There was a time when children’s TV was strictly rationed in the United Kingdom. Not any more. Children’s Hour has given way to Children’s Glut.
The upshot is that competition for the kiddie audience is more intense than ever, and the four main terrestrial webs are under siege from kidvid niche channels.
Nickelodeon, the Children’s Channel and Turner’s Cartoon Network are all up and running in Blighty.
In the fall, they will be joined by the belated arrival of The Disney Channel, with the prospect of still more specialist kids nets to come.
Meanwhile, breakfast station GMTV, part-owned by Disney, regularly targets young viewers, and minority web Channel 4 is responding to the spending power of youngsters by screening more kidvid.
But BBC Television’s children’s maven Anna Home projects that the marketplace will become even more crowded than it already is.
“We haven’t yet seen the full effects of competition,” she says. “The amount of children’s viewing is still relatively small.”
Her long-term fear is that as demand for programming increases, fragmenting audiences and budget cuts may force children’s broadcasters to rely even more on American animation.
In the past five years, the BBC has increased children’s airtime by almost 50%.
Much of this is being filled with U.S. imports, responsible for around 40% of BBC Television’s annual 1,140 hours of children’s TV.
Leading UK private net, ITV, is even more reliant on acquired programming than the BBC, and its more commercial approach to children’s viewing is paying off in larger ratings.
Recent ITV hits include Amblin’s “Tiny Toon Adventures.” This was last year’s most popular kidvid on British TV. And ITV now beats the BBC in weekday afternoons – peak viewing time for children.
The arrival of genuine competition in the UK has, so far, not led to any relaxation of the rules governing children’s TV. The 9 p.m. family viewing watershed applies to all services, cable and satellite included.
As a safeguard, the Independent Television Commission regulates what commercial TV can offer children. Typically, a licensee must provide two hours of children’s drama, eight hours of entertainment, an hour of info-based programs and eight minutes of local material a week.
This, however, has not allayed fears that the quality of children’s TV is being eroded as the marketing men move in.
“Children used to be told stories because that was the way they learned to become part of the tribe,” says Colin Shaw, director of the Broadcasting Standards Council. “Now they are told stories so they can learn to be consumers. Nowadays the product comes before the story,” Shaw says.
One possible hedge against a decline in quality is co-productions. The BBC has collaborated with 19 other European pubcasters to make “The Animals of Farthing Wood,” now in its third series. However, Home warns against entering program partnerships purely for their own sake. “You’ve got to find something that really works as a coproduction,” says Home.