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24 September 2014
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Alison Sharman

Speeches

Alison Sharman

Controller, CBBC


A Creative Vision - Speech given at the Showcomotion Festival in Sheffield


Thursday 7 July 2005
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I'd like to thank Showcomotion for giving me the opportunity to speak today.

 

As I've only recently moved into children's output, this is the first time that I've attended the conference. It has been both a pleasure and an education meeting others in the field. I've been warmly welcomed into the community and greatly impressed with the enthusiasm and commitment expressed by everyone I've met.

 

[Tape of CBBC output]

 

I'll tell you a story of Jack-a-nory and now my story's begun. I'll tell you another of Jack and his brother

And now my story's done...

 

Well... not quite yet!

 

As you may have read, I have decided to bring back Jackanory to CBBC. I loved the show as a child and I know how much story-telling means to children. And today I would like to share with you a story: it's about the journey which I believe is facing broadcasters, distributors and content makers of all kinds working across the area of children's culture.

 

And my creative vision for CBBC is forged by the need to address what I think are the two key challenges.

 

First: that of evolving as content makers who harness and exploit the gathering technological changes of the digital era.

 

And second: tackling the challenges of addressing the diverse world of tomorrow, a tomorrow that - in the face of a fragmenting society - looks, at one and the same time, increasingly exciting and increasingly unsure.

 

As the new controller of CBBC, I have the great privilege to be able to address these challenges from the perspective of a public service broadcaster.

 

For me, that means an opportunity to act upon my most passionate belief, that - given that the licence fee is universal - we at the BBC have a duty to significantly reach out and connect with all sections of society.

 

We also have - I believe - an obligation to aim for creative excellence in everything we do. And we are lucky that our funding model - the licence fee - supports this ambition.

 

By focussing on these goals, I feel CBBC is well placed to take on both of those key challenges.

 

So, first - technology, and the digital age that is rushing upon us all.

 

In this age, the role of CBBC is increasingly vital to the BBC. It should rightly be in the vanguard of the new and emerging media platforms. The children's audience is unique - young and hungry for the new and exciting - and this is why it is probably also the most exciting and challenging audience for which to create content. Children instinctively get - and embrace - the technological changes that are happening. We have to understand and rise creatively to the opportunities that come with these changes.

 

With the advent of Freeview, cable, satellite, EPGs, hard disk recorders like Sky Plus, and the rapid take-up of broadband connections to the web, children are skipping easily across the growing multiplatform environment searching for distinctive, relevant and related content.

 

The phenomenal success of the iPod demonstrates to me some important general themes about the way media consumption is evolving. It is going personal, mobile and, most important, on-demand. How long before we see the video equivalent of iPods as the must-have gadget for teenagers?

 

And this genuinely revolutionary change in the consumption of content means that we must take a long hard look at how we currently go about providing that content; how we schedule; and how we distribute it.

 

It is not enough just to upgrade what we currently do; we need a whole new operating system, a new way of thinking about and executing content creation and delivery. We need - in many ways - to redefine what we mean by broadcasting.

 

Since their inception some years ago, the CBBC and CBeebies channels and the CBBC website have become for many parents a valued and highly trusted part of their children's lives.

 

Great entertainment, and yet also often acting as a trusted televisual or online nanny. This is a glowing testament to the hard work and talent of the CBBC staff - and the independents that provide for us.

 

As an example, I would point to the recent success of the Serious strand: a unique platform for children to make a difference, understand the environment, learn about themselves and have an adventure of a lifetime.

 

This very weekend eight children - selected from almost 30,000 applicants - will set off to explore the Amazon. Good luck to them - and the programme-makers - and I know they will bring back some 'much watch' television.

 

Yet, as we look to the future, we can see the digital revolution becoming yet further integrated into our children's lives. The convergence of platforms - mobile and fixed; increasingly sophisticated interactivity; and the on-demand content world.

 

All these mean we will have to work harder to engage the widest possible audience. But not just work harder… we have to listen harder.

 

We are moving into a world where, for the first time, our audience is way ahead of us in the ways they consume our content. We must not let ourselves be left behind.

 

To answer this challenge we have to embrace the new and multimedia world with an enthusiasm that matches that of our audience. That means not seeing the online presence as a 'bolt-on' to the underbelly of the television service, just serving an audience interest created first by programmes. Instead it means creating programmes and other digital content together and finding a new shared ground between them, and then going on to evolve a new form of unique cross- platform entertainment.

 

Blue Peter is one of the greatest brands on British television. Our challenge is to build that brand across all platforms, fully interactive, and with a new and exciting relationship with its audience - where Blue Peter is at the heart of the digital world.

 

CBBC's BAMZOOKI and Newsround's Press Packers have shown that engaging children's own creativity in a truly interactive fashion may indeed play a large - if not decisive - role in shaping these new forms of engagement with CBBC services.

 

There is so much more we need to do here.

 

However, in the rush to keep up with the demand for such content, it's vital that we keep a couple of key things in mind.

 

Excellence, innovation and the highest quality must be at the heart of all of our content. The BBC has a greatly respected heritage of programme making and that has garnered a great trust within the public. We must strive never to let them down on the unspoken promises of quality or care when we are delivering content aimed at the young and impressionable.

 

I have high hopes that our new pre school animation series - Charlie and Lola - will deliver these standards when it hits our screens in the autumn.

 

And we must take risks, and also ban mediocre ballast from our schedules, or - as I suspect they will inevitably become - our digital distribution points. Yes, we will get some things wrong and some will fail - but, in my view, this is absolutely a price worth paying.

 

iTunes' success in delivering music as and when it is wanted, across borders formerly imposed by geography, points to the future. The world audience will eventually take what it wants and when it wants it. Scheduled transmissions may remain - to feed a need for an informed selection - but we have the potential to move into a worldwide on-demand arena. I want CBBC content to be recognised and respected the world over.

 

And there is one further huge benefit that the digital world offers. The interactivity and two-way relationship that it brings allows us - I believe - to develop through children a new, stronger and more productive relationship with parents up and down the land: a way to build bridges between children and adults, where problems and issues of parenting can be shared and tackled, and where bonds between parent and child are cherished and protected.

 

I am looking to build on the success of Something Special - winner of the RTS Education award for two years running - which through an imaginative fusion of TV and web offerings has made a real difference to children with learning difficulties - and their parents.

 

And this brings me onto the second challenge I mentioned earlier, the challenge to deliver the content that has children's best interests at heart, and that impacts meaningfully and usefully on their lives in a world that is changing rapidly.

 

As a child, I shared with my friends a connection to children's television that always seemed to include a strong element of largely unspoken mutual respect. One sensed - even if one couldn't or wouldn't articulate it - that essentially the programme makers were engaged for the most part in an activity that was 'on my side' and that was 'for me'.

 

When settling down in front of my favourite show of the moment, then whatever the world had dealt out that day or that week could - in some magical fashion - be either put to one side or alternatively worked through in a dramatised world populated by figures like me - that I gratefully recognised were dealing with the same issues as myself.

 

My experience as a parent has shown me that this pressing need for both escape from - and yet a window on - the world of childhood experiences remains as strong - if not stronger - than ever.

 

A child's environment today brings with it much greater degrees of excitement - but also greater degrees of stress and anxiety - than it did in my youth. It has been suggested that children - faced with today's changing or fragmenting society - are utilising the interactive digital world as a 'substitute for community'.

 

File sharing, web logs, chatrooms, message posting, email etc all play their part. Much of this takes place without our direct input either as broadcasters or parents, but is nevertheless often concerned with the content we create. It therefore becomes even more important that we take a long hard look at the material we are asking children to culturally consume. And we need to provide the environment - whether on computer or television screens - that is safe and stimulating.

 

So what are the core values that our content must have for our children in a world that is cluttered and full of distractions?

 

The licence fee's universality means all paying homes in the country have a right to a service that provides content that beyond being 'informative, educative and entertaining' is also both relevant and nourishing.

 

Whether through our drama, our factual output, our entertainment or our web presence, we must be ever mindful that children are in the process of becoming the world citizens of tomorrow. As broadcasters, we have our share in the responsibility to ensure that those citizens are informed both intellectually and emotionally.

 

As such:

 

We must engage and feed their intellect and stimulate our children's imagination. We should aim to open children's minds to new worlds. We must, though, be aware that we are not engaged in making children into idealised versions of ourselves. We are, however, engaged with making the way open for them - and giving them the tools - to achieve their own goals in their own good time.

 

We must treat with respect children's culture and understand its distinctive exuberant character, its needs, its limitations, what it can offer us and its value to children. We must understand the difference between shaping this culture and reflecting it. As caretakers of society's future citizens we must be prepared to do both.

 

We must endorse and facilitate understanding of - and compassion for - their own and other's emotional well being.

 

We must understand and respect that, at times, the adult world can be a very challenging or even frightening place for children. We need to tread carefully in helping them to understand this world.

 

And of course we must create child appropriate, non-exploitative content - delivered in a safe environment.

 

Above all, we must always keep a respectful focus upon two of the core needs of children: first, the need to understand and express something of their deep inner world. And secondly, the need to understand their place in - and relationship to - the outer world, from their immediate family to the wider society.

 

The choices we make as broadcasters to children must always be informed and driven by a clear understanding of these two core needs - as well as a deep understanding of the changing society.

 

Two films that in recent years have transfixed with their magic my two children are Toy Story and Finding Nemo.

 

We can all draw valuable lessons from what is transpiring between the screen and the audience of these films. The colourful vivid imagery is ultimately less important than the dynamics between the characters and their inner selves. Buzz Lightyear's insight into his toy status was as emotionally devastating as anything I've ever seen on the best of our soaps.

 

Nemo's father's coming to terms with how much he'd repressed his own child was heart-rending and a lesson to any parent watching.

 

It seems to me that if we are also looking to create powerful family drama - that binds those watching with one spell and delivers something of social value - then we must be looking for stories that draw upon the powerful emotional forces at work within the family, however it is made up.

 

So the key pillars that I am looking for in our output are:

 

Entertaining content that is never preachy or 'worthy'. Children are increasingly pressurised at school and in the marketplace and - much like the rest of us - use television as a means of escape and therefore relaxation.

 

We must protect that whilst:

 

Engaging the intellect and stimulating the imagination.

 

It must maintain clarity of expression and storytelling. Children can understand the ambivalent but have little patience for the confusing.

 

It must be insightful and informative about the inner self and the outer world, offering varying perspectives on both.

 

It must explore territory meaningful to children, such as what it is like to possess and to be deprived of power.

 

It should endorse and facilitate understanding of - and compassion for - their own and other's emotions.

 

It should take our audience on journeys into other children's lives and cultures.

 

The range of content contains a good mix of genres.

 

Our output must be respectful of children's culture and limitations. They deserve our sincerity, not our cynicism.

 

Finally - all our output must be infused with a tangible ambition for creative excellence.

 

These are invaluable gifts to offer to children. Our committed move into the dazzling digital age must not blind us to this notion.

 

These are the core values that must endure in the very different media world we are moving into.

 

It is why I believe CBBC is uniquely placed to be a beacon of content excellence in the years ahead.

 

Thank you.



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