LONDON — The U.K. is the most competitive TV market for kids in the world with around 25 dedicated channels and numerous new media platforms.
British shows like “Doctor Who” and, at the other end of the age spectrum, “Teletubbies” are global brands, well financed quality shows that earn good returns for their backers.
But the future for U.K. children’s production is bleak, according to lobby groups.
They argue that unless there is urgent action, such as tax credits, home-grown content will dwindle as cost-conscious programmers buy in more U.S. shows to fill their schedules.
“This is a crisis here and now,” says John McVay, head of Pact, which represents U.K. producers. “Across all broadcasters, including the BBC, investment has collapsed by 40% during the past 10 years. In the commercial sector it’s 80%. We know many companies that are scaling back.”
Pact’s anxiety is supported by a report published by media regulator Ofcom in October.
The watchdog’s research highlighted the dearth of new British children’s fare, pointing out that high-end programs, especially drama and factual, are most at risk.
It found that spending by the main Brit broadcasters on kids’ TV has halved in real terms since 1998.
Children’s slots on the main channels are not working while channels like Nickelodeon are only investing small amounts in new British content.
For the time being, pre-schoolers are well served, Ofcom said, because animation like “Teletubbies” is easier to export than live action. But children over 6 years old and teenagers are increasingly not being catered for by locally made programs.
The decision by ITV, Blighty’s biggest private terrestrial web, to stop commissioning children’s shows because it no longer regarded the genre as commercially viable has taken around $75 million a year from producers.
A ban on junk fund TV advertising in children’s slots, which came into effect Jan. 1, is likely to make matters still worse, especially for broadcasters such as Five, which has already scaled back its children’s output.
Economies at the BBC, the U.K.’s biggest backer of children’s TV, are also hitting the sector.
“The bigger, better, few mantra that is sweeping the BBC affects children’s too,” says Anna Home, a former head of children’s programming at the Beeb and who chairs Save Kids’ TV.
“The present situation in British children’s TV is not acceptable because it means that if present trends continue the BBC would be virtually the sole children’s commissioner in the U.K.
“It’s true that Nickelodeon and Disney are commissioning more in the U.K., and I am very pleased about that, but a lot of what they make are the links between programs. What they spend on their British-made shows is marginal compared with how much money has been taken out of children’s TV.”
To encourage more investment, Pact is lobbying for a tax credit worth 30% of the cost of production applied to drama, animation and factual programs for school-age kids, modeled on Blighty’s film subsidy.
However, this is regarded as a short-term solution — and would expire in 2012, by which time a more sustainable remedy would be in place.
One idea is to create an on-demand Web-based service, partly funded by public coin, specializing in British-made content, backed by a broadcaster.
Home says a leading candidate to support such an idea is Channel 4, which has indicated it is keen to commission shows aimed at older children.
The web is making the case for a hefty slice of public money to bank for a fully digital era so there is an obvious incentive for it to back kid programs.
While it’s hard to guess which solution will be adopted, Pact’s efforts have the ears of Blighty’s politicians. Several have voiced their support for tax credits.
“A tax credit would be easier to use in TV than in film, because it would be easier automatically to tie it to the fact that the work has been produced for a British broadcaster,” says Neil Gerrard, Labor member of parliament. “One can produce a film, but there is no guarantee that anybody is going to like or distribute it.” But others argue that Pact and the Save Kids TV lobby are stuck in an analog era, whereas today’s kids enjoy a wide choice of entertainment options easily accessed via their computers and mobile phones.
Home, however, insists this argument misses the point.
Not only do children need a variety of content, including material that reflects British culture, any policy decisions that favor new media could lead to social exclusion.
“What is often forgotten is that in less well-off homes new media is not the first port of call,” she says. “There are huge swathes of people who don’t have broadband and they’re the people who need this stuff the most.”