Crunch time for kids TV
By Kate Bulkley
Tuesday 13 July 2006
Is there any sort of future for children's programming on terrestrial television?
In a somewhat unusual meeting of minds, both broadcasters and producers attending last week's Showcomotion conference on children's programming seemed united in their views that the funding future for indigenous kids programming in the UK has reached crisis point. Not only that, but a large number of producers and commissioners believe that if the issue is not addressed soon it will lead to the loss of one of the most creative parts of the British TV industry. Not only are commercial broadcasters facing the prospect of a new regime of tough regulation on food advertising under proposals by Ofcom, but ITV has already decided it must sell or close its loss-making kids production arm in order to better serve its shareholders.
If that wasn't bad enough, the growth in digital children's channels by all the big terrestrial broadcasters means that producers are already being asked to work to smaller digital channel budgets. "What has happened to Granada Kids is just the beginning and is symptomatic of what will happen to the whole kids industry," insisted Anne Brogan, controller of ITV Productions, Kids, speaking last weekend at Showcomotion.
Speaking as a children's producer rather than as an ITV executive ? Brogan added: "Unless radical steps are taken to change the PSB spend on kids, there will be no kids TV industry left. I cannot say that loudly enough."
Pact has done its own sums based on Ofcom's estimates that banning junk food ads before the 9pm watershed will result in a loss of ?114m in total kids programme spend from ITV, Five and Channel 4. Pact's worst case scenario estimates that a 9pm ban will cost indies more than ?93m in lost commissions and ancillary revenues from ITV, Five and C4.
Tess Alps, chief executive of Thinkbox, a marketing group that represents the UK commercial broadcasters, insists that the junk food ban will be "devastating" for the UK children's TV industry. "We seem to have worked ourselves up into an insane frenzy on this issue where some commentators now talk about a tube of Smarties as if it was crack cocaine."
Pact chief executive John McVay declares: "We are not saying that the government should not be doing something about junk food advertising, but the potential impacts on public health of such a ban are relatively modest in terms of changing behaviour and decreasing obesity. If you are a children's producer why should you carry the entire weight of a change in public policy on your shoulders?"
Ofcom's Bill Haworth agrees that advertising itself has a modest impact on children's buying decisions but adds that the status quo on junk food advertising is "not an option".
The children's TV industry's problem is that a well-connected and influential food lobby has almost totally stolen the agenda on junk food advertising. One of the biggest challenges for kids programmers is to regain some of this lost ground and try to turn public opinion towards understanding their problem and, second, into supporting them.
Howard Litton, senior vice-president, general manager and director of channels at Nickelodeon UK, argues that junk food headlines are dominated by "Taliban-style consumer groups", although he admits that food manufacturers should respond by changing their products.
Of course, the current poor advertising climate affecting all television will only be exacerbated if junk food ads are banned. ITV's Brogan admits: "ITV is in kids programming for the money," although she insists that the network's decision to back out of kids is not to blame for the entire malaise.
With kids programming at ITV, C4 and Five under threat, most people in the industry believe that soon the commercial channels will be asking the regulator for a reduction in their PSB obligations. The answer that every kids indie wants to hear from Ofcom is a sharp "no".
In the midst of the commercial channels' problems with kids, the BBC has already made its own moves. Its Saturday morning kids block of programming has already transferred from BBC1 to BBC2, with many predicting that this is just the start of a strategy at the BBC to shift children's off terrestrial and onto digital channels. While the BBC is likely to remain committed to children's production, the worry for indies is that it may soon be the only significant terrestrial commissioner in town.
Thinkbox's Tess Alps is no champion of monopolies. "Leaving the investment in original kids programmes to the BBC would be an unwelcome outcome. How many British producers want to live with a monopoly purchaser? All monopolies end up growing horns. It's not a good thing for this industry," she argues.
Possible solutions to the impending crisis range from stronger Ofcom regulation on PSB obligations to dedicated funds to make up the shortfall in advertising and broadcaster spend. The leading kids TV players are now racing against time to implement a proposal that works. Now the Ofcom junk food advertising consultation has officially closed, the industry has its fingers crossed that the regulator treads a middle way, which will lessen the financial impact. Ofcom's Haworth says: "It's very unlikely we'd be able to get away with no recommendation, but we're hoping we can arrive at something that steers a moderate path."
Meanwhile, Pact has proposed a Children's Rights Fund of ?50m over eight years ? essentially a programme of soft loans. While this might appear to be too little, too late, proving the concept of government funding could be a first step to more funds later on.
A public service publisher (PSP) targeting the funding of kids programming could also work. This kind of funding method has worked in Australia where government money is funnelled thought the Film Finance Corporation, a body set up in the 1970s to protect the county's heritage and culture.
Delegates at Showcomotion concluded that a serious public debate on behalf of indigenous children's programming was needed. Raising awareness of the impact of an advertising ban is also crucial ? at least if the latest research from MediaCom is anything to go by. Panel research, conducted in partnership with specialist consultancy Kids Industries, found that 97% of UK parents are unaware that the proposed ban on food advertising on TV would create a serious drop in UK-made children's television. Sixty per cent said this was a concern.
Perhaps the kids TV industry needs its own Jamie Oliver-style champion. Maybe a life-sized Bob the Builder carrying a petition to No 10 Downing Street will start to get everyone's attention. And Bob needs to make that trip right now.