In advance of the launch of a new report about the funding of public service media content for children, Professor Jeanette Steemers from the University of Westminster provides a view on the recent proposals for the future of children’s TV content as set out in the Government White Paper on the BBC. The report, co-authored by Steemers and Feryal Awan, will be launched at an event held in association with the Children’s Media Foundation and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer at the University of Westminster on 31 May 2016.
In a barely noticed section, the Government White Paper on the BBC includes plans to pilot a public service content fund for public service genres that are in decline. One of those genres is children’s programming, which has been under strain ever since the removal of output quotas for commercial Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs) (mainly ITV) in 2003, followed by a ban three years later on advertising for junk food and fizzy drinks on children’s TV. This has left the BBC as virtually the only commissioner of UK children’s programming. The Government’s idea behind the three-year pilot is that it might help ‘deliver quality and pluralistic public service content, using competitive forces to ensure the highest quality for the best value for money’ (p. 71).
A Public Service Content Fund
To be fair, we don’t know the detail yet because there will now be a public consultation. But the £20m a year that the fund is set to receive is unlikely to go very far if it’s shared with arts, educational and religious programming, and if it also has to serve Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) audiences and audiences in the nations and regions.
Financed from leftover funding for digital rollout and local TV from the 2010 licence fee settlement, the Government also makes it very clear that the licence fee is not for the BBC’s sole use, and that a small proportion of it ‘may be available to organisations other than the BBC’ (p. 71). This suggests that the issue of ‘top-slicing’ is unlikely to disappear when the pilot period ends, and that politicians are unlikely to resist the temptation to salami slice in future.
How will children’s programming benefit from the fund?
Children are underserved with public service content, particularly online, so better resourcing for content made and distributed by a range of producers across a variety of devices and platforms is welcome. We don’t know yet what type of organisations will be allowed to apply to the fund, and although the White Paper notes that content will need be free-at-the-point-of-use, it is not clear what is meant by the requirement that content would need to be shown on a platform with an ‘appropriate reach’. This suggests that this content might not be available to everyone, everywhere.
Experience of content funds in other countries
The White Paper does note that New Zealand and Ireland operate similar funds, so it’s worth checking how these schemes work for children’s content. In other countries content funds are financed from direct taxation (New Zealand, Australia), levies on commercial players (France, Canada) and of course from the licence fee (Ireland, Denmark).
In Ireland, public service broadcaster RTE has arguably been a key beneficiary of children’s programming subsidised by contestable funding, allowing it to commission 3-4 Irish animation series a year in the expectation of further funding down the line. Between June 2015 and January 2016, eight out ten children’s programming awards from the Sound and Vision III scheme went to children’s content commissioned by children’s channel, RTEJr. The sums are small (often less than 10 percent of budgets for animation) and only for broadcast content, but represent the start of a well-worn route for Irish animation producers which includes further subsidies from the Irish Film Board, Creative Europe, Northern Ireland Screen and generous Irish tax breaks.
In New Zealand, the government broadcasting funding agency, New Zealand On Air, funds most New Zealand children’s content through a contestable fund. In this small market, demand and capacity are two issues that make the funding of children’s drama and animation challenging. In 2014/2015, 81 percent of funded hours were attributable to three popular broadcast magazine shows, which accounted for 55 percent of allocated funding.
In Denmark, the Public Service Puljen fund supported four TV productions between 2011 and 2013, but the fund has struggled to generate interest from commercial broadcasters. In all three countries the availability of funding does not really solve the lack of demand from commercial broadcasters.
In France (the Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée) and Canada (the Canada Media Fund), production funds work better but only because they come as part of a suite of measures. This includes redistributing industry levies to support content funds, combined with output and production quotas, which oblige broadcasters to take home-grown children’s content. In Canada, the system is looking fragile because of cuts in output quotas and concern about declining cable and satellite revenues that support the Canada Media Fund. In France, the system largely benefits animation specifically, rather than more diverse content.
What would work for UK children’s content?
So if you were to set up a children’s fund in the UK from scratch what might work, and how could you learn from the experience of others, assuming that your main objective (based on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s BBC Charter Review Public Consultation) was to introduce ‘greater diversity of providers and greater plurality in public services provision’?
First, £20m a year is unlikely to fund much, especially if it is shared with other genres and audiences, so all content will need co-funding.
Second, the funds that work best in the interests of children tend to be those that concentrate solely on children’s content. These include the independent Shaw Rocket Fund in Canada and the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. These are organisations that can call on child development and editorial expertise, which ensures that children’s media interests are represented rather than vested industry interests.
Third, a fund alone is not enough. There need to be other measures that stimulate demand. In France and Canada this has been done through output and investment quotas that mean that content has a home to go to. Without quotas, there is evidence that commercial players are reluctant to invest in local children’s content (see J. Steemers and F. Awan, Policy Solutions and International Perspectives on the Funding of Public Service Media Content for Children, 2016).
Fourth, we know that children still watch a great deal of ‘television’ on a range of devices and platforms. Yet we know very little about how much time children spend consuming PSB services online and offline. A pilot offers the chance to be more experimental and support different types of public service content for children rather than just broadcast content. But it’s important that this is researched and evaluated to inform future policy.
Distribution and Discoverability
Fifth, if the White Paper is serious about encouraging partnerships with the BBC, then this could be the time to test the extent to which the BBC’s proposed single online platform for children, iPlay, can play a role as an online home for all publicly funded children’s content. This could be the place to test the crossover between TV, games and digital content in a trusted advertising free space. Last September the BBC indicated in its British, Bold, Creative paper that it was willing to offer access to content from other broadcasters and ‘carefully chosen partners’. The fund is not large enough to establish an independent online platform, so it will have to forge relationships with existing online platforms or aggregators. There also needs to be much more thought about the mechanisms through which children can navigate and discover content. There is a danger that children won’t find publicly funded content online without interventions that ensure that public service content is easy to find across all platforms and online portals.
Finally the biggest challenge is sustainable funding, and there is a danger that the pilot will fizzle out before the first children’s project has even secured funding from other sources. The fund could be sustained by top-slicing the licence fee but stakeholders like PACT, the Voice of the Listener and Viewer and the Children’s Media Foundation have indicated that this is unwise if it cuts the BBC’s ability to support local content.
However, as we go into consultation mode, the European Commission has thrown in an interesting variation on how a fund might be financed in future. Proposals for a revised Audio-Visual Media Services Directive impose a 20 percent European quota on the catalogues of subscription video on-demand services like Netflix. More interesting still is the proposal to allow individual countries the right to impose investment quotas on subscription on demand services. This is almost certainly what France will do in order to support French production in line with past practice, but would a UK government follow their lead? Or will it bide its time and nip in through the back door to make the funding more permanent through just a little bit more licence fee money?