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Reflecting on five years at CBeebies

Kay Benbow

Controller, CBeebies

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After five years as Controller of CBeebies I still love what I do and never forget how fortunate I am to be leading the UK’s most loved children’s channel. At CBeebies we want to be able to support all families and help open up the world to our youngest viewers. I’m really proud we are a part of so many families’ lives. It is a privilege to be – in the best traditions of the BBC – entertaining, educating and informing our youngest audience.

At the weekend I looked back at the things I said I would do when I had my interview for this job: encourage greater connection with viewers; create opportunities for all the audience to see themselves on screen and participate in our programmes over the past five years. I think we are particularly good at reflecting the wonderful and diverse nature of children from throughout the UK and we’ll continue to do that with shows like Magic Hands, Melody (both co commissions with Abigail Appleton in BBC Learning) and the iconic Something Special.

The Elves and the Shoemaker


Connecting with our viewers is incredibly important to us at CBeebies, so inevitably it’s the occasions where we get out and meet our viewers to hear what they think, that are really exciting for me. \the most recent event was in the Trinity shopping centre in Leeds, celebrating the launch of The Elves and the Shoemaker – our third collaboration with Northern Ballet. Almost 83,000 people saw live performances and got involved (even if they were only planning on popping to the shops). So many of our team gave up their weekends to help – which shows the passion we all have at CBeebies.

I love the fact that we now do big shows in front of a live audience it's at these events you can feel the excitement of the children. The CBeebies Prom is certainly a highlight of my time as Controller – bringing classical music to a huge (and very young) audience in the Royal Albert Hall has been simply amazing. Sitting there, I felt six years old again and wondered if it was really happening! Christmas too is special and I am delighted that we now do a Christmas show each year. We didn't really go big on Christmas when I took over the channel and we weren’t sure if it was the right thing to do but thought "let's give it a go" and now it has become the highlight of our Christmas schedule. Each year we’ve built on the last - Jack and the Beanstalk at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, A CBeebies Christmas Carol at the Crucible in Sheffield and Peter Pan last year at the Lowry Theatre too. I can’t share the details yet but we’ve got another lovely one this year and are going to go to another theatre in the UK...

So the Prom, the ballets , the Christmas Show, wherever we get out and connect with our audience is really special and I have to say that I’m pretty proud of CBeebies Land at Alton Towers too. It's a successful example of how things can be commercial and stay true to the ethos of CBeebies. When it's done right I think it really allows children to interact with the BBC in new and exciting ways.

I know we can’t rest on our laurels and I know too there are certain areas where we still need to work harder. More women are now fronting shows on CBeebies but I’d like to see even more on screen. We have a brand new series called Footy Pups (pictured at the top) this spring which is fronted by Arsenal and England striker Rachel Yankey, which really plays to my passions - one of which is football. Colleagues in BBC Sport and the Get Inspired team here at Media City have been incredibly supportive and our partnership demonstrates how powerful cross departmental collaboration can be.

The collaboration with Sesame Street that led to The Furchester Hotel was also very special for me. I’m a big believer in partnerships and building relationships and I think that’s how a lot of our projects on CBeebies happen. I’d known the people at Sesame Street for some time from a previous role and when I started as Controller we talked about how lovely it would be to work together. So we said, “Lets create something together from the ground up”. The in-house team at CBeebies Productions led by Alison Stewart and the team at Sesame came together and created something wonderfully unique. Bringing together the best talent from both sides of the Atlantic has produced a show with real heart that helps children deal with real problems and issues in a fun and entertaining way.

I'm fascinated to see how the audience has changed over the last five years and adopted new platforms. Our wonderful apps – Playtime and Storytime – have been developed by our dedicated teams. We launched our own CBeebies iPlayer too which allows children to watch what they want, when they want and download favourite shows for journeys and trips away. I'm also delighted that CBeebies Radio is now available on the iPlayer Radio dial and going from strength to strength. Digital is by far both the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge for us – not only in Children’s but across the BBC. 

I remember signing off the trail for the Playtime app when it was ready to go and I literally grabbed my eldest son and said, “Look at this! Look at this!” – it was a very proud moment for me. It came at a difficult time personally, as I was having chemotherapy for breast cancer. The BBC enabled me to carry on working from home at that time and my teams were wonderfully supportive - they knew me and how I think, so we kept things moving forward. Even on the really bad days when I had no hair and I felt dreadful, I’d look at the development of the app or at the rough cuts of Topsy and Tim or Katie Morag and I'd think, “This really matters”. When I came back to work, CBeebies won the BAFTA for Children’s Channel of the Year, so 2013 was really memorable, for lots of reasons.

Five years on, I count myself incredibly fortunate. I love what I do, I work with great people, both in front of and behind the camera and, yes, it’s an amazing job and a huge responsibility. I’m very proud - we have won three Channel BAFTAs and we manage to reach almost half of our available audience every week - an incredible achievement - but we cannot be complacent. There are so many other great offerings for children out there, but I hope we are at the heart of what they do when they are very young. Someone said, “CBeebies is one of the jewels in the BBC’s crown,” and I really believe that. At the heart of the channel is opening up the world, sending children on a voyage of discovery, empowering, inspiring them and hopefully making them resilient little people as well. Five years ago I took on a channel I loved and I hope I’ve nurtured it and helped it evolve, I hope its part of the essence of UK family life.

Kay Benbow is Controller, CBeebies

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