To say a lot has changed in the year since former Turner EMEA chief content officer Patricia Hidalgo (pictured right) took the reins as director of children’s and education from Alice Webb is an understatement. After saying farewell to head of content Cheryl Taylor in April, the pubcaster switched up Sarah Muller’s role to head of acquisitions and commissioning for seven to 12s, as well as hiring former eOne exec Kate Morton to lead acquisitions and commissioning for preschoolers (zero to six).
Jessica Schibli was also brought in at the beginning of the year as BBC Children’s first-ever diversity and inclusion lead to ensure all of the pubcaster’s content is reflective of UK kids, and that its in-house teams are diverse, too.
On the operational side, big changes are coming for in-house productions, which will transition next April from operating as a unit of BBC Children’s to being managed by commercial arm BBC Studios. Head of in-house productions Helen Bullough (pictured left) is overseeing the move, which aims to increase BBC Studios’ financial returns by 30% within five years by growing some of its existing kids brands and new ones into global entertainment hits for a range of third-party broadcasters and platforms.
While the changes shake out, BBC Children’s continues to grow its programming portfolio. Despite the pandemic, the pubcaster commissioned more than 32 different projects last year, a slight decrease from a typical year, when it works with about 50 indie prodcos on new content. Whether it gets back to pre-pandemic levels in 2022 remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the pubcaster’s performance hasn’t suffered. Combined with BBC Children’s content on the Beeb’s VOD service iPlayer, kids channels CBeebies and CBBC generated a record 1.2 billion minutes of content viewing per week in 2020.
To continue this momentum and provide a wider offering of platform-agnostic content next year, BBC Children’s is on the hunt for more animated comedies for seven to 12s, eco-themed concepts, diversity- and inclusion-led productions, preschool dramas and content based on well-known brands like CoComelon and Pokémon, which both recently launched on iPlayer.
Kidscreen caught up with Hidalgo and Bullough to discuss what the future holds for kids content at the British pubcaster.
Kidscreen: Why did BBC Children’s decide to merge commissioning and acquisitions based on age groups for the first time?
Patricia Hidalgo: When I joined a year ago, we were in the middle of the pandemic, and we were already seeing a big shift in viewing from linear to streaming. All of the competition coming from other digital entertainment outlets meant we needed to change the way we approached our strategy. That’s why we decided to become a little more audience-targeted rather than channel-targeted. For the most part, children’s channels have always had broad [audiences], and we knew from the way kids consume content that our targets needed to be narrower than they’ve been in the past.
[In terms of blending acquisitions and commissioning teams,] whether we fund content from a UK company, an international player or our own in-house productions, we want the best content. How we manage that is by making sure our commissions and acquisitions teams are working together and sharing information.
KS: What other structural changes are in the works?
PH: We have a new content and performance strategy department that we are hiring for. [The BBC has since announced former Disney director Anna Taganov has joined to lead the new department.] The lead will handle all of the scheduling of our channels and iPlayer, as well as developing a strategy for the content we will need.
KS: The channel has pivoted away from twice-annual commissioning periods to year-round commissions—how is BBC Children’s benefiting from this new strategy so far?
PH: It’s helping speed up our process so we can re-commission faster. For example, we renewed our in-house animated preschool series JoJo & Gran Gran for a second and third season quite quickly when we saw how well it was doing with our audiences. To date, it’s one of our top-ranked shows, and was recently sold internationally to Nickelodeon’s preschool edutainment service Noggin, marking its US debut. Having volume is working well for us and for other platforms, too.
KS: What’s the reasoning behind the launch of BBC Children’s Ignite program, which is in the process of offering development funding for up to 20 animated concepts from new UK creators?
PH: Some of the best animation shows, especially for preschoolers, come from the UK. But we feel we haven’t worked with animation for seven to 12s to the same level, so we’re [using Ignite] to invest more in that space. We want to focus on British culture and storytelling, but it doesn’t mean we won’t work with international partners on co-productions. One of the things I don’t want to do is miss out on opportunities. I want people to know they can come to us at any time with an idea, even if it’s in the very early stages.
The sale of JoJo & Gran Gran seems to align with the strategy behind the pending absorption of in-house productions into BBC Studios. How are you feeling about this operational move?
PH: I couldn’t be happier to integrate what is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable children’s production teams into such a formidable production and distribution entity. A lot of the great content [the] in-house [team] makes for the UK can actually travel now, and we’re already seeing this with shows like JoJo & Gran Gran. Seeing more of this great storytelling from Great Britain travel around the world ultimately benefits everyone.
KS: What kind of content is the in-house productions team interested in right now?
Helen Bullough: We are developing hard in the six-plus space, especially comedies with co-viewing potential. Authentic, diverse stories are also offering us some exciting possibilities, and we have some high-end game show formats we would love to discuss.
KS: What do you think BBC Studios will look like come April?
HB: It will be an exciting new chapter. We will be working in a content production operation, meaning we can grow more global creative opportunities and safeguard our ability to produce high-quality content that reflects the lives and passions of UK kids and delivers value to families.
At a time when growth in the global children’s market means there is more demand for kids content and greater competition for talent, the move will help our team find new ideas and projects going forward.
KS: How is BBC Children’s progressing with its diversity and inclusion initiatives?
PH: We have increased our commissioning fund so Jessica [Schibli] now has a budget of US$411,000 (GBP£300,000) for this fiscal year to spend on diverse content and ensure that leadership roles are diverse on productions and throughout the senior ranks of companies, including ours. If an indie we’re working with needs to improve its on-screen diversity or off-screen representation, they can apply to the fund for support.
[The funding ties into the BBC's previously announced diversity mandate, which states that, as of April 2021, at least 20% of production companies' teams must be from historically excluded groups for all new commissions.]
HB: There is never any room for complacency in this area. We have shows like The Dumping Ground, Something Special and JoJo & Gran Gran already demonstrating the impact that thoughtful and authentic storytelling can have on screen. Off screen, we’re also working with [Schibli] on the 20% diverse production goal to ensure we can monitor how a company is doing against its commitment, using data to judge if it has met the requirement.
Additionally, we’re leveraging BBC initiatives like 50:50 and New Voices to expand the diversity of our writing team, and we have a number of people championing [for change] in the department.
KS: What will be your biggest challenge over the next year?
PH: We are all thinking about going back into the offices, but there is still uncertainty. We don’t know how that is going to happen, and not being physically and personally with your teams is challenging for everyone. We are at that point where we really need to start having those personal connections. Because of the world we live in, staying relevant to our audiences is going to be the most challenging—that’s not just for us at the BBC, it is for everyone.
HB: There is a constant need for vigilance as we hopefully come out of the pandemic. I am hopeful that our challenges will stop centering around the pandemic and go back to being normal, such as how do we make the most relevant, high-quality content for kids. If we can get back to that being our overriding challenge, rather than the pandemic, I will be really thankful.