LONDON — Any debate involving children’s TV is guaranteed to generate more heat than light, and in Blighty the temperature is close to the boiling point as the battle for the future of tyke TV unfolds.
Independent producers who specialize in kids’ shows claim the decision by ITV, the U.K.’s biggest private web, to stop commissioning tyke fare — coupled with restrictions on junk food advertising planned by regulator Ofcom and backed by Prime Minister Tony Blair — may destroy their business.
They say children’s TV is in crisis and that government action is necessary to protect an industry that earns valuable export coin and has an important role to play culturally and socially.
Funding for children’s programs in Blighty has been precarious for years with the multichannel fragmentation of audiences and advertising coin.
Now that ITV, more bottom-line-driven than ever as it seeks to boost its flagging stock market perf, has axed its kids’ production arm and red-lighted all children’s commissions, producers are furious that one of their main markets has disappeared overnight.
“We are fast approaching a situation where the only big domestic children’s producer will be the BBC,” says Jonathan Peel, chair of Millimages U.K. and head of producers’ lobby group Pact’s children’s committee.
“That is bad for audiences, who will be deprived of a plurality of supply. Imported children’s programs are great, but it is important that British kids see shows that represent their own culture.” Meanwhile, in what is a very competitive market offering some 23 different kids’ stations, services like Disney Channel — which earlier this year dropped its premium pricing strategy for cable and satellite subscribers — report record audience.
“The U.K. offers a tremendous variety of programs for kids by virtue of what the BBC does and what the Hollywood studios provide, and there is a lot of investment in original production,” says former U.K.-based Disney topper Paul Robinson, now a media consultant. “This is unique to Britain. Other global markets don’t offer choice on this scale for audiences or opportunities for producers.”
Nevertheless, the drying up of £20-plus million (more than $35 million) in commissioning money (ITV’s children’s budget has edged downward from approximately $50.5 million eight years ago to roughly $36 million last year) suggests there is a funding gap other broadcasters are unlikely to fill.
“How long will the BBC continue to spend ($148 million-$167 million) a year on children’s programs when their nearest rival is putting in” $7.4 million or $9.3 million, says Greg Childs, who runs the action group Save Kids’ TV.
“Nickelodeon and Disney are trying to spend a bit of money, but it is tiny compared with what is being lost because ITV is no longer commissioning,” says Nigel Pickard, RDF Media’s director of family programs and former head of kids’ TV at both the BBC and ITV.
The nightmare scenario for producers is that if there is a blanket ban on junk food advertising before the 9 p.m. family viewing watershed, channels like terrestrial web Five, responsible for preschool block “Milkshake,” and niche players like Nickelodeon will cut budgets.
“Nickelodeon used to make the BAFTA award-winning ‘Nick News,’ but they can no longer afford to do so because the advertising money isn’t there any longer,” Childs says.
Much depends on how Ofcom acts. Last month, there was surprise when the regulator refused to allow ITV’s flagship web, ITV1, to jettison its daily afternoon kids’ block.
The economic argument was sound. ITV1 is thrashed in weekday afternoons as competitors like Channel 4, a hybrid pubcaster with no obligation to air kids’ fare, schedule entertainment shows like the Endemol quizzer “Deal or No Deal” against tyke programs.
Culturally, however, Ofcom indicated ITVI must keep the faith with the children’s audience — for the time being.
In the long term, however, when the digital switchover is complete and all U.K. homes have access to specialist children’s channels, ITV1 is bound to end up ditching kids shows.
As for the ban on advertising junk food, a compromise is the most likely solution, with an outright ban applying to ads aimed at children under 5 only.
But all concerned may be missing one vital point — as digital platforms proliferate, kids will be spending far less time stuck to the box, a trend already apparent.
“Children are heavy users of new media,” Childs allows. “But no matter how it is delivered, someone has to (put up) the cash for good world-class content.”