Editorial: Ofcom rules sucking the life out of children's TV

By wringing its hands over the lack of investment in children's programming, Ofcom behaves like a mule driver who reduces the content of his animal's nosebag, then wonders why it can't bear the same load any longer.

It's not as if the broadcast regulator could not have seen what was an accident waiting to happen. Ofcom chiefs had been warned for long enough of the consequences of broadcasters being denied revenue from snack-food advertising to children. This is now borne out by Ofcom's own research, which reveals such a serious decline in investment, that young audiences have little to watch except cartoons, imports and adult shows.

Of course, it would be wrong to blame a drop in food ad revenue alone for what has happened. Greater competition in the market and a more fragmented audience have both played a part. And it's true, as Ofcom claims, that investment in children's programming has been falling since 2002, well before the rules on advertising to children were introduced. But that's hardly surprising. The rules, which came into effect in April this year, merely underlined what an unwelcoming environment children's programming had long become for food and drink advertisers.

With Ofcom under attack from anti-business pressure groups, as well as MPs linking advertising to obesity on the most spurious evidence, food manufacturers had already sensed the way the wind was blowing.

So what's to be done to get some quality back into children's programming? The BBC can't be expected to carry the standard alone, and there are serious doubts about whether or not Ofcom's suggested solutions are viable.

In the end, there's no disputing that the estimated £39 million in annual ad revenue which has vanished because of the restrictions on food and drink advertising to children cannot easily be replaced. Let's hope that, over time, the Government and Ofcom will realise that such Draconian, and often anomalous, restrictions have been a victory for emotion over common sense. The alternative may be to drive more children further towards unregulated websites. And the consequences of that don't bear thinking about.

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