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Broadcasting: Children’s Television

Volume 827: debated on Thursday 2 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the decline in production of commercial Public Service Broadcasting children’s television content.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare an interest as per the register.

My Lords, the Government recognise the unique social, educational and economic importance of children’s television, and that is why we have put in place a range of measures to support it. The ongoing animation and children’s tax relief schemes have supported the production of over 840 programmes. Working with the noble Baroness, we introduced powers for Ofcom to monitor and set criteria for the provision of children’s television. Children’s television was chosen to pilot contestable funding, which has supported more than 280 hours of new content.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. However, since the early closure of the Young Audiences Content Fund, which offered up to 50% of programme budgets, the amount of newly made UK commercial children’s content continues to decrease. The children’s television production sector faces market failure and a huge challenge. Without funding, television programmes that reflect British children’s lives could disappear from the nation’s screens, and that would be a tragedy. Pact is proposing new tax breaks of 40% to help keep that vitally important sector thriving. So how are the Government living up to their responsibility to ensure that the nation’s children are accessing high-quality British children’s programming? Will the tax breaks proposed by Pact be supported to ensure that we have more UK commercial public service broadcasting of children’s content?

The Young Audiences Content Fund was always designed as a three-year pilot. Now that it is over, it is right that we assess the contestable funding model as a whole to understand how it can be used to help. Any further investment of public funding will need to be considered against that and future broadcasting needs, but we are supporting children’s television to ensure that future generations can benefit from it just as much as past ones have.

My Lords, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that the children’s television production sector is internationally competitive?

With our wider support for the broadcasting system set out in the White Paper, we are ensuring that all our public service broadcasters can compete with the new streaming platforms we see entering the market. The media Bill will deliver on some of the proposals put forward in the White Paper.

My Lords, perhaps the Minister could reflect on the fact that television companies are always bemoaning losing young people from their audience. Would it not be sensible to invest in children’s television at the moment when young people are prepared to engage with their families by sitting on the settee, rather than looking at their devices and losing their sight in later life?

We have indeed been investing: the Young Audiences Content Fund invested a total of £40.5 million directly into brand new children’s television content for exactly the sorts of reasons the noble Lord outlined.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, rightly pointed out the danger now of the huge oversupply of content—including perfectly reasonable content—from elsewhere, mainly America, particularly for young children. Can the Minister address what that is doing to the skill base in this country? There are lots of people who have, and need, very particular skills to create content for young children, and they must be feeling pretty dismal at the moment. Does the Minister agree?

The noble Baroness is right, and the Government are clear that we want to see distinctively British content, so that young people growing up in this country can see it on television and on their tablets, or however they view it. Through our creative industries sector vision, the department is working to address skills gaps right across the creative industries in order to ensure that we can continue to make world-leading content.

My Lords, we of course echo the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. Public service broadcasting faces a number of challenges, including uncertainty over the status of the long-awaited media Bill, which was parked while the Government considered whether to U-turn on privatising Channel 4. Now that decision has been made, can the Minister confirm when noble Lords can expect some breaking news? If not, can he at least say whether the Leader of the House was correct when he stated on 12 January that this crucial legislation will be published only in draft form?

The media Bill will reform decades-old law to boost the growth potential of our world-leading public service broadcasters, replacing the outdated set of 14 overlapping purposes and objectives. We have set out those reforms in our White Paper and the Government will legislate when parliamentary time allows.

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, a number of commercial children’s channels are already available. What concerns does his department have about those, and what criteria are they not meeting that it believes public service broadcasters would meet?

Commercial broadcasters do indeed provide excellent content, but public service broadcasters play a unique role in ensuring that underserved groups are catered for. There is not always the same commercial potential in children’s television programming, which is why it is right that we have particular areas of work to focus on that.

My Lords, as we all know, BBC World News is banned in China. Are there plans to ban Chinese news channels and propaganda channels in the United Kingdom?

Sanctions, of course, are always kept under review, but by their nature, the Government cannot discuss them until they are made.