OFCOM Public Service Review 1: A “Kangaroo For Children”?

April 17, 2008

N.B. In my previous job at the BBC I used to read long policy documents (including Ofcom‘s MIA on the BBC’s on-demand proposals) and summarise them for other people who were far more important than me.

Reading long policy documents is like watching Beyonce videos. Nothing to be proud of, in fact a rather unpleasant little habit, but I just can’t seem to stop.

So just to be clear this will be the first in the series of posts about OFCOM’s Public Service Broadcasting Review. But writing this has nothing to do with my current job at the BBC. Anything you read will be my own personal, irrational, ill-informed views and do not represent the BBC’s position in any way.

So the first document I’ve had time to read is OFCOM’s is Annex 10: “The Future of Children’s Television Programming”.  To summarise imperfectly:

people are worried that the amount of public service television for children in the UK will decrease 

commercial companies like ITV believe their public service obligations on Childrens TV damage their buisness and aren’t sustainable in the long run

putting more public money into Childrens TV programmes is one answer that’s been suggested

Are childrens programmes and channels inevitably not viable for commercial TV? Figures are hard to come by.

But this press report states that CITV made £4 million profit for ITV last year. And this scrap of financial information from the Competition Commission would seem to indicate that in 2006 CITV was part of a suite of ITV channels which were returning more revenue (£157 million) than they were costing to run (£75 million).

£4 million seems like a tidy sum of money to me (and its just over 10% of the 30 million that OFCOM claims is needed to support childrens programming).

So CITV seems to be the basis for a profitable buisiness which would still fufill public service obligations. CITV is a high quality service which offers the BBC some good competition. And, on digital switchover ITV could remove childrens programmes from ITV1 because everyone would have access to CITV (N.B. Correction – I’d forgotten that they had in fact already done this. Still, when terrestrial tv is switched off its possible that CITV’s audience might actually increase)

So how could CITV be made more profitable so that ITV could continue on with some public service obligations in this area and still make money?

Possibly the most dispiriting part of OFCOM’s document is this section:

The prevailing view among stakeholder responses was that while alternative platforms were an interesting possibility with plenty of potential, they were at best a long term solution and should only be seen as an addition to the existing framework. Some responses made clear their concerns that discussions over alternative platforms should not distract from the problems facing linear TV.

Some responses highlighted the different viewing habits for TV and the web as evidence that public service content could not be directly migrated to new platforms. One participant at our stakeholder seminar made the point that, as things stand, there is little public service content online. However despite this, responses from S4C among others said that public service content should be provided wherever there is an audience.

To consider the future of public service television without looking at all public service content – including television served up online leaves out something rather important. And it’s not true that there’s not much public service content available online. There’s actually rather a lot. It’s just that, apart from the BBC, it’s not provided by UK TV companies.

Television companies need to reinvent themselves as content providers and if they do that sucessfully they will make money and not need public subsidy. (There is a bit of work in the PSB review around this but I haven’t had a chance to read it properly yet – will blog when I’ve done so).

However the very next paragraph in the report gives some grounds for hope. SKTV’s idea for a childrens broadband site serving up video is a very good one – but this could be a commercial proposition, a kind of “Project Kangaroo” for kids. (Perhaps a “Joey” – joke stolen from Alan Connor).

Or CITV could also be an on demand broadband proposition as well as a TV Channel – would this be profitable?

I assume that Project Kangaroo will be serving up programmes for children on a commercial basis anyway.  Isn’t this a potential solution for protecting public service childrens’ TV and commercial revenue at the same time?

I admit that my thoughts may not solve one of the key problems identified in this work; the provision of TV for older children. But this is quite a difficult group to get at in any medium for actually rather good reasons. It might be better to look at reaching this group in other ways e.g. online, on mobile. We might have to accept the fact that older children and teenagers just don’t watch as much television aimed at them as we would like them to.

Just in passing I think the idea for tax breaks and credits for childrens’ TV outlined in the document is a very good idea: simple, practical, easy to manage and doesn’t really require any new public investment.

Of course for any kind of broadband video offer for kids to be commercially viable it would require as many families as possible to have high speed broadband.

Rather than putting public money into Children’s TV programmes that they won’t watch OFCOM should be lobbying hard for public investment in the broadband infrastructure.

Everyone would benefit.

So to sum up:

I don’t believe we need further public investment in childrens’ TV beyond what the BBC and C4 and the other commercial PSBs are currently mandated to do.

Option One (evolution) set out in Ofcom’s work is the best option, but only if supported by major public investment in broadband alongside other things (I will blog more about these later).



7 Responses to “OFCOM Public Service Review 1: A “Kangaroo For Children”?”

  1. One thing I’d like to add here, Nick (although I’ll grant it’s not strictly relevant to your post) is the apocryphal reason I’ve heard kicked around for the lack of money in kids’ TV in the commercial sector: that our middle class lifestyle-obsessed, muesli-munching government banned junk food ads during kids’ TV shows, thus wiping out the area’s principal revenue source. The net result has been a drop off in the amount of kids’ telly being made, naturally. (Oh and much healthier kids, of course. Not.)

    Now if this is true – corroboration anyone? – it’s another fabulous example of the law of unintended consequences. File alongside biofuels=food shortages and invading Iraq=recruitment drive for Al Qaeda.

  2. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    Your point is relevant and is alluded to in Ofcom’s work. Not sure I agree with you though.

    Even with controls on what kind of advertising can be served up to kids I still think advertising can be a profitable source of revenue around content aimed at children.

    In the short term, of course.

    In the longer term (if you believe Jeff Jarvis)advertising may be a complete waste of time. See this:


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  4. CITV’s profit is pretty irrelevent – it’s dependent on the ratio of repeats to new programmes.

    For example you *could* massively increase ITV1’s short-term profitibility by not investing in new programmes and just running repeats.

    ITV PLC make more money investing in new non-kids TV than they do in new kids TV. Hence their investment in new, original kids TV has fallen off a cliff.

  5. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    Hmmm. I suppose that depends on whether they want to keep CITV running as a profitable buisness. It can’t rely on repeats forever, so logic would surely say that to keep it profitable in the long term a small amount of investment in new programmes would make good commercial sense. Especially if these new programmes were easier to make because of tax breaks as suggested in the consultation document.

    And especially if they could be served up on new platforms with new sources of revenue.

    Are people seriously suggesting that £4 million profit a year is not the basis for a successful business?

    Incidentally Tom are there any numbers/figures/data/evidence to go with the assertions in Annex 7? I must confess I haven’t read all the documents yet.

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