OPINION: Why we need homegrown TV talent

How the loss of homegrown children's programmes on TV may damage the wealth and future of the UK's online entertainment and games sector...
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I don't need to tell anyone reading this about the statistics relating to the erosion of homegrown children's TV programming by imports from the US. Nor do I need to tell any of you about the impact this will have on British children, or indeed the effect it will have on the creative industries that have traditionally produced children's TV programmes.

I have the same concerns as all of you about this, partly as a parent and partly as someone who grew up in the what-now-seems halcyon days of the Postgate-era of kids TV. I now realise that a lot of my inspiration comes from many of the things I watched as a child and some of it has formed the tone we're hopefully injecting into our games.

Also drama, such as Grange Hill, provided talking points at school on issues from bullying to drug abuse - issues which would have far less immediate a connection with my generation and would have seemed less real if they had been voiced in an accent foreign to us and in a location far removed in climate, slang and school experience. I also question whether so many of us would have wandered around the school playground mimicking Clangers if the humour had not been so culturally perfect. It's hard always when writing these things to not sound like an amalgam of Daily Mail headlines or yearning for 'the good old days', so forgive me if I sound so; it's not intended that way.

Aside from my more personal concerns about the decline of UK children's TV, which I'm sure are universally familiar, there is the additional worry about the commercial effect that the current situation will have on the UK toy industry and on the sector in which I find myself - children's online entertainment.

To give some background, I work for a UK company called Mind Candy. We develop online games with a difference. Ones which are aimed at the imagination, with character development and narrative at the heart. We're currently developing a virtual world for seven to 11 year olds where you adopt a pet monster that develops a personality through your interactions with them.

As part of our ongoing research for our games I recently visited the London Toy Fair at ExCeL. It was such an eye opener to the power of children's TV brands in the toy making and licensing market place. One could hardly move for a multitude of different manufacturers producing licensed products that tie in with major UK kids TV brands such as Dr Who, Thomas the Tank Engine, Fireman Sam, In the Night Garden and newcomers such as Underground Ernie. Of course there were also items from US properties such as SpongeBob SquarePants, Wall-E from Pixar and Hannah Montana. There were very few products I could see which were character driven and not related to a TV or cross media tie in. The Bogies was the main one which, like ours, is based around a set of 'previously unseen on TV' characters.

So where am I going with all of this? The point that I'm coming to is that without a diverse collection of homegrown children's TV programmes on standard terrestrial TV there will be a loss of many licensing deals which will only add to the UK’s currently increasing balance of payments deficit.

If you visit any branch of Woolworths or toy store you will see the vast array of licensed products - toys as tie-ins to TV programmes. The TV programme inspires the child, makes them want to invent story lines, collect characters and then their play pattern includes and extends what they see on screen. By showing UK children a majority of programming content sourced from overseas we will be missing out on a vast amount of income which could be funding the next round of programmes and aspiring programme makers.

With toy production largely outsourced to China and the creation of the characters and intellectual property coming from overseas, our mainstream toy industry will be reduced to the status of a middleman. Of course all of these comments can be extended to the production of annuals, trading card games and magazines around the properties. The list of knock on effects is almost endless and crosses media boundaries.

A possibly more serious fate will befall the online and games industry in the UK, with a potentially deep long-term effect. The majority of overseas studios will have their online and, to some extent, their game experiences produced by firms in the originating territory. The work for UK companies specialising in this form of entertainment product will dry up. One only had to observe the ripples through the industry of the suspension of BBC Jam to see what happened when commissioning of original online content by a major broadcaster is suddenly 'indefinitely put on hold'.

Although many suspect that this suspension may have a long-term advantage for the independent producers with original ideas and IP, the short-term effects on the industry were quite severe. One also has to question if without the 'network' of the BBC and its brand awareness whether the long-term success of any of these independent properties will really be greater.

Over a longer term the effect will be very dramatic. In every revolution in media dissemination, it is the creative and progressive thinkers of one generation (and media) who shape and form the vanguard of the next. Many of the leading lights of London's fledging online scene in the '90s had come from publishing, radio and TV and so it is with children's entertainment. Much of what is being developed online now is inspired by the TV industry and the games industry, with the much needed narrative side coming from the former.

Furthermore much of the creativity of the current generation of producers is shaped what is seen during formative years. Although the design and animation of our monsters and their world has a lot of inspiration in Manga/Anime and Warner Bros cartoons, much of the language used, the word play, the dialogue and the situation is rooted in British comedy and in the UK kids TV we all grew up with.

The long-term effect of the brain drain of UK kids production talent, having no alternative but to go abroad to work, will be to diminish the potential and potency of the online entertainment and games industry. At the moment the UK is suffering the worst brain drain of any of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development's members. Britain has now lost over one in ten of its most skilled workers to overseas employment, with only Mexico having more people emigrating.

The overall creative future of my industry relies upon the cross-pollination of ideas from toy design to printed word and TV is a very tightly interwoven and symbiotic part of this ecosystem, I fear the current deterioration and hope it's not too late to recover the situation.

To see how great homegrown kids TV has the ability to inspire a generation, who themselves go on to do the same for the next, one only has to spend a few minutes in the company of Wallace and Gromit. Seeing what happens when the impact of inspiring programming in formative years, filled with the heady mix of The Wombles, Magic Roundabout and Monty Python, is allowed to mix with a camera and some clay, makes it clear that we must try to preserve an industry which such a profound effect on children.

Chris Thorpe started his career in the UK online industry at Webmedia on the Which? Online project, joining Mind Candy in 2006 as chief technical officer. Since his arrival he has worked on building the infrastructure, team and codebase required to develop large scale social networking games, like Perplex City and Moshi Monsters.


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