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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 8:30 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I support Amendment 229 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who I congratulate on formulating the amendment and for moving it so comprehensively with her usual chutzpah. I declare an interest on two levels, first as the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman on children and families, although I am clearly not speaking in that role today; and secondly, I have a more direct interest as the parent of a five year-old.

It is a source of both regret and concern that there is a dearth of UK original content in children’s television. Less than 1% of television hours available for UK children are original, first-run British programming. I very much doubt that the average parent would appreciate that, and I suspect that they would be both surprised and disappointed when told. I know that I certainly was. While Ofcom requires public service broadcasters to offer a minimum number of hours of original productions—70% for CBBC, 80% for CBeebies—they can include, and invariably for the most part consist of, repeats and spin-offs. Evidence presented last week on Welsh broadcasting to the Welsh Affairs Committee in another place suggested that the effects were particularly felt by regional public service broadcasters, where the number of repeats broadcast has increased exponentially since the Communications Act 2003. The example was given of the Welsh language channel S4C, where the share of broadcasts comprising repeats has risen to 57%. That decrease in original content threatens seriously to impoverish UK children’s cultural exposure, in particular to local and regional identities and experiences to which they can relate.

Reduced funding has been both a cause and an effect of that. The latest figures from Ofcom show that UK children’s programming decreased again, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, in both spend and output in 2015, the last year for which figures are available. Spend on first-run UK-originated children’s programmes showed a year-on-year decrease of 13% in real terms. That is a real worry. Recent tax reliefs for animation and children’s live-action content have provided a welcome boost for the sector. However, they do not ultimately increase the size of the funding pot available or incentivise the commercial public service broadcasters to return. The Government’s pilot £60 million contestable fund over the next three years will work only if public service broadcasters are compelled to commission more content, but of course the fund is not just restricted to children’s broadcasting; religious and other cultural programming is covered by it as well.

An increasing reliance on licensing revenue means that quality is not being maintained, because it has reduced in importance. Licensing plays a significant part in the commissioning of new children’s shows because so little money comes from broadcasters. The global TV brand licensing industry is reckoned to be worth around $190 billion and the ability of a programme to generate merchandise in the form of DVDs, books, branded clothes and toys now tends to determine its future. That is a concern because it creates a financial incentive to tick all the right boxes to produce a brand that can be easily licensed. As we all know from experience, box-ticking is rarely a positive driver, in any situation. Children are now spending more time online than in front of the television. My son increasingly wants access to the iPad to watch varying content of variable quality on YouTube. Fortunately, his mother is well qualified to ensure that he does so safely, but for his generation, watching a small screen is already second nature.

Although television remains a huge influence on young people, children’s programmes are competing not only with other genres for space on public service broadcasting but with online content for children’s attention. An Ofcom report in 2015 came to that conclusion, and unsurprisingly, online streaming providers such as Netflix are exploiting this market. While support of independent children’s production by online service providers is to be encouraged, public service broadcasters have a responsibility to carry at least equal weight in the provision of enriching children’s programming.

Such original children’s programming has the potential to be a thriving industry and an exporter of high-quality British product. That product in particular is digital, interactive and produces some of the most innovative content, generating huge revenues overseas with many iconic programmes. “Teletubbies”, which first aired on the BBC in 1997, has been shown in 120 countries and in 45 different languages. It generated a reported £200 million in revenue and some £50 million in merchandising. Those are impressive figures by any standard. I have moved through the age-appropriate levels with my son and have enjoyed almost as much as he has CBeebies productions such as “In the Night Garden”, “Show Me Show Me”, “64 Zoo Lane”, “Charlie and Lola”, “Grandpa in My Pocket”, with the inimitable James Bolam, “Octonauts”, “Katie Morag” and “Nina and the Neurons”. Those and many more children’s productions combine entertainment, play and learning; surely one of the fundamental purposes of public service broadcasting. They do so in a manner unimaginable when I watched “Andy Pandy” and “The Flower Pot Men” with my mother a very long time ago.

In the uncertainty of the post-EU world, maintaining and even increasing this strong international presence will be vital to supporting the UK’s economy and cultural currency. As the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, between 2003 and 2013 commercial public service broadcasting participation plummeted by 93%. Without a vibrant market the industry is in danger of dying out, and without that industry the nation’s children will not grow up with the programmes that the adult population took for granted. That is why, last September, I was one of the signatories to a letter to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on behalf of Save Kids’ Content UK, setting out the current position on the decline of the independent children’s TV production industry in the UK and asking what the Government would do to support it. I regret to say that it took five weeks for a reply to arrive, and from a junior Minister at that, which told the sector nothing it did not already know, and concluded with the patronising words:

“Thank you for taking the time to share your views on this issue”.

However, that letter was a cry for help, not a sharing of views. To be dismissed in such a manner was unacceptable. The Government need first of all to understand the nature of the problem—which, as that letter demonstrates, is a position at which they have not yet arrived—and then they need to work with the sector to seek solutions. Amendment 229 would be a first step and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity offered by this short debate to begin the process, with a sympathetic response and a commitment to return to the issue on Report with a suitable amendment.