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Jana Bennett


Jana Bennett

Director, BBC Vision

Keynote speech given at Showcomotion, Children's Media Conference, Sheffield


Thursday 5 July 2007
Printable version

The future of children's media in the UK


Check against delivery


Good morning everybody.


First of all, many thanks for inviting me to open this important conference. This debate really couldn't come at a better time.


We used to take it as read that whatever else was uncertain about British television, the creative and financial vigour of the children's sector was something we could all take for granted.


The recent BBC Four season – Children's TV On Trial – was a timely reminder of the richness, breadth and originality the genre has produced since the Fifties.


Britain not only made great programmes for British children, we exported those programmes round the world.


I remember seeing some research figures a couple of years back that showed kids' TV as the UK's third biggest programme export earner after drama and films.


Children's is a sector that not only created great cultural value, but great value for UK plc too.


But now the talk is all about the crisis in children's television.


The combination of the withdrawal of ITV1 from making and showing children's programmes, together with the effect on all commercial providers of the junk food advertising ban, all this and the growing fragmentation of the children's media market – it's no wonder the sector is feeling bruised.


There are two elements to the crisis that's resulted.


The first is that funding for the sector has shrunk at an alarming rate.


The second is that this shrinkage has happened in a way that's left the market dangerously unbalanced.


On the first point – funding for the sector as a whole – the figures are truly scary.


According to Ofcom, spending on first-run UK-originated children's programming fell by about a third between 2002 and 2006. It's hard to take a hit like that and stay healthy.


During that period only one broadcaster increased it's spend on children's UK origination. That was the BBC.


Now you may think that sounds like BBC bragging. And in one sense it is. But I think it has quite a worrying aspect too.


With the withdrawal of ITV1, the number two commissioner of home-grown children's content after the BBC is now probably S4C. I pay tribute to S4C for its continuing commitment to children's origination. But there is something disturbingly unbalanced about what's happening to the market.


This is the second element of the crisis. Both elements have to be tackled if the crisis is to be resolved.


The Ofcom review is just the latest manifestation of the industry's anxiety that unless we can find new ways forward – and soon - Britain and Britain's children are about to lose something of real and enduring value.


What I want to do in the next few minutes is, first of all, spell out the value that children's media creates and say why we cannot stand by and see it substantially diminished.


Then I want to set out where the BBC stands in all of this, and how things look viewed from a BBC perspective.


But this has to be about more than just the BBC. It has to about be the industry as a whole. So I'll then go on to sketch out some ideas – and they're no more than ideas at this stage – some ideas to help keep the policy debate moving on behalf of the industry as a whole.


First, then, the value of children's media.


The papers have been full of alarmist reports recently about television being bad for children. It's claimed to bring on everything from autism and obesity, to Alzheimer's and premature puberty.


It's hard to escape a powerful whiff of moral panic over the way the issue been reported in some parts of the media.


Now this isn't the place to start hand-to-hand combat about the fine detail of the research or its methodology, or about the dangerous tendency for correlation to be mistake for causation.


But this is the place to bang the drum for the best – I stress, for the best – of British children's media.


This is not a BBC point.


This is about us as an industry being proud of the best of what we do for children, not just on terrestrial television but in multi-channel and on the internet too - and not being backward about saying why we're proud of the best of what we do.


So let me kick off:


  • We fire children's imagination – open their minds to new worlds.

  • We stimulate children's curiosity and get them to try new things – new activities, new sports, new books, new passions.

  • We inspire children's creativity.

  • We help children understand themselves and their relationships in all their rich complexity and in particular, understand their world – begin to fathom their navigation of relationships, their situation, through the experience of others whom they can relate to.

  • We open the door for children to the wider world and its concerns whether that is science, history, fiction or the unlimited world of the imagination.

  • And in between all that good-for-you stuff we encourage children to have fun. No children's service is worth a single bleat from Shaun The Sheep if it doesn't offer its audiences lots of chances to be silly and to laugh out loud.


By doing all that, and doing it really well, we achieve something really important:


  • We play a key role in preparing and equipping British children for the lives they are going to lead.

  • We help build a storehouse of skills and knowledge that stays for life.

  • We show children the power of imagination and what imagination at full stretch can achieve.

  • We provide an important element of common experience, part of the social glue that keeps a generation together.

  • And through all those things we deliver a rich and vital part of each generation's shared cultural heritage.


Within children's airtime it's a chance for children to see themselves in a completely different and inspiring light - as heroes (MI High), empowered to overturn injustice (Roman Mysteries), enabled to try new things (Do Something Different).


They can watch other children overcome fear (Raven, Serious Andes), reach their full potential (The Underdog Show), take control and win against the odds (Beat The Boss).


Instead of feeling depressed and powerless because of global warming or child poverty they can find out about positive action through Blue Peter appeals and Green Peter.


I'm going to take a minute to talk about Blue Peter. Children, and adults, trust programmes like Blue Peter. And rightly so - that trust has been earned over years of making programmes to the highest editorial standards.


So when we discovered earlier this year that the special relationship between Blue Peter and viewers had been damaged we were gravely concerned. We apologised immediately to viewers and acted quickly to make amends.


When we looked into what happened it became clear that it was a case of bad judgement under pressure of a live programme rather than deliberate attempt to deceive viewers. We've introduced measures to make every reasonable effort and to ensure that such an occurrence will not happen again.


So back to the children's sector, who else, except a children's producer, would make a programme like The Wrong Trainers which sensitively tackles the real problem of child poverty in a way that children can understand.


Introducing creatively innovative ways to tell very personal stories and thereby allowing children to share their experiences without sharing their identity and talk directly to other children in a language they all understand.


This is a humbling piece of television enabled by grown ups but driven by children.


That's how important children's media is.


And that's not just a producer's view.


It's a view shared by the overwhelming majority of parents.


According to figures from Ofcom, 80% of parents believe that children's television helps their children learn and develop. Two thirds think it is important that enough children's programmes are made in the UK.


So what can we do to make sure it stays that way?


Let me talk a bit about the BBC here.


We start from the position that children in the UK deserve the highest quality content.


In this context high quality means all the usual things – innovation, originality, distinctiveness, great production values. But where children are concerned it means something more too.


It means content for British kids that reflects the lives British kids live. Made about them and for them. And that means content originated in Britain.


That's not to undervalue the contribution made by non-UK suppliers. Some children's content from the States, and recently, from Iceland Lazytown from creator/actor/director Magnus Scheving is terrific.


But is it right that it should dominate the landscape to the detriment of content that reflects the lives, cultural references, language and values of the UK children's audience?


The BBC is committed to delivering high quality home-grown content for children across all genres.


Imports will always have a part to play in our schedules. But the backbone of the BBC's children's output is, and will continue to be, home-grown content that really resonates with our audiences.


We are committed to maintaining our spend and our hours dedicated to children's content.


Our commitment to our digital children's channels remains rock solid. We re-launched CBeebies in March and we will re-launch CBBC in the autumn. One of our top priorities is to extend CBBC's hours to 9pm.


I guess this audience is focused on the traditional children's demographic, but let's not forget our commitment to the 13 to 16 teen audience too, in particular the new content across all our platforms being worked on by Andy Parfitt, Controller Radio 1 and our teen tsar.


This is still work in progress, this autumn BBC Two will be launching more teen content.


And of course we remain fully committed to family shows that naturally draw in children as part of their audience: Robin Hood, Any Dream Will Do, Doctor Who, and so on. Our BBC One future strategy is to build further on these family programmes, opening up new slots which are not just family friendly but mass viewing experiences.


This is in addition to all the formal educational content we offer from Blast to Bitesize.


So there is no slackening of the BBC's commitment to this audience.


But this isn't just about the BBC.


It's about plurality of supply and plurality of commissioning.


The BBC doesn't want too become anything like a monopoly.


It's not good for us. Competition keeps us sharp.


This is as true of children's as it is of news, or soaps, or sport or drama or any other genre. All those years of Saturday mornings head-to-head with the opposition kept our children's output fresh and lively and engaging.


And it wasn't just the BBC who benefited, it was our audiences too.


It is just not right that our children's audiences should be deprived of choice.


Of course in one way there is a deluge of choice. Twenty channels or more with output aimed at children.


But look at it. Look at the overwhelming dominance of US animation. Where is the variety? Where is the real choice? Where is the range of competing high quality output that reflects the lives of British children?


Where are the programmes that are made for them and about them? We really welcome Ofcom's review and its clear focus on: "the delivery of a wide range of high quality and original content for children".


We are keen to remain engaged with the review and with the other stakeholders in this important debate.


We have no desire to pre-empt any of its conclusions. But if there is a problem sustaining the plurality of production and commissioning of home-grown content what should be done if, as seems clear, the market alone will not provide?


As far as the BBC is concerned we will do our bit.


We will sustain our commitments and work to ensure that we are being as smart as we possibly can be in the way we make children's content – and in the way we make the most of its commercial possibilities in order to generate further investment funds.


But beyond that, are there interventions in the market that Ofcom and the government ought to be considering in order to restore plurality and the financial health of the UK children's production sector?


Superficially, of course, you could restore plurality by top-slicing. But it wouldn't help the sector as a whole. The cake would stay the same size even though its ingredients had been differently divided. And top-slicing does nothing to boost UK origination. It does nothing more for children and cannot substitute for the recent shrinkage of original production for children let alone answer the question of who receives which crumbs of the cake and why….


There are two elements to this crisis and they have to be tackled together.


The ideas I'm about to float don't represent BBC policy – just an attempt to keep the debate moving.


  • Idea One: Would tax-breaks for children's production be a viable option – along the lines of the tax-breaks developed for the British film industry? If film is of cultural importance I believe children's content probably is by comparison.

    Idea Two: Should all public service broadcasters have to make an explicit commitment to serving children? Ofcom does have the powers to look at the issue of quotas for UK originated content abd make recommendations to the government.

  • Idea Three: Should all broadcasters serving children in the UK – not just those with a public service label, but all broadcasters serving children - be required to support the UK production sector – through a levy on profits, say, or an hours commitment?


Any of these would represent quite a significant intervention in the market. But maybe that's what it will take to resolve the crisis.


And if it's to happen then we as an industry need to engage vigorously with Parliament, with opinion formers, and with parents.


Our message has to be this:


  • The best UK children's media makes a huge contribution to the public good.

  • For all sorts of reasons the sector is under serious threat.

  • The BBC, against its will, could end up as more of a monopoly supplier and commissioner. This is not good for the BBC, for our industry, and most importantly it is not good for children.

  • Is the public happy to see the end of the traditional plurality of supply that has made the sector so vigorous – and such a valued part of our shared heritage?


This session today is a contribution to that debate.


Thanks for listening and I'll leave you with a reminder of some our great British content.


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