Opinion: How the BBC can lead the way in the post-PSB world of kids’ programming

Blue Peter is the longest-running children’s show in the world, originally launching on the BBC in 1958

Joe Godwin, former director of BBC Children’s and current board member of the Children’s Media Foundation, highlights how the UK’s Media Bill is key to championing public service children’s content – and why the BBC must continue to lead the way in a post-PSB landscape.

By 2025, if the BBC gets its way, there will be no broadcast television services providing primarily British public service content for school age children in the UK, a mere 79 years after the first children’s TV programme hit the airwaves in 1946.

And the BBC will likely get its way. One of the interesting things about the BBC’s announcement to put CBBC ‘online’ was that there was no outcry. Barely a ripple. No questions in the house, no public revolt like there was at plans to scrap the BBC Singers.

The lack of outcry is partly due to the low visibility of children’s content on the BBC. When children’s programmes were shown every day on BBC One and BBC Two in single TV homes, politicians, opinion formers and most adults would have been aware of the BBC’s offer for kids.

Not now. Kids and parents don’t sit down and watch Blue Peter or Grange Hill together. This isn’t due to the disintegration of society and the family; it’s simply that in those rosy days of yore, there wasn’t any choice. When I was a kid, my media options were BBC One, ITV, horse racing, scrolling pages from CEEFAX, or reading a book! In the ‘90s I worked on programmes that got huge audiences in the millions. Not because they were the greatest shows on earth, but because there wasn’t a lot else for kids to do.

One of the interesting things about the BBC’s announcement to put CBBC ‘online’ was that there was no outcry

Children have deserted broadcast kids’ TV because they can – enabled by affordability of technology and, crucially, having control of their own devices. And they really have deserted it – public service linear TV for school age children is watched by a tiny fraction of the nine million potential viewers.

But before we panic and march on the Broadcasting House or Television Centre brandishing our home-made ‘advent crown-style’ flaming torches, let’s ponder whether that would be the right fight.

History is littered with moral panics brought on by young people’s relationship with technology and media. Rock and roll on record players, violent American superhero comics, pirate radio stations, predators on Myspace, to name just a few. But history also shows us that one technological advance has never happened – a method for putting genies back into bottles. It’s over. It’s a shame, but the kids have moved on.

Strategies aimed at winning back the audience are almost certainly doomed. And strategies that involve reducing the amount of public service content to bring children back to public service kids’ TV are as pointless as they are doomed, a race to the overcrowded bottom.

You may call it a delicatessen, but if it just sells chips, it’s a chip shop.

Joe Godwin

Don’t give up on kids’ content

Does public service content for children still matter? If you’re a supporter of the Children’s Media Foundation or attend the CMC you probably agree it’s vital. Our knowledge, experience and instincts tell us that high quality, culturally relevant storytelling for children is one of our most precious cultural assets. It can promote wellbeing, tolerance, learning, citizenship, social cohesion and can encourage children to value culture and crave knowledge. Not to mention the huge contribution kids’ TV production and sales make to the UK economy. What’s not to like?

I don’t think we should despair – yet. This isn’t an argument for giving up on offering children well-made, culturally relevant and enriching media. Rather, it’s an argument for using our voices and our resources to ensure that public service content for children thrives in a post-broadcaster world.

As far as children are concerned, we’re already in that world.

What’s the answer? One approach would be how the media establishment coped with the challenge of pirate radios stations on ships; seize the ships, outlaw the operators and steal the talent! Sadly globalisation, technology and a lack of appetite for proactive regulation make the ‘North Korean’ option a non-starter!

Just as all might seem lost, along comes a deus ex machina to save the day, in the form of the Media Bill. A once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink what we’re trying to protect and how best to protect it.

In its current form, the Bill does very little for and says very little about children’s content. What it does say is framed in the language of the traditional broadcasters and their public service obligations. Regulation would be, as now, light touch: “do what you think is enough and Ofcom might tell you if it isn’t.” If you want to know how many hooks public service broadcasters are being let off by this Bill, just note how keen they all are for it to be passed “swiftly”.

The Media Bill requires:

“That the audiovisual content made available by the public service broadcasters (taken together) includes an appropriate range and quantity of audiovisual content, contained in original productions, […] that reflects the lives and concerns of children and young people in the United Kingdom […] and helps them to understand the world around them.”

It doesn’t define “appropriate”. The phrase “taken together” means that as long as the BBC does enough, the other PSBs – ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C, and Channel 5 – are off the hook.

It also states that:

“Audiovisual content made available by a public service broadcaster is to be regarded as contributing to the fulfilment of the public service remit for television in the United Kingdom only if the broadcaster has taken steps to ensure that the audiovisual content in question may be received or accessed […] in intelligible form and free of charge.”

It doesn’t count public service broadcaster’s children’s content on a subscription video on-demand (SVOD) platform, such as Disney+ or Netflix.

And that’s nearly all it says on the subject. But I don’t think we should use our energies to try to persuade the government to put more into the Bill to regulate public service broadcasting for children. We should focus our efforts on encouraging them to regulate the spaces where children actually are consuming media, not the spaces they’ve abandoned.

Grange Hill

Regulating VOD platforms

None of this absolves the BBC from its duty to lead the way in distinctive, multi-genre children’s content. Without the BBC there will be almost no children’s documentary and factual content, and very little British children’s drama. The quid pro quo for the BBC is that without distinctive UK children’s, the argument for the License Fee is further weakened.

The Online Safety Bill currently working its way through Parliament has bold ambitions to subject global social media platforms to UK regulation. So why not do the same for video on-demand platforms?

Surely some clever person at Ofcom can think of a way to ensure prominence for UK public service children’s content on ad-based VODs like YouTube and SVODs such as Netflix?

Couldn’t BBC R&D create and licence a ‘public service algorithm’ that can be shared with VOD platforms so that, if parents and other users want to enable it, their children are served content that ticks the public service boxes – from all content providers?

To help public service broadcasters ensure they’re getting the content to the right people in the right places, maybe the Media Bill could set targets for outputs rather than inputs: success measured by hours consumed rather than hours produced?

But above all, the passage of the Media Bill is an opportunity we must seize to remind politicians and our fellow citizens of the true importance of public service children’s content to our children and to the UK.

Once the last children have totally abandoned broadcast television, an unlicensed and unregulated children’s landscape will be as dangerous and scary for our culture as it is for our children.

This piece first appeared under the title ‘Why Don’t You… Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Regulated Instead?’ in The Children’s Media Yearbook 2023, published by the Children’s Media Foundation, available here.

Read Next