OPINION: Kids' TV in crisis?

The news that Lego is to be the sponsor for the CITV block on ITV1 is great news for ITV and good for Lego. But the irony was not lost on people in the kids' media industry and representing children's interests who have been campaigning to save kids' TV...
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The Save Kids’ TV Campaign, allied to other organisations, like PACT and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, has spent the last 12 months trying to alert the public, Ofcom and the Government to the disaster facing kids’ TV in the UK.

The Ofcom Report on Children’s Broadcasting released on October 3rd finally told the story officially. Kids’ TV production in the UK is in severe decline. ITV has exited completely, Five has pulled back to pre-school only, Channel 4 has made no kids programming for several years – and the international channels, while trying their best to make content here, have nothing like the budgets of the BBC and formerly ITV.

Parents and kids Ofcom surveyed spotted there are fewer and fewer home-grown shows (only one per cent of the 113,000 hours of kids programmes last year were new shows made in the UK.) They also recognise the need for kids to see programmes about themselves, the lives they lead, and the society they live in.

Save Kids’ TV would go so far as to say that a society which stops telling its own stories is heading for trouble. Great kids’ TV is pat of the glue that holds us all together. We can’t afford to lose it.

So the Lego deal highlights two of the key issues in this rapid decline in kids’ content production. For one thing, none of the money ITV takes in from the sponsorship will pay for kids’ production - because they don’t do any. From being the second largest funder of kids’ TV in the UK, with a raft of great home-grown shows like Art Attack, My Parents are Aliens, Jungle Run and How2, with a spend in excess of £25m a year, they’ve closed down their in-house production department and commissioned nothing in the last 18 months.

Meanwhile the fact that Lego is buying into the lucrative weeks before Christmas is also significant. From being a public service provider of children’s programmes all year round on ITV1 (even though it a cost them to lose the adult impacts) ITV has reduced its commitment to kids to two hours a week (Saturdays) for most of the year.

The only time they make significant returns on their advertising is when Santa’s on his way, so the schedule responds. Ofcom are powerless to regulate against this, and equally unable to insist on levels of production or spending.

Why should this matter for the licensing industry? Well on one level maybe a diet of internationally produced shows is a good thing – bigger brands, wider impact, lower costs.

But audience figures and research show that kids like local programming – they want to see people like themselves and hear their own voices. Drama and factual are the two areas identified by Ofcom as in significant decline. Drama is expensive and more and more international co-pros mean fewer local stories that play to kids’ real-life concerns. Factual programmes are notoriously difficult at crossing borders, so they could disappear.

In both these cases opportunities could be lost – opportunities for brand owners to connect with kids in a meaningful way.

The pressures on advertising revenue caused by the fragmentation of the children’s TV market, migration of kids and advertisers to online, and the ad ban on certain types of food are the root of the funding problem. Save Kids’ TV is campaigning for the Government to step in. A petition on the Downing Street website backs that up http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/kidstelevision.

But maybe this is also an opportunity for other players to consider their role in keeping alive great content for UK kids. At the annual UK kids’ media conference – Showcomotion (held in Sheffield each July) - programme-makers, broadcasters, distributors and other potential partners like the games industry came together to consider new ways of building funding bases for kids’ content production.

Advertiser-funded programming was on the agenda, but the toy and licensing trades were conspicuous by their absence. We’ve got a world-beating industry struggling to find backing for great creative content for our kids.

Isn’t it time we started taking a fresh look at the relationship between brands and content?

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