Media Forum: Has Ofcom harmed kids TV?

Is Ofcom to blame for the decline in children's TV, Alasdair Reid asks.

So it has come to this. Sometimes, when we cover the momentous events in our industry, we lose sight of the individual tragedies behind the headlines. For instance, in all the kerfuffle last week about the demise of home-grown children's television programming in the UK (and the recriminations over who is to blame), one heart-rending story almost slipped by unnoticed.

Sooty, sacked last year by ITV, has now been "put up for sale" by his current owner, Hit Entertainment (Matthew Corbett, son of Harry Corbett, had "let him go" in 1996). Who knows where the lovable puppet will end up, or what future degradations he will face.

If you listen to ISBA, you will know who is responsible for the saga surrounding children's TV programming. In response to a report by Ofcom, which warned of a decline in home-produced children's TV programming, ISBA pointed out that it had been predicting such an outcome, and that Ofcom's rules on food advertising to children were to blame.

If children's programming can't be made to wash its own face (to adopt a strangely appropriate City term) in ad revenue terms, then commercial broadcasters will be reluctant to throw good money after bad in this area. And indeed, between 2004 and 2006, Ofcom reckons funding cuts of £37 million (roughly 20 per cent of the total spend) have been made here.

So surely ISBA is right to apportion blame in the way it did? Absolutely not, Peter Phillips, the Ofcom partner, strategy and market developments, says. Investment in new children's programming, he argues, has been falling since 2002, before the rules on advertising to children came into effect.

He adds: "The main factor has been the increase in the number of children's channels, including many who rely on inexpensive imported programming, as well as the BBC's dedicated children's channels - CBBC and CBeebies. The net effect of this strong competition for children's viewing has been to fragment audiences, and reduce audiences for children's programmes on commercial public- service channels such as ITV1, GMTV, Channel 4 and S4C."

Perhaps, Jim Marshall, the chairman of both Starcom and the IPA's Media Futures Group, counters, but there's a far simpler phenomenon of cause and effect here - and ISBA has got it spot-on. He says: "Children's programming is notoriously difficult. For a start, it breaks into several sectors - pre-school, five- to nine-year-olds, and so on. The difficulty is that a 13-year-old will want to watch programming that broadcasters think is made for 17-year-olds. And the BBC, partly because it is under no commercial pressure, has been good at programming in the whole children's area. So it's already a tough proposition. When you add to the pressures, it makes it all the more likely that a commercial broadcaster will make the decision to go down a more cost-effective route and buy in cartoons."

Dee Forbes, a senior vice-president at Turner Broadcasting, says there are a number of factors at play - although the Ofcom restrictions clearly haven't helped. But she implies ITV's failure to fight its corner in this sector is surprising - and she emphasises Turner's commitment to investment in original programming. She states: "This year, we opened the Cartoon Network Development Studio Europe, based in the UK. It will help develop home-grown animation. We are also currently working on a number of UK co-productions, both live-action and animation."

But Simon Poole, the sales and marketing director of GMTV, thinks Ofcom carries a much larger burden of responsibility. He concludes: "The Ofcom (rules) made things tough, given our (children's) audiences were under pressure. Ofcom made the suggestion that broadcasters should make up the shortfall against other audiences in other parts of their programming. We can't do that. So, as far as we are concerned, ISBA has a strong argument."

NO - Peter Phillips, Ofcom partner, strategy and market developments

"The impact of food advertising restrictions on commercial public service channels - which account for a majority of investment in new children's programming - is likely to be relatively small."

YES - Jim Marshall, chairman, IPA Media Futures Group

"Whatever pressures there are, they've been exacerbated by the rules. Before their introduction, they prompted a degree of self-regulation on the part of advertisers. The writing's been on the wall for some time."

MAYBE - Dee Forbes, senior vice-president, Turner Broadcasting

"Ofcom's high fat, salt and sugar ban isn't the reason investment in children's programming is in decline, but it hasn't helped. Turner is committed to our portfolio of children's channels."

YES - Simon Poole, sales and marketing director, GMTV

"Most of the industry told Ofcom you can't cure obesity by knocking down ads on TV - but it still went ahead and did it. We were already in a situation where our (children's) audiences were under pressure. In the period since the BBC launched CBBC and CBeebies, they have halved."

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