Media Forum: Will broadcasters cut children's shows?

Would children's programming be the first casualty of a ban on junk food advertising? Alasdair Reid investigates. .

Pity poor Tessa Jowell. The culture secretary knows that banning the advertising of so-called junk food in children's programming would have little effect on the alarming levels of obesity in children. She's an intelligent woman and most of the evidence she has seen tells her that obesity is the product of poor diet combined with a lack of exercise - and advertising can take only a small part of the blame on either side of that equation

Her instincts are non-interventionist and she's of the view that self-regulation works best for all concerned. But it's odds on there will be a general election in 12 months' time and a ban would play very well indeed to some sectors of the electorate. So, surprise surprise, in a public debate last week, Jowell gave the strongest indication yet that the Government was preparing to curb food advertising to children.

No-one on the media owner side can put hand on heart and say that a ban would come as a shock. It has been on the agenda for many months now and the lobbying efforts of the television and marketing industries have often appeared lukewarm, especially when set alongside the passion (bordering at times on mania) with which the various anti-advertising pressure groups have made their case.

Broadcasters, though, have been keeping a trump card up their sleeves, and now, at the 11th hour, they have played it. If you take away one of the funding streams for children's television, they have pointed out, it is inevitable that children's programming will suffer as a consequence.

Are they serious? Absolutely, Mick Desmond, the chief executive of ITV Broadcasting, says - and this is no reciprocal gesture on the network's behalf, just a stark fact of business life. But he's still optimistic it won't come to that. "I don't think the Government will contemplate this sort of Draconian measure. There is a clear understanding on all sides that banning the advertising of certain foods to children will not solve the problem of obesity," he says.

He adds: "There is also a clear understanding that TV has a strong role to play in educating people about healthy diets and lifestyles. For instance, ITV, in partnership with the Government, launched Britain on the Move. We'd like to continue to play that role."

In other words, there will be a big political cost to be faced by the Government if it succumbs to weakness on this issue. Unless, of course, you think that the broadcasters (and we're talking principally here of ITV) are bluffing.

Pete Edwards, the managing director of Starcom Motive (which has McDonald's as a client), does not believe it's possible, for legal and technical reasons, to implement a meaningful ban. Even if it were, he doesn't think ITV would countenance going through with its threat. "It is not in its interests to alienate the younger viewers who, after all, comprise their future audiences. It is not in its interests to alienate parents who might base their views of a channel on the balanced offering that it is able to provide. And last, broadcasters such as ITV have a public service remit to fulfil. To withdraw funding would be a knee-jerk reaction. I can't see it happening."

Malcolm Earnshaw, the director-general of ISBA, has more sympathy for the ITV stance. And there are other possible repercussions that the Government should consider. He comments: "There are principles at stake here. Our view is that there is no such thing as a harmful food, only bad diets and unhealthy lifestyles - neither of which can be properly addressed by a ban on advertising. If you introduced a ban on certain types of food, it would be open season for anyone wanting to introduce a ban. Cars, for instance, kill thousands of people every year. Accidents involving electrical goods are commonplace. We have to be practical here. Where the issue of obesity is concerned, for there to be maximum effective action there has to be a climate in which all stakeholders feel they can act positively."

Jeremy Preston, the director of the Food Advertising Unit of the Advertising Association, agrees. He concludes: "The long-term challenge is about bringing about a behavioural change - and public awareness of this issue has never been higher. It's true that awareness has not yet been accompanied by a change in behaviour but the advertising industry is putting a lot of its energy behind finding a way to help change that and it has a lot it can bring to the party. Even its supporters acknowledge a ban would be tokenism.

Does the Government want short-term tokenism or does it want a long-term solution?"

- "If there were a Draconian measure involving a ban, that would mean we would lose a significant amount of advertising revenue - and if that were the case, then it is inevitable that British-originated programming would come under severe pressure." - Mick Desmond chief executive, ITV Broadcasting

- "It is too simplistic to say that all television programming strands are funded directly from the advertising in that part of the schedule. Broadcasters take a wider perspective on scheduling and commissioning." - Pete Edwards managing director, Starcom Motive

- "Locally produced television for children would dry up. Commercial broadcasters would continue to deliver their public service obligations but they would be justified in re-examining their priorities in that area if the funds aren't there." - Malcolm Earnshaw director-general, ISBA

- "As a parent, I want good quality programmes for my children. If you take revenue away from that area it will not lead to the production of better programming. And where would it end? What would they seek to ban next?" - Jeremy Preston director, Food Advertising Unit, Advertising Association.

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