Out of the picture... how children lost programmes after ITV swung the axe

What would your reaction be if you heard this on the news?

"ITV has announced that it will no longer be commissioning new programmes. Coronation Street, which is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, will come to an end when the present series ends. Classic episodes of the popular soap opera will be repeated on ITV3."

"An ITV spokeswoman said, 'It was a hard decision for the company, but we have to be realistic. Shows like Doc Martin and The X Factor are very expensive. If we just buy in new series from the US and Japan, we can save a lot of money.'"

Of course that will never happen. ITV makes a healthy profit from its prime-time schedule and Coronation Street, the broadcasting equivalent of the Crown Jewels, will probably continue for another 50 years. But back in 2006, that was what happened to children's television.

ITV didn't make an announcement; they just stopped commissioning new children's programmes. The company axed My Parents Are Aliens', the ratings-winning comedy produced at ITV Yorkshire, and although children complained bitterly about the decision on websites and anywhere else they could get their voices heard, it made no difference to the executives at ITV.

The collapse of commercial children's television and the removal of 30m from the children's media sector was dubbed "a crisis in kids' television". Broadcasters faced with the grim reality of declining revenues decided there wasn't enough money in children's programmes. They turned instead to the burgeoning international market and bought in shows – predominantly animation – from the US and Japan.

Four years on and the kids' TV crisis is still in the news. Children's writer and Save Kids' TV campaigner Jayne Kirkham believes it's a problem that won't go away.

"We believe children should have the same level of choice of programmes as adults. The media is massively important in children's lives and yet the money going into UK-produced children's media has reduced by around 50m over the last 10 years."

Save Kids TV was set up in the wake of the closure of ITV's children's production department. It's a coalition of producers, parents, educational experts and academics, who work together to highlight the importance of quality, UK-produced children's media. Although Save Kids TV is campaigning for a return to the levels of investment in children's media we had back in the 1990s, Kirkham insists it's not a backward-looking organisation.

"We are not interested in nostalgia and we don't want to return to some ideal world of children's TV that, in reality, never existed. But the audience viewing figures clearly demonstrate that children want to watch television made in the UK and, at the moment, their only real option for that mix of programming is the BBC. We think it's time society started investing in young people." Save Kids' TV argues that UK-produced children's media is uniquely valuable, because it is the only age-appropriate content that reflects the language and life experiences of British children. Ten years ago, that's exactly what ITV was doing very successfully.

As well as My Parents Are Aliens, the schedule included Children's Ward (in Manchester) and Bernard's Watch (Birmingham). ITV also made factual shows like How2 (Glasgow), The Big Bang (Leeds), and Art Attack (Maidstone), and it had just launched the Bafta-nominated gameshow, Jungle Run – also made in Leeds – which brought together the creative team that eventually moved on to the BBC to make CBBC's highly successful gameshow Raven. And, finally, CITV was also enjoying the phenomenal success of Ant and Dec's Saturday morning show SM:TV.

In 2006, all of that creative input into children's lives stopped. It's not easy to measure the impact that the removal of these programmes had on children, or how much they even notice the difference four years on. But at the time their anger was real. This is what one eight-year old – who did not have a digital television – wrote on a website forum.

"I love CITV and I am very cross! I think ITV should care more about children. I only have the five main channels so there is nothing on for me in the summer!"

So has the campaign made any difference? One encouraging sign came in 2008, when ITV revived its children's service, commissioning a spin-off drama series based on the Horrid Henry books. The CITV programme budget is still tiny in comparison to ITV's glory days, but Lewis Rudd of the consumer group Voice of the Listener and Viewer, believes that any initiative deserves support.

"Two or three new children's commissions are better than nothing. Children deserve to have a choice of broadcasters offering British programmes, so we must recognise what is being done and encourage it.

"There is also the Milkshake strand on Five, which commissions some animation

in the UK. Let's hope the new owners of the channel keep that going. But the problem with both CITV and Five – and with many BBC commissions – is that they are only part-funded. The programme makers have to raise the rest of the money from international sales and merchandising revenue.

"The reality is that's it almost impossible to get that sort of

extra funding for a programme made primarily for a UK audience – for instance, a drama series starring British children with regional accents.

"I think the quality of children's media is a good indicator of the health of public service broadcasting. It's like a litmus test.

"We've all worked hard to move this issue up the agenda and the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the Creative Industries Minister Ed Vaizey,

are aware of the problem. There is a lot of good will... as long as we are not asking them to sign a cheque."

There lies the rub. If parents want their children to have access to a range of high quality, UK-produced media, someone has to pay for it. In a crowded and competitive global market, the only way the UK's commercial broadcasters can get a children's channel to pay its way is by buying in most of the programmes, keeping original production to a minimum.

In the short term, that leaves the BBC holding the fort. Adrian Mills, chief advisor to BBC Children's and Learning, is confident the corporation will live up to that responsibility.

"Children's media is one of the five pillars of public service broadcasting and it will continue to be a priority area for the BBC.

"Next year, BBC Children's will move to Salford, which represents a new creative investment in the department. That is very exciting and will make a big difference. We will be rooted in Manchester and working closely with independent producers in the North. We will also be closer to our audience here and that will certainly change the feel of some the programmes."

But will the BBC's virtual monopoly over UK-originated content lead to complacency? "Not at all," says Mills. "It's the constant relentless feedback from our audience – that connection – that's what keeps us sharp."

BBC Children's appears to be benefiting from its dominant position, producing exceptionally popular programmes like Show Me Show Me, Zingzilla, and Tracy Beaker Returns. The only shadow on the BBC's horizon is the prospect of renewed license fee negotiations, with the Government wanting budget cuts and possible limits on the range of BBC services.

David Graham, chief executive of the media consultancy firm, Intentional wrote a paper for the think tank The Adam Smith Institute this summer arguing for the BBC licence fee to be scrapped. Yet he also believes

that children's media is one of the core areas of public service content and therefore merits a direct subsidy from the government.

"Children's media plays an important role in the socialisation of the young. It helps them understand the culture and values of their own country. They need content they can relate to. I think the BBC should re-focus on providing that core public service content."

But he is not convinced there is the political will to widen the availability of UK-originated content. "I can't see the Government imposing new public service duties on ITV, probably not on Five, and only reluctantly on Channel Four. I don't think it necessarily agrees with the argument for plurality, which means – with respect to the children's media problem – the BBC has to be the answer."

Lewis Rudd argues there are other levers the Government could pull if it wanted to inject cash into the industry. "We are vulnerable because we share a common language with America. The majority of dedicated commercial channels available to children are American – Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network – and yet there is already European

Union legislation in place that could be used to require those channels to invest more in content produced in EU countries. There is plenty of room for good programmes from America, but the priority should be programmes that are more specifically relevant to our children."

The big question is, will any of these options for reform appeal to a cash-strapped Government committed to finding free market solutions? While they wait for an answer, children who want a change from the BBC can either watch a manga cartoon or a drama about teenage life in California.

Colin Ward is a writer and media producer.

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