BBC kids boss issues license fee rallying call

Alice Webb 2The new head of the children’s services at the BBC has called upon the wider industry to rally behind the UK pubcaster in the run up to Charter Renewal.

Alice Webb, director of BBC Children’s, also said that her division will look at making content for older kids now that fellow PSB Channel 4 has pulled back from content for 10-14s.

Speaking at the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield during a session chaired by TBI last Friday, Webb said the BBC was planning a digital push for kids as well as committing to UK programming for its linear channels CBeebies and CBBC.

The digital initiatives and everything BBC Children’s is planning is, however, contingent upon it receiving sufficient funding from the next licence fee deal. The BBC Charter, which dictates the BBC’s budget for a set period, comes up in 2017.

Webb said: “Our plans are entirely dependant upon charter renewal, we all know it. Less money will mean hard choices for us. That’s why it is really important we all get out there now and lobby for the license fee.

The BBC has lots of detractors, but now is the time for support; maybe not because you love the BBC but because you love and value children’s broadcasting. As the biggest broadcaster and by far the biggest buyer of UK originated content for kids, a strong chldren’s industry needs a strong BBC and a strong Childrens BBC.”

The BBC now funds 97% of UK originated kids content in the UK. C4 has backed out of kids programming, Channel 5’s commitment to original UK kids content unclear now it is owned by US media giant Viacom, and ITV, with a couple of recent commissions aside, is also largely absent.

Against that backdrop, with the other public channels pulling away from UK kids content, TBI asked Webb whether the commercial PSBs needed to step up and commit to locally-sourced kids content. “I would be utterly delighted to see competition; a vast array of competition would be marvellous,” she responded. “I don’t think there is any danger of that, unfortunately, any time soon.”

Webb said that in the current environment, the licence fee deal becomes crucial for the UK kids business and that there would have to be cuts if funding is reduced. “It is difficult to talk about what the scenarios might be,” she said in the Q&A session after being asked whether older kids-skewed CBBC could follow youth-skewed BBC Three and go online-only.

“If [funding] gets slashed we will have to make very hard choices and the audience will dictate what those are, but to be clear that is not the proposal we are putting forward. The proposal is for more money for children not less.”

Asked if BBC Children’s could help fill the content gap for kids aged 10-14, Webb said: “There is definitely a desire to do that, but we have to be careful about taking on more responsibility. We have to safeguard what we are already doing and there are no commitments, but we are looking at it.”

Any provision for this age group would likely be digital in one form or another. “If digital hadn’t come along I can’t see how we might do it, but actually there is an opportunity – there isn’t more money, but we should look at this, and we are,” said Webb.

The executive, who is four months into the kids role having previously been BBC England COO, outlined a digitally-led plan for BBC Children’s, noting that its audience is increasingly connected and mobile, and that about 25% now come to the BBC’s kids service through catch-up and on-demand service iPlayer.

The initiatives are part of Webb’s ‘Big Digital Plan’, a review she has undertaken since taking over Children’s.

“What we offer has to be sophisticated and diverse in a digital world,” Webb said. “Digital gives us the ability to do things we haven’t been able to do so far, we will be looking at what we can do to personalise our content for children using MyBBC. We will be seeking to expand and create an ever larger online space.

“I’d love to be able to create a single front door [where] parents, carers and kids can come through and access everything that the BBC has; imagine a world where we tag all BBC content with its age appropriateness. All of this together means we will be increasing our spend on digital.”