lockdown in March, producers began emailing Taylor and her team with pitches and requests to help with new pandemic-themed content.
Taylor knew once companies went into lockdown that productions—especially the more high-budget live-action shoots with multiple cameras and large crews—would have to shut down, she says. At the same time, there was a surge in demand for new content that could be made-from-home, reflecting how kids were experiencing the pandemic.
So BBC put out a call on its website, as it usually does when it’s accepting pitches, explaining it was open to commissioning a lot of quick turn-around content (short-form series, or one-off specials that could be delivered in weeks or a few months, at most). To widen its net, and fast, it also sent out emails to independent creators through its mailing list.
The pubcaster quickly got more pitches than it needed, says Taylor. And, at the tail-end of April, the pubcaster commissioned 25 new programs, spanning short videos, made-from-home live-action specials from independent creators, as well as new series made in-house. BBC Children’s has already begun launching new content on a daily basis, with the rest of the commissions scheduled to be released over the new few months as they come in, she adds.
When it came time to decide what content to make there were a few factors that helped projects stand out, she adds. BBC Children’s prioritized educational productions with a longer shelf-life, including health-focused content such as Maverick’s Operation Ouch! Virus Alert (pictured, one x 30 minutes) and Kindle’s Get Well Soon: Coronavirus Short (one x three minutes). These programs were especially relevant because they would answer children’s questions about the virus, and explain concepts like social-distancing in a way they could understand.
“Across the board, [the pandemic] has been a challenge for producers,” says Taylor. “It’s a lot to adjust to, and they need to find new ways to make content. It’s also tough for parents at home to manage what kids are watching, so we commissioned the projects from producers who had plans for how they could quickly make content that was both reassuring and entertaining, and could help kids cope.”
Series that show kids how to have fun at home, or learn more about the world around them were also a priority because that’s what connects with kids, says Taylor. One of the examples of this is Zodiak Kids’ Mr Maker At Home (eight x seven minutes), which encourages kids to make cool inventions with the basic things in their house.
Taylor also wanted content that tackles the pandemic with a more lighthearted tone, which is why BBC commissioned Peggy Pictures’ 10 x eight-minute series Mimi On A Mission: Lockdown Party, where the host Mimi Missfit meets with special guests and offers kids tips on how to stay positive.
Productions with creatives solutions for integrating social distancing into production took some precedence as well, such as the live-action special At Home with Mr. Tumble (25 x two minutes). Filmed through a window—and he had to talk to his director on the phone—gave the show a different look and modelled staying apart, she adds.
The BBC also gravitated toward celebrity-led content, such as My Celebrity Supply Teacher, the project that Taylor is most excited about. The in-house produced 20 x 10-minute series features UK celebrities teaching different lessons to kids from their homes. Famous people have become more accessible for productions during the crisis, she adds, and their name-recognition draws in more viewers, while giving kids a familiar face to engage with.
Not all content can be turned around in a few weeks, but animation studio Plug-In Media, which is making Tee and Mo’s Musical Specials (one x 11 minutes) was able to rejig an existing project to turn around something pandemic-focused faster than if it had started from scratch. This was a big draw because otherwise the animation could have taken months, instead of weeks, says Taylor.
For pitches in the future, projects that have these elements—and are reassuring and entertaining—will continue to draw her attention, she adds.
All of the new COVID-19-commissions helped drive an increase in kids viewership, especially on iPlayer, says Taylor, although she declined to provide specifics.
However, Taylor foresees some rocky times ahead for kids content producers in the UK. She’s heard from many producers who have said they might not be able to deliver their projects on time because of the pandemic, and are hoping they can get their series pushed to the 2021 lineup. But BBC, like most broadcasters, commissions content far in advance, and next-year’s schedule is nearly full. Assuming there are no future delays on 2021 shows, there isn’t room to move everything over, she says. The pubcaster is looking at what it can accommodate for projects that can’t meet deadlines, but it might have to make some tough decisions about what it’s able to launch, she says.
“BBC, as a business, will take a hit,” says Taylor. “There’s a pressure to save, but we’re focusing on providing content to kids, and on building the optimum offering of entertainment for audiences over the next 18 months.”