TBI Weekly: Why the UK is sleepwalking towards losing public-service kids’ content

The World According To Grandpa

Kids’ content veterans Anna Home and Greg Childs, the chair and director, respectively, of The Children’s Media Foundation, lay out what the loss of the Young Audiences Content Fund last year means for UK children’s programming – and the challenges that lay ahead.

For the Children’s Media Foundation (CMF), this year has been dominated by our increasing concern over the long-term future of public service media (PSM) for children and young people. This follows the abrupt closure of the Young Audiences Content (YAC) Fund in early 2022 and is in the context of the slow progress through the UK Parliament of the Online Safety Bill and changes to the regulation of content for children proposed in the draft Media Bill.

The evaluation of the YAC Fund, which supported shows such as E4’s Teen First Dates and The World According To Grandpa on Milkshake!, in the spring, highlighted how successful it was in increasing the range of PSM content across different age ranges and fulfilling a clear public service remit with stringent criteria – benefiting both the audience and the industry. However, there is little chance of a new fund appearing anytime soon.

While there is enthusiasm for what the YAC Fund achieved, there is simply no public money to pay for a replacement

Meetings with government ministers have made it clear that while there is enthusiasm for what the fund achieved, there is simply no public money to pay for a replacement. Cuts at the BBC and their re-prioritising children’s budgets to focus more on animation and internationally viable content, and a clear warning from the commercial public service broadcasters that life without the YAC Fund was going to mean less commissioning, means the range of content will certainly diminish.

ITV has since replaced the CITV channel with an on-demand service on ITVX – with even lower budgets – and both Channel 5 and Channel 4, while they committed to try to maintain some of the new programming commissioned with the YAC Fund, could not promise to increase their commitment when they met industry representatives at an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) meeting convened by CMF and chaired by Baroness Benjamin.

More recently, Alex Mahon, Channel 4’s chief executive, has reiterated the broadcaster’s commitment to young people and raised the issue of the adverse impact of AI-driven algorithms on platforms heavily watched by the young. This makes the government decision not to privatise Channel 4 at least one positive in this rather bleak landscape.

Teen First Dates

Finding the lost audience

The whole ethos of children’s media is changing at speed. The traditional children’s TV audience is fragmenting. Viewers are migrating to a variety of different providers; in particular TikTok and YouTube, neither of which will be sufficiently regulated by the Online Safety Bill to ensure prominence for public service content on their platforms. Without intervention, children will become less and less aware of what public service media is, and of where and how to find content that not only entertains them, but reflects them, their needs, concerns and interests, and helps them to develop as citizens of the future.

No-one is effectively addressing the ‘lost audience’ of aged 7+ children for whom public service content will soon not even be a memory. Former director of Children’s at the BBC, Joe Godwin, has written an important contribution to this debate (which you can read here). It stresses the need for government, the regulator and broadcasters to address children where they are, rather than where they think they should be.

CMF has been stimulating the debate through the course of the year – as part of our role to ensure the issues are brought to the attention of the industry, the public and politicians. Our public events have discussed what happens after the YAC Fund and, most recently, Sleepwalking Over The Edge considered why public service content for children and young people is vital not only for their futures but for the future of society as a whole.

“Sleepwalking” was a term used by BBC director of Children’s and Education, Patricia Hidalgo, at her address to the APPG in March. At CMF we are determined to wake up the people with the power to change this. Our next steps are to brief politicians of all parties about the long-term implications of a failure to act now and the inadequacy of the Media Bill to address the problem of the lost audience.

Radical solutions will be required. We need to find a way to secure the future for the long term. Propping up the past is not enough. But if we all pull together to make our voices heard, perhaps by this time next year we could be looking at a more optimistic future.

This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared under the title ‘Sleepwalking into the future: Time for radical solutions?’ in The Children’s Media Yearbook 2023, published by the Children’s Media Foundation, available here.

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