The UK children’s industry is already feeling the benefit of a new $70m fund but what are the longer repercussions both domestically and internationally? Ann-Marie Corvin reports
Funding kids content is a challenge in many territories but the market failure of domestic children’s programming in the UK has finally prompted government intervention.
One of its responses is the Young Audiences Content Fund (YACF), a three-year pilot scheme launched in April that has a pot of £57m ($70m) with which to lure the British commercial PSBs back into producing content for the under 18s again.
ITV and Channel 5 still commission and broadcast some kids programming, while Channel 4 claims to air content that attracts young audiences. However, UK regulator Ofcom points out that the big three PSBs are spending 40% less on children’s content than they did in 2006. And much of the current offering is acquisitions, the majority of which are animation.
For children’s producers making original content with domestic broadcaster finance, the BBC – via its CBeebies and CBBC channels – has been the main game in town.
The YACF, which is being administered by UK film body the BFI, hopes to redress that balance by offering to support up to half of a kids’ TV show’s total budget – so long as it is PSB-minded and has a free-to-air UK broadcaster attached.
Since the YACF opened for business, fund head Jackie Edwards says she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the range and diversity of applications. She adds that several projects have already been greenlit, and that the first slate of YACF-financed content will be announced this autumn.
“There’s been a great spread across all genres and formats: from lovely pre-school live-action, to teen drama and comedy,” she says.
The former BBC Children’s acquisitions and animation head, whose seven-strong team is divided between Leeds and Salford, has been travelling across the country to communicate the terms of the fund.
“This year was very much about engagement and encouraging new talent. New voices and diversity are among the fund’s priorities,” Edwards explains.
Some of the more established kids companies, who would be eligible to apply for the fund, are even offering their expertise to help these newer players. Lucinda Whiteley, co-founder and creative director at Novel Entertainment, says she is happy to help fledgling companies through the application process.
“As a mature business we’ve decided that it’s not for us to just hammer ideas out there and not give back to the industry,” she explains.
While the Horrid Henry producer is working on ideas that would fit the bill for the fund, including a factual idea for 6-9s, she adds that the idea is to support “new regional voices”.
“We view this as an opportunity to support new and diverse voices by offering our skills and business acumen,” she adds.
To attract emerging producers, the YACF is also funding a £3m ($3.3m) development pot for indies to flesh out ideas, and there is no ceiling on how much they can ask for and they don’t need broadcaster backing.
Genevieve Dexter, founder and chief executive of boutique distributor Serious Lunch, thinks such an approach is a smart and inclusive move to fast track new talent.
“The fund needs to get things made now, and may end up relying initially on companies with a track record, so the development area is a great way of giving new voices access,” she says.
Dexter, who is also CEO of London-based animation company Eye Present, adds that the firm may use the fund to part-finance Flix, a new animation project presented at this year’s Cartoon Forum that tells the tale of a young pug dog born to cat parents.
For their part, the PSBs need to provide not only their platforms but also a decent proportion of the budget – although producers are free to seek match-funding from other sources, including distributors, international co-producers and other regional funding.
The YACF can also be used in conjunction with the UK tax credit scheme, which offers a possible 25% rebate on productions where the UK core expenditure is more than £1m ($1.1m) per broadcast hour.
Ed Galton, managing director and chief commercial officer at kids’ producer-distributor Cake Entertainment, believes that for bigger projects, this puts producers in an incredibly powerful position.
“If you can tap into the UK tax credit as well as the fund, you can essentially get 70% of finance from one territory – that’s a huge bonus in terms of IP retention,” he says.
Asked whether it would be a challenge to fully fund projects, even with YACF funding, Anne Brogan, managing director of Jamillah And Aladdin producer Kindle Entertainment, said that it would, but “no more so than funding a kids show for the BBC”.
The producer, who has made one submission to the fund already, adds: “It’s worth remembering the BFI money doesn’t have to be recouped. That’s a massive bonus and it gives us much more chance of attracting other investment.”
Broadcaster reaction to the fund has been largely positive, serendipitously tying in with Ofcom’s new powers to impose mandatory kids quotas on commercial PSBs.
The UK regulator has stopped short of forcing the broadcasters’ hands, opting instead to write to them earlier this year to ask for their plans to boost kids content.
They replied in kind this July, using the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield to publicly announce their intentions, as well as to outline the kinds of programming they wanted to use the fund for.
Viacom-owned Channel 5 plans to increase investment in its pre-school strand Milkshake! by at least £1m ($1.1m) and has committed to doubling content production by 2021.
Viacom International Media Networks Kids VP in UK and Ireland, Louise Bucknole, has said that the channel is keen to add more pre-school live action to its portfolio and so far Channel 5 is developing six potential projects for the fund.
ITV, meanwhile, has raised its commissioning budgets by 10% and is on the hunt for live-action shows, with producers given a deadline of 30 August to submit to the first commissioning round.
The broadcaster’s head of digital channels and acquisitions, Paul Mortimer, tells TBI that the broadcaster is looking for content “that reflects the lives of our audiences, particularly gameshow or craft formats”.
He adds: “We’ve received some good ideas in scripted and non-scripted. Without the fund we would not have been able to commission these.”
He argues that UK live-action shows, particularly factual formats, receive little interest from international buyers. “So what the fund allows us to do is work with two or three partners to achieve this, and also fund development.”
He adds that there are still no plans to appoint a kids’ commissioning champion, with ITV continuing its policy of commissioning via genre specialists across factual, comedy, entertainment and drama.
“What we do have now is more people working on CITV than ever before,” he adds, “and I’m seeing far more kids producers, particularly from the regions.”
While C4 has not laid out its plans in detail, the broadcaster has committed to digging deeper into its remit to cater for those aged over 10, and particularly the 16-18s.
The broadcaster is also close to launching an online proposition aimed at teenagers as part of its plans to fulfil its Ofcom PSB commitments for kids.
The only public broadcaster so far to resist actively participating in the fund is what was, until recently, the only game in town.
The BBC will not seek funding from the initiative, a stance which many believe stems from the way money from the fund was made available in the first place.
The YACF comprises £57m ($69m) of licence fee money that was diverted from the BBC’s 2006 settlement for digital switchover.
Technically, the fund was money the BBC had given back to the government, which it hadn’t used – an underspend – but some view this as a form of ‘top slicing’ the licence fee, which, they argue, is ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’.
Greg Childs, Children’s Media Foundation chair and a long-time campaigner for the fund, believes the BBC is “understandably wary” of taking money from a fund that it might one day be obligated to finance.
“The CMF and [UK producers trade body] Pact have made it very clear that we would be reluctant to see any future BBC top-slicing, which would inevitably come out of the children’s budget – so that’s not an option,” adds Childs.
The broadcaster might also consider this contestable fund to be aimed at the commercial PSBs. Either way, Edwards says that the broadcaster does qualify and that the door remains open.
“Ultimately the fund offers indies a chance to get shows greenlit that might otherwise not have happened – the BBC is definitely in the scope and we would welcome applications,” she says.
The fund also has a remit to bolster the programming of regional broadcasters, including S4C in Wales and BBC Alba in Scotland.
The latter, a Gaelic-language broadcaster, transmits two hours of kids programming and keeps the branding of CBBC and CBeebies, but uses its own Gaelic-speaking presenters for the continuity links.
Programming is largely comprised of BBC content and its own international acquisitions, many of them animation, allowing them to be easily localised into Gaelic.
Channel commissioning executive Bill Macleod now plans to use the fund to increase the channel’s live-action output. The genre, he explains, is particularly important for children learning the language as they pick up their linguistic cues – the way the mouth forms around certain words – from content that plays out in front of them.
“That’s why the YACF is such an exciting proposition for us. I can’t tell you how embattled minority language broadcasting has been – to have the sense that we are supported, acknowledged and respected is refreshing,” he says.
BBC Alba is also working on a short drama and a short doc with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which it hopes will qualify for the fund, and is also in talks with its Celtic cousins in Wales (S4C) and Northern Ireland (TG4) to explore further collaboration.
Macleod adds that BBC Alba lobbied its parent broadcaster hard to participate in the fund. He adds that because the majority of the channel’s funding comes from the Scottish government, it was in a strong position, especially given S4C’s eligibility for the fund.
Others point out that combining cultural specificity with global resonance to attract co-production partners is one of the key challenges producers using the fund face.
“I don’t think that the two things are in opposition to each other,” Brogan adds, who adds that this conundrum has always existed in kids TV.
However, she points out: “The more authentic and local your content, and embracing it is of your immediate culture, the more resonance it can have globally.”
As a case in point, Brogan references NRK’s breakout teen hit Skam, which was very rooted in Norwegian culture but addressed issues all teens face. It has subsequently been picked up as a format by Facebook.
Edwards and Childs both mention Adastra Entertainment and CBeebies’ quirky international hit Grandpa In My Pocket, set in a small seaside town. “I think what makes that travel is its hyper-real look and the magical aspect,” Edwards adds.
The SVOD factor
But does Brogan think the initiative will help the PSBs compete with SVOD giants such as Amazon and Netflix, which are fast becoming the go-to for kids of all ages?
“In terms of having an equal slate, no – but the PSBs will be able to compete on a smaller canvas by making a few bold commissions that punch above their weight,” she says.
There have been concerns, mainly from the BBC, that the fund may inadvertently end up using public money to subsidise SVODs through second-window deals, but the YACF has been clear on its holdback policy.
“We will be taking a view on the length of second-window holdbacks within the UK on a case-by-case basis, but we will require a minimum of a two-year holdback in every case,” says Edwards.
According to Childs, the SVODs may even hold the key to the fund’s future once the pilot finishes in three year’s time. A kids TV levy on the big SVOD platforms has been one option mooted, with Australia and France already proposing similar plans.
“This could produce large sums of money to fund PSB competition,” he says, although he acknowledges that Pact is generally nervous about levies, believing that they skew the marketplace.
“But if it’s a way of getting incredibly high-value companies to contribute to the territories they operate in, then that’s one way of doing it,” Childs argues.
One other concern levelled at the fund is that broadcasters are reserving it for the shortfall of live-action shows, which may leave animation producers out on a limb.
Certainly, the launch of a separate BFI initiative for animation this August was very timely. The new, lottery-funded Short Form Animation Fund, which will award up to £120,000 ($146,000) to up-and-coming animators working on ambitious projects, may go some way towards addressing animators’ concerns.
In the main, however, the industry has been impressed with the BFI’s orchestration of the fund and with how quickly Edwards and her team have embedded themselves within the kids TV community.
And, as Childs adds, after years of government lobbying, what’s not to like about £57m?