Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat 8:15 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 229, which aims to move children’s content on public service broadcasting from tier 3 back to tier 2. The amendment is also in the names of my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. I declare an interest as per the register.

My amendment seeks to underline the fact that we are at a pivotal point in the future of the children’s production industry and quality UK-produced content for our children. This is without doubt the best opportunity in a generation to make a legislative change that could revive and strengthen a successful industry that not only nurtures our nation’s youngsters but projects Britain around the world.

Yes, we have over 30 dedicated children’s channels, but the majority do not show UK-produced programmes. They usually show acquired animated cartoons, made abroad. This means that our UK children’s production industry is in decline. Thank goodness for the BBC, with its successful CBeebies and CBBC channels. However, we cannot expect the BBC to bear the burden of producing the majority of British-made children’s programming. Some might point out that there has been a slight increase in the investment from commercial broadcasters for children’s productions, but it is just a drop in the ocean considering the large profits they have made over the past year.

To be clear, this amendment is not relevant to all commercial broadcasters, such as Disney, Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network. It is relevant only to public service broadcasters, especially commercial broadcasters, which each have been allocated PSB status and the benefits that go with that. Therefore, public service broadcasters should be producing content for everyone, and that includes children.

The amendment I have introduced has cross-party support and is timely. It aims to do two things: first, to give Ofcom the ability to require public service broadcasters to commission more original British-made Nickelodeon children’s content in the future; and, secondly, to give flexibility to the commercial PSBs, in consultation with Ofcom, around the level of their future investment in children’s content. This is a common sense approach that could easily be embraced.

As I have said many times in this House, PSB investment, in particular from commercial PSBs, has reduced drastically over the past 10 years—by an overwhelming 93% since 2003. This decline started when the Communications Act 2003 reversed the Ofcom requirement for PSBs to commission a certain level of children’s content, by moving it from tier 2 to tier 3. Recent tax reliefs for animation and children’s live action content have provided a welcome boost for the sector, but they have not brought the commercial PSBs back to the table, which was expected. The Government’s pilot contestable fund over the next three years will work only if PSBs are required to commission more content.

The Save Kids’ Content UK campaign, supported by the whole industry and PACT, is very clear that requiring PSBs to commission a certain level of content is the only way to secure the future of this sector and Great British content in the future. All other options proposed are merely a short-term fix. Ofcom has repeatedly reported that it does not have the legislative tools to change the current situation. It pointed out during its last PSB review that there is a substantive risk that PSB requirements in this area will not be met in the future for our children. This is so distressing that it breaks my heart.

I understand that we have to be realistic and not demand that the commercial PSBs commission or compete with what the BBC is already doing. We know that children are viewing content in all sorts of ways, but the important word here is “content”. No matter how children view content, it must be relevant and reflect their culture and surroundings. Having said that, a recent Ofcom review showed that television viewing was still far the most popular way of watching content.

It is also important to remember that, although investment in original British programming for children is in serious decline, television still remains a huge influence on young people today. According to research by the London School of Economics, 96% of children aged five to 15 use a TV set to watch television and 87% of viewing among 14 to 15 year-olds is on broadcast television. So it is absolutely vital that children have access to UK-made content that is not only entertaining and informative but also that our children can identify with.

As I said before, my amendment is a common-sense approach to the problem. The key element is that broadcasters will be consulted on the level of investment appropriate to each channel. It is definitely not a quota system, nor does it only apply to commercial PSBs; it also applies to the BBC, which already has good levels of investment, but the amendment would ensure that this investment is maintained into the future.

ITV has made recent investments, but what happens if it gets taken over? There is no legislation in place to ensure that new owners should provide any adequate children’s productions at all. Channel 4 has specific obligations for older children. Because of successful lobbying, it has recently committed to invest in children’s. Their production of “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” was one of the most watched programmes over Christmas, which shows that there is an appetite for that type of content which, I am sure, will be sold worldwide. Channel 5 has “milkshake!”, an established, successful strand for pre-school, but it spends very little on new, original UK content. Most of its programmes are acquired.

All of the commercial PSBs do a bit, but there are areas where children’s provision is lacking, and they all need to do more to serve our children’s cultural appetites. The latest figures from Ofcom show that UK children’s programming decreased yet again in both spend and output in 2015. Spend on first-run UK-originated children’s programming stood at £77 million in 2015, a year-on-year decrease of 13% in real terms. This cannot go on indefinitely.

We understand that PSBs may well have concerns about the imposition of requirements or how the amendment is able to accommodate the changing viewing habits in this digital world. This is why the flexibility that has been built into this amendment is crucial. The amendment strikes a balance between giving Ofcom the muscle to require children’s content from PSBs, which it does not have at the moment, and allowing the level of investment to be determined through consultation between Ofcom and each broadcaster, and coming to a reasonable agreement. The amendment will require a variation of each broadcaster’s licence.

There is also flexibility around the genres that Ofcom could choose to include in any requirements. The amendment refers to a “suitable range” of content. This can be tailored appropriately to each channel and would take into account content broadcast on a main channel, on a subsidiary channel or online. Surely this should allay any fears or doubts. This amendment has deliberately built in the flexibility to allow broadcasters to use digital and interactive content across all platforms. It is not intended to dictate how, where or what children should watch. It is about ensuring that there is a range of quality British content available on all platforms.

Some may say, “How do we know Ofcom will decide what is reasonable?”. I was on the advisory board of Ofcom for three years, and I know from experience that Ofcom has always erred on the side of caution when it comes to avoiding anything that would damage the industry. Over the last 14 years of its history, its reputation has been exemplary.

As I mentioned earlier, the Government have announced the introduction of a contestable fund, and children’s programming will be in line to receive some of the funding. At the moment the fund is time-limited to three years. I strongly believe that my amendment could ensure that that money is used in the most productive and constructive way. The fund could be used to develop programme ideas for children which the PSBs could then commission, having had all the development work funded.

The UK children’s production sector has always had a strong international presence, which adds to the UK’s economy, and it is proud of that. At the moment, however, our UK children’s production sector is facing many challenges because the market for producing children’s UK original content is shrinking rapidly, while the demand for quality children’s programmes remain vigorous. There are many opportunities for global partnerships through co-productions, so we desperately need commissions for those partnerships to work. It would be short-sighted to cut the cord of a continuing British success story, but more importantly we need UK creative original content to be produced to influence our children’s imagination and thinking as well as their emotional, mental and inspirational well-being. We owe it to them and must not let them down, so we must use this opportunity to provide the means to fulfil their needs.

This is why my amendment is asking the Government to take another look at the issues and change legislation to secure the long-term future and sustainability of the UK children’s content production sector. I firmly believe that only a change to primary legislation will give Ofcom the necessary tools to require commercial PSBs to provide British-made children’s programming and give PSBs the opportunity to show their commitment to the nation’s children by saving UK kids production content. We must not let this great opportunity fall by the wayside. The future of Great British content for our children that will long into the future is now in the hands of the Government. I beg to move.