Following Horrid Henry’s Lead | A Look Back at our News

Currently less than 1% of new TV for kids is produced in the UK. Short of making children's programmes a mandatory requirement, what can be done to encourage production?

When Horrid Henry leaps onto CITV in February, it will be a moment to savour - and not just for kids who delight in his awfulness. The animated character's appearance is a rare thing: a new commission for primary school children from ITV following the broadcaster's withdrawal from kids' television production in 2006, when it axed well-loved shows such as My Parents are Aliens, ended its afternoon children's zone, and stopped competing with the BBC.

The commission is also timely, as questions over how to safeguard a wide range of British-made kids' programmes and ensure competition for BBC programmes and US imports are once more seen as central to current debate about vulnerable public service broadcasting strands. "We have come to the conclusion that the existing institutions are not going to deliver," says James Thickett, director of Ofcom's review of children's television.

With the deadline for submissions to stage 3 of Ofcom's public service review looming next week, some had feared that the row over ITV's £40m regional news cuts would swamp the cause of kids' TV. But that does not seem to be the case.
"I think the crux of the matter... is that of the 115,000 hours of children's programmes broadcast each year, only 1% is new UK-produced programming," says Thickett. "Children should grow up watching TV that reflects their culture. It is Tracy Beaker versus the aspirational, American, happy-endings drama, where everyone has new trainers."

Kids' telly is increasingly seen as the canary in the mine: giving an early warning that all is not well in public service broadcasting. This time last year Ofcom published its first bleak analysis of the sector. Its report identified the emergence of an investment gap of £35m a year in new programmes and spurred it on to bring forward its current PSB review, which should produce firm proposals for government by late January. Children's programming is at the "bleeding edge" of public service, said Ofcom's chief executive Ed Richards.

So what will the regulator suggest? One simple move might be to make children's programming a mandatory public service requirement. It is currently stuck at the bottom of a three-tier list of programming requirements, in what has basically become an optional category. However, Ofcom has long since decided there is no point in trying to toughen rules for reluctant commercial broadcasters.

So what else? With a lack of drama series for older children, the producers' alliance, Pact, has suggested the introduction of tax credits, worth around £30m a year, to stimulate new production. Currently, Pact estimates, the BBC has cut back to only eight children's drama series a year. The BBC says it is has adopted a fewer, bigger, better strategy.

Earlier this month, politicians from all three main parties spoke in favour of tax credits, but Ofcom is not expected to suggest this as a solution. "It's not something we are actively putting forward, says Thickett. "No one thing - and not tax breaks alone - will solve it." Tax credits are seen as difficult to measure, open to abuse, potential state-aid issues, and in any case would not address where the subsidised programmes would be shown - ITV makes more money from advertising around old drama repeats in the afternoon slots once occupied by CITV.

So if not tax breaks then what? Ofcom sees fixing children's television as part of a broader package for all public service content. Behind the scenes it is working on refining a scheme for contestable funding with a new mission statement: "long-term transferable funding".

Under this proposal, programmes could be financed via a new model akin to the BBC World Service, or Teachers' TV, which are government-funded. Alternatively, strands such as news or drama could be franchised out to a number of suppliers, who could be invited to bid - but marketing and scheduling would be critical. A proposal from Channel 4 for older children had been virtually mothballed - but this could rescue it. Channel Five has offered more children's programming, and even a new digital channel, if Ofcom would provide free spectrum. But there remains a big question - where will the money for contestable funding come from: the BBC, the digital surplus assets, spectrum freed up after digital switchover, or an industry levy?

And there is a further problem: this is not a cause that resonates with parents as you might think. Even the campaign group Save Kids' TV says it can seem like a lobby by self-interested producers, with parents of younger children feeling well served by CBeebies and CBBC.

Mike Watt, chairman of Pact's children's policy group, says whatever the solutions, protecting the production base is crucial. He is one of the fortunate, as the maker of Horrid Henry. But he spent last year "watching the horizon continually retreat. And while we wait, the sector continues to shrivel, and children's TV experts leave."

By Maggie Brown | The Guardian 

Mon 24 Nov 2008 00.01 GMTFirst published on Mon 24 Nov 2008 

Posted on 19th Dec 2019