5. Educational Broadcaster

In June 1992, I went to Channel 4 as deputy commissioning editor for schools television programmes, working for and with my friend Paul Ashton, who had been appointed the channel’s first schools commissioning editor the previous September. I knew almost nothing about how television is made. I needed a job because my previous post, at the Language in the National Curriculum project, had been for a fixed three-year term. I had never (and have never) made a television programme myself. Fortunately for me, the channel needed someone who knew something about the school curriculum, and who could give educational advice on what programmes it should commission production companies to make. It decided that my want of knowledge about television could be rectified on the job.

There then followed nine years of intense pleasure. Schools broadcasting had been transferred from ITV to Channel 4 under the Communications Act 1990, and Paul and I set up the new service. Michael Grade, the channel’s chief executive, and John Willis, its director of programmes, were the best possible top bosses we could have had. Paul’s and my job combined considerable power with a breathtaking autonomy in the exercise of that power. Essentially, we were given about £10 million a year to spend on schools television, and left to get on and spend it. Almost never did anyone question our judgement. The job carried a modest glamour, a generous salary, and a sense of virtue that we were helping to educate the nation’s children while providing schoolteachers with resources which would make their lives easier and more satisfying.

Meanwhile, my friends and colleagues back in schools, local education authorities and university departments of education were being forced, by government legislation and edict, to submit to ever more stringent and mechanical forms of accountability, whose effect was to reduce the professional self-respect which should go with the honourable, often profoundly satisfying but rarely glamorous calling of teacher. So there was a touch of guilt in my pleasure. I had found a place to play.

The challenge which Paul and I undertook was to marry the prosaic written requirements of the school curriculum with the poetic visual possibilities of television. We wanted to use all the genres of television which educate, entertain and inform the general population, and put them to use for the benefit of teachers and their pupils. But we knew that if the programmes were not perceived by teachers as being relevant to their increasingly tightly constrained needs, they wouldn’t use them, so there would have been no point in making them. It was a tricky tightrope to walk, and we walked it.

When Channel 4 started in 1982, it was the UK’s first ‘publisher-broadcaster’; that is, it made none of its own programmes. The job of its commissioning editors, in each department, was to spend their budgets wisely and imaginatively, choosing the independent companies best able to make the programmes, and supervising the production process from commission through to delivery of the finished programme or series. That, essentially, is what we did. We commissioned about 80 hours of new programmes a year. We had inherited from ITV some popular, long-running series supporting the big curriculum subjects; these we extended and improved. We invented new subject-specific series where there was a lack. We filmed on every continent on earth (Antarctica included). We commissioned dramas, historical, classic and contemporary; documentary programmes of all kinds; animation; a weekly news programme made in the Channel 4 News studio and presented by Jon Snow; arts programmes; a high-volume series for 3- to 5-year-olds which took a relaxed, play-based approach to early learning. We constructed the broadcast schedule of about 330 hours a year of new and repeat programmes (Monday to Friday mornings in the school terms). We had a team of education officers, each of them expert in a particular area or areas of the curriculum. They advised us on the content of future commissions, worked with the commissioned companies to make sure that the educational content of the programmes was sound, and promoted the service to schools. We had a small publishing house which sold videos, books, CD-ROMs and other resources to accompany the programmes. When Channel 4 opened its website, we had a place on it, and began to commission audio-visual resources which would be available to teachers and pupils from the site.

Occasionally, dramas we commissioned also played in the channel’s main schedule. Examples of these were versions of Alice through the Looking Glass and Cinderella, and adaptations of two of Jacqueline Wilson’s novels, Double Act and The Illustrated Mum.

In 1995 I attended an international conference in Melbourne about children’s television. Broadcasters were there from all over the world, and I realised how great was the disparity of wealth between those of north America, Europe, Japan and Australia and those of Latin America, Africa and Asia (apart from Japan). So a small group of us, including Anna Home, the head of children’s television at the BBC, founded a little not-for-profit organisation called Children’s Television Trust International. The idea was that broadcasters from rich and poor countries would co-commission productions, sharing the cost in proportion to their wealth. The poorer countries would thus get high-quality content for a fraction of the cost of production. The co-commissioners would hand the distribution rights to CTTI, which would distribute the programmes to broadcasters beyond the co-funders, spending any profits on supporting worthwhile initiatives in children’s television in poorer countries.

It was a brave idea, which we promoted further when a group of us organised the next international conference about children’s television, in London in 1998. CTTI’s most significant achievement was the production of 39 fifteen-minute animated versions of traditional stories from around the world, entitled Animated Tales of the World. These are beautiful little films, using a wide range of artisanal animation techniques, made by studios around the world. And we did spend the profits from their sales, and from the sales of other smaller series, as we had planned. CTTI had only a short life, mainly because the key people involved later retired or left for other jobs, and their successors didn’t have the same enthusiasm for the idea. But it was worth doing.

In autumn 1999, Paul moved sideways to a post commissioning projects for schools in the new computer-based media, and I took over his position. We still worked closely together. Throughout the years of our collaboration, we never forgot how fortunate we were to be doing the job, even when the pressure of work was intense, and even when, as once or twice happened, we got angry with each other.

The principal highlight of my work in 2000 and 2001 was my involvement in the filming of all 19 of Samuel Beckett’s stage plays. Beckett on Film was a magnificent project, a co-production between Channel 4, the Irish broadcaster RTE, the Irish Film Board and Tyrone Films. In the course of my work as the channel’s commissioning editor on the project I met some of the best actors, directors and cinematographers working in film, television and the theatre. I became good friends with the project’s two producers, Michael Colgan and Alan Moloney. Here’s an entry in my diary, describing the events of one remarkable afternoon.

17 April 2000 Kerfontaine

Last Friday I had one of the experiences of my life, in the course of the Beckett project we’re doing. We were filming a short, late play called Catastrophe, which is set in a theatre. The shoot was in Wilton’s Music Hall off Cable Street, near where Helen and I used to live. The action of Catastrophe has a theatre director and his assistant arranging the appearance on the stage of a silent, still figure, an actor somehow reduced to a stage prop, who is called the protagonist. David Mamet was the (real) director. The theatre director was played by Harold Pinter, and the protagonist by John Gielgud. I went down to the shoot on the last afternoon, and watched filming for about two hours. During the course of that time Michael Colgan, one of the producers, told me that Gielgud’s agent, Duncan Heath, had told him the previous day that Gielgud had decided that this would definitely be his last professional performance. Today was his 96th birthday.

The first hour involved takes which didn’t require Gielgud in person, and they used a stand-in. Then he appeared in a wheelchair. I had lost track, as so often happens when great people quietly disappear from regular view towards the end of their lives, of how old and frail he has become. They lifted his wheelchair on to the stage. He got out it when he needed to, with help, and stood with a stick while they prepared the shot, and then managed without the stick while they filmed. He worked for about an hour. The feeling of nervousness and reverence in the crew was palpable. Two or three mistakes were made, necessitating reshooting, because the normally imperturbable riggers and electricians knew what a delicate and extraordinary moment this was. We were watching John Gielgud give the last performance of his career, a career which had spanned more than 80 years. We were witnessing the last representative of his great generation of actors saying goodnight. David Mamet directed him very gently, but with a precision which indicated that this was still a professional contract, not an old folks outing. When the shooting was done, there was a photo-session for a minute or two, with Gielgud back in his wheelchair, and Mamet, Pinter and the other actors standing around him. Then there was prolonged and spontaneous applause, and Sir John left. It was deeply moving, and I kept thinking how extraordinary it was that in some way I was connected with this man’s last professional engagement.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Michael Colgan brought Pinter over to meet me. We had a two-minute conversation, with nothing extraordinary said, but I simply told him what an honour it was to meet him, and how much I had enjoyed The Room and Celebration, the double bill of his first and most recent plays, which are on at the Almeida at the moment. As Pinter left the theatre when he had completed his part, David Mamet called out, in what must be an American convention, ‘It’s a work finish on Harold Pinter, ladies and gentlemen,’ and we all applauded. Mamet himself was charming when I met him, and his directing style was calm, confident and affirming. His wife Rebecca Pigeon, who played the director’s assistant, was nice too. All in all, it was an extraordinary afternoon, and I returned to C4 for a humdrum meeting at 4.30 in a state of elation.

Beckett on Film is the only work in the visual media in which I’ve been involved which will have any longevity; the only significant cultural landmark to which I’ve made a contribution.

At its foundation, Channel 4 was given a constitution which was then, and I think is still, unique in the world of broadcasting. It would be both a commercial and a public-service organisation. It would make money from advertising, but the money would go round in circles, paying for the best television programmes the commissioning editors and independent producers could think of, thus attracting more revenue. There would be no profits, in the sense of money needing to be paid out each year to shareholders, because there would be no shareholder other than the UK government. There would be a strict Chinese wall between the commissioning executives and the people collecting revenue from advertisers. Never let an advertising executive suggest to a commissioning executive what he or she should commission.

That was the bold conception. It was a vision still in active operation during the first years of Paul’s and my time at the channel. Then Michael Grade and John Willis left, and less impressive people took their places. In summer 2001, the Channel 4 directors made a dreadful error. They launched a new arm of the channel, called 4Ventures. This was to be an explicitly profit-making undertaking, which would contain the channel’s wonderful feature-film production arm, its retail book sales operation, a new horse-racing venture, numerous other departments and… the schools service. For the first time, Paul and I would have our commissioning judgements checked by people who were looking not at how well we were serving the schools, but at how shrewd our ‘investments’ were, from a profit-making point of view.

The directors appointed City bankers to run 4Ventures. These men were deeply ignorant of the nature of our work. Some of the time they knew the price of everything and the value of nothing; most of the time they didn’t even know the price of anything. Young acolytes with recently acquired MBAs appeared. They kept making appointments to see us, so we could explain what we were doing. The idea that we were spending about £10 million a year of Channel 4’s money (a figure which had dropped from about 5% of the programme budget when we started in 1992 to about 2% now) trying to improve the quality of learning and teaching in the UK’s schools, and that profit margins on sales were not our highest priority, was incomprehensible to them.

The person who had become my immediate boss, once Paul had moved sideways and I had been promoted, left. The top banker told us that head-hunters would be hired to find a replacement for her. I asked him whether internal candidates would be given the chance to apply for the position. The thought had obviously not occurred to him. In the event, the position was advertised on Channel 4’s internal website. It went up there on a Thursday evening, with a closing date of the following Monday for receipt of applications. I had an active weekend. I and one other internal candidate (not Paul) applied. We were both interviewed. Neither of us got the job.

Paul left Channel 4 in May 2002, I in June 2003. Our glorious long moment was over. We had been given the enormous privilege of spending a lot of money on doing some good in the world, working within an organisation whose spirit was close to ours: studiedly non-hierarchical, insouciant, but under cover of that tone determined to produce the very best. And we did. But now the people who thought they knew about management and money, but who didn’t actually know much about either, had caught up with us and decided that we were shambling do-gooders who could no longer be trusted, as once we had been under an old regime. So it was time to go. Our place to play had been found out.

During the two years between summer 2001 and the day I left the channel, I experienced, for the first time in my life, a bad kind of stress, which I knew was damaging me. It was a stress which comes from a loss of power, and from being directed by people for whom one feels no respect or, in some cases, active contempt.

Despite these bad feelings, in this last period I commissioned numerous projects of which I am proud, in particular a film of Twelfth Night starring Chewetel Ejiofor, Parminder Nagra, Claire Price, David Troughton and Michael Maloney, directed by Tim Supple; and the film based on Jacqueline Wilson’s novel The Illustrated Mum, directed by Cilla Ware and starring Michelle Collins, which I’ve already mentioned. It took cunning, with both these films, to get to the point where they were legal contracts which couldn’t be cancelled. The people who thought they knew about money couldn’t see that they would make enough. I enjoyed the practice of that cunning. In each case, once shooting began, I had no anxiety at all; I knew the films would be good.

4Ventures turned out to be a financial catastrophe, and was closed down. The bankers left, clutching hundreds of thousands of pounds of severance pay. The schools service returned to the main body of Channel 4. The only schools television programmes and other educational materials which for a few years remained profitable to the channel in the UK and abroad were those which Paul and I commissioned. The shambling do-gooders knew a thing or two about making a little bit of money (two or three million pounds a year, which is not much by television standards) after all.

Alas, if you look now at Channel 4’s Monday to Friday morning schedule during the school terms, you won’t see anything that looks remotely like a schools television programme, even though, so far as I know, the channel’s legal obligation to provide a schools service still exists. There must have been some kind of collusion between the channel’s management and Ofcom, the regulator, to allow this illegal state of affairs to continue.

In October 2004, I went to work at Teachers TV, a new venture set up by the Labour government. This was a specialist professional-development channel with a mission based on a simple idea: to commission and broadcast television programmes for teachers featuring interesting and often inspiring classroom practice, with the intention that viewers would carry that interest and inspiration into their own work. Teachers TV was also a publisher broadcaster. We worked with several of the companies that Paul and I had commissioned at Channel 4. The budgets were much more modest and the whole operation less glamorous than at Channel 4, but the six years I spent there were happy ones. Paul was there too. Andrew Bethell, who had run a production company, Double Exposure, which had made many programmes for us at Channel 4, was our boss. Andrew, like Paul and me, was a former London English teacher. By this time, the internet was a fully fledged technology, so Teachers TV published all the programmes on its website, for streaming and downloading, as well as broadcasting them.

There were difficult politics to be negotiated between the channel and the government, its funder. Andrew bore the brunt of these burdens. Despite the excellence of the original idea (David Miliband, then schools minister, takes the political credit for it), later education ministers and/or officials made the foolish decision to introduce a buffer organisation between the education department and the channel. This made communication unnecessarily difficult. The buffer organisation understood little about education or television, but felt a constant need to impose on the channel a regime of negative short-term accountability, so that it could show its masters in the education department that it was earning its keep (which was considerable). And then the consortium which had won the bid to run Teachers TV was obliged, after four years of successful operation, to bid again for the right to continue to run it. (I don’t know whether or not the government imposed this obligation because of EU procurement laws.) This required an unwelcome and distracting expenditure of energy. However, I suggested to Andrew that our friend Mike Raleigh, recently retired from HMI, was an ideal person to write a persuasive bid, and so it proved.

Despite these difficulties, Teachers TV was a hit with teachers. They loved the authenticity and practicality of the programmes, which were far removed from the government’s own generally wooden and patronising training videos for teachers. They watched our programmes in large numbers, and wrote appreciatively to say so.

Sadly, the innovation was not to last. Ed Balls was education minister during the latter part of Teachers TV’s life. He made the foolish decision to deny the service its television channel, so that the operation became ‘just’ a website. Balls had been persuaded by his officials that the internet was the coming thing, that television was an old-fashioned technology, even though two thirds of the viewing of Teachers TV’s programmes still took place on television. So the Labour government in its last years damaged the thing it had created. It required the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government which took power in May 2010 to completely destroy it. Michael Gove as education minister had a truly baleful effect on schools in England, and on the morale of teachers generally. He closed Teachers TV down, as part of the government’s economically disastrous austerity drive, even though it was enormously popular with teachers, with about 700,000 individual streams and downloads of programmes per month. I think that Gove was minded simply to throw the programmes away, but it was pointed out to him that about £100 million of taxpayers’ money had been spent on them, and that this expenditure shouldn’t be wasted. So organisations or consortia which were willing to make the programmes freely available online to users in the UK were given the right to exploit them for profit in other markets, and the library of about 3,500 programmes limped on for a few years. But with no marketing, no single, memorable website address and of course no new programmes, teachers made only slight use of the resource. Government stupidity and vandalism had managed to destroy something which government imagination had conceived in the first place.

A few other countries, however, had seen and liked the idea. Thailand soon had its own Thai Teachers TV; Finland and Australia adapted the model. The Gates Foundation, the wealthiest not-for-profit enterprise in the world, decided that it would like to do something like Teachers TV for teachers in the USA. It set up Teaching Channel. Unfortunately, it made a poor first choice of chief executive, and that person had to leave. In something of a panic, the Foundation asked Andrew to go across to rescue the project. Andrew said that he would be glad to do so as long as he could take me with him as director of programmes. So in December 2010 he and I spoke in San Francisco to the leaders of eight production companies based around the country and gathered there by Erin Crysdale, who had been with Teaching Channel since the beginning and who became my deputy for the time I was there. In March 2011 Helen and I went across to live in San Francisco, and I flew around the country for a few months commissioning programmes and supervising production. Teaching Channel had a partnership with WNET, the public broadcaster for the New York area, which was easily the largest of our production companies and which would also broadcast some of the programmes. It was a great time for me: the only extended period in my life when I’ve worked in a foreign country, with the pure luck that the operation was based in one of America’s most glamorous cities. For most of the time there, my office was high up in a skyscraper in the financial district, with a wonderful view over San Francisco bay. Erin had a friend called Mark who owned and lived on a boat moored at Sausalito. On summer evenings we used to take the ferry across the bay, and Mark would sail us around, past Alcatraz and the other islands, right under the Golden Gate bridge but no further out into the Pacific. ‘The ocean is brutal,’ Mark said, and he was very proud of his boat.

For good personal reasons, Andrew knew that he couldn’t stay on as chief executive for very long. Unfortunately, the Gates Foundation made another mess in appointing his successor, and I knew as soon as I met the new chief executive that there would be trouble if we were together for very long. So I made a diplomatic exit in August of that year. The person in question didn’t last long at Teaching Channel, and the organisation was soon onto its fourth chief executive in its short life. However, it’s still going strong in 2018, so far as I can see from its website.

And that, in all probability, will be the extent of my activity in the world of educational broadcasting. I wandered into it because I needed a job. When I arrived there, I discovered that a skill I already had — the ability to make good critical judgements about literature — could be adapted to the critical process of helping a writer, producer or director to make a good programme better (and occasionally to salvage a programme which was otherwise heading for disaster). Television production is an essentially collaborative endeavour; talents and skills of all kinds are needed, and the accents you hear on a shoot belong to people of all classes and backgrounds. There is a cynical, self-deprecating phrase sometimes used in the profession: ‘It’s only television.’ There are sectors of the industry, more glamorous and more expensively budgeted, where there must be a ‘So-what?’ feeling sometimes; thousands of shows on scores of channels, there to entertain us for an hour and then forgotten about. The educational value of the visual media is longer-term than that: hard to quantify, but real nonetheless, and I’m glad that for nearly twenty years I played a part in it.

A postscript in 2021

My friend Anna Home, whom I mention earlier in this chapter, has since her retirement continued to be active in the promotion of the best values and the highest quality in children’s television and children’s media generally. Among other roles, she chairs the Children’s Media Foundation. Early in 2021, she asked me to contribute to a document which the Foundation has published electronically, called Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter? Here it is. As I acknowledge at the end, Anna helped me greatly with it, and Andrew Burn provided much of the academic back-up to what I argue here.

A bit of autobiography

In 1992 I joined Channel 4 as Deputy Commissioning Editor, Schools. Channel 4 had recently taken over responsibility for schools broadcasting from ITV. My colleague and friend Paul Ashton was Commissioning Editor. Over the next eleven years we commissioned television programmes for schools, to be used in classrooms under the guidance of teachers. We commissioned about 35 companies a year, from across the UK, to make the programmes. These companies ranged from the large — some of the ITV companies which had previously formed ITV Schools — to small independents employing a handful of people. In the case of the ITV companies, we commissioned continuations of several series which ITV had for many years produced and broadcast, and which had large and loyal followings amongst teachers and children.

The Broadcasting Act 1990, which among many other measures had imposed on Channel 4 the responsibility for schools broadcasting, required us to broadcast at least 330 hours of schools programmes a year, during the school terms. We did our best to ensure that our output was relevant to the school curricula in the four parts of the UK. We had a team of education officers to help us do this. We had a budget of about £10 million a year.

None of this would have happened without public-service regulation. It’s true that we sold our programmes to broadcasters outside the UK. It’s true that, by virtue of the fact that there were no advertisements around schools programmes, which were broadcast on weekday mornings, the channel was permitted extra minutes of advertising at other times of the day, which to some extent offset the cost of the schools service. But without regulation Channel 4 Schools would not have happened. Indeed, the very reason for our existence was that government intervention, which had reduced ITV’s public-service obligations, had meant that ITV was quite willing to divest itself of a commercial ‘burden’ which it had honourably carried since schools television began in the UK in the mid-1950s.

As the eleven years passed, technology raced ahead. Live viewing of programmes declined sharply; most were recorded before being viewed. We began to sell series of programmes on videotape, and later on DVD. Interactive media on disk — CD-Rom and CDi — came and went. The internet arrived, and we had a presence on Channel 4’s website. The downloading of programmes was just beginning when Paul and I left Channel 4.

All this time, BBC Schools was running an operation about twice our size, paid for by the licence fee. Like us, it was moving with the times technologically. It is a statement of plain fact that schools broadcasting in the UK was envied by providers across the world. Very few other countries — Japan, the Netherlands and some of the Scandinavian countries would be exceptions — had the generosity and reliability of budgets we enjoyed, and were able to commission or directly produce programmes of such high quality across such a range of genres. Of course this achievement had much to do with the talent and commitment of the people who made the programmes. But behind it lay a framework of legislation which enabled that talent and commitment to do its work.

UK children’s media, then and now

Beyond education, over many decades, children’s media has thrived in the UK. The scale of public-service commitment to children’s programmes has been huge. The BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C have distinguished track records, in the first two cases going back many decades to the early days of television. The BBC’s and ITV’s back catalogues positively heave with titles, across all genres, which adults of several generations recall with pleasure. Today, we contemplate the diversified, fragmenting media environment of the present and the future from a basis of decades of the provision of public-service content for children by the established broadcasters.

This is not to undervalue, culturally or — in a general sense — educatively, the children’s content provided more recently by purely commercial channels. Indeed, there are examples of long-running popular series transferring from an established broadcaster to a more recently arrived commercial channel. But no investigation, quantitative or qualitative, will fail to demonstrate the scale, range and diversity of children’s content provided by the public-service broadcasters in their heyday.

What do we see as we contemplate the state of public-service media provision for children and young people in the UK in 2021? Put briefly, we see a significant withering-away of provision, except at the BBC.

To begin with the area closest to my own experience: there is no longer anything that could remotely be described as a schools service at Channel 4. The channel’s licence from Ofcom as it stood in 2004 continued to require that the channel should include in its service:

‘at least 330 hours of schools programmes in each calendar year in the Licensing Period… to be broadcast in term time or within normal school hours (as Ofcom may agree)’.

The programmes were required to be:

‘of high quality and… suitable to meet the needs of schools throughout the United Kingdom.’

The requirement is confirmed in the Annex to the licence:

‘…the Corporation shall transmit at least 330 hours of schools programmes in each calendar year of the Licensing Period, excluding presentation material. These schools programmes will fulfil the needs of the curriculum and will be supported by a full range of appropriate material.’

(Channel 4 Licence, Part 2, paragraph 10(1b) and (2); Annex, Part 1, paragraph 4: December 2004)

In the most recent (2020) version of the channel’s licence, the requirement, pursuant to Section 296 of the Communications Act 2003, is that:

‘The Corporation shall…

ensure that the time allocated to Schools Programmes included in the Channel 4 Service constitutes no less than the total amount of time specified in paragraph 4 of Part 1 of the Annex…

The Corporation shall ensure that any Schools Programmes included in the Channel 4 Service are of high quality and are suitable to meet the needs of schools throughout the United Kingdom.’

So we go to the Annex, and we find:

‘The Corporation shall transmit at least half an hour of Schools Programmes, excluding presentation material, in each calendar year of the Licensing Period. These Programmes need not be broadcast in term time or within normal school hours.’

(Channel 4 Licence, attachment to variation number 20, Part 2, paragraph 10(1b) and (2); and Annex, Part 1, paragraph 4: December 2020)

This is shameful. The suggestion that ‘at least half an hour of School Programmes’ a year (which ‘need not be broadcast in term time or within normal school hours’) will be ‘suitable to meet the needs of schools throughout the United Kingdom’ is extraordinary. It would have been more honest to cancel the service openly. Clearly, the channel’s management and the regulator came to some kind of agreement to abandon the service in fact, while leaving the scantiest of fig leaves in regulation, for the look of the thing.

The BBC continues to produce programmes for schools.

Similarly, beyond education, although children’s programmes are still to be found on the commercial public-service broadcasters — and I offer no criticisms of their quality — the overall offer from these organisations, taken together, in terms of scale, range and diversity, has shrunk dramatically.

BBC Children’s continues.

It is not a healthy state of affairs that public-service media for children should overwhelmingly be provided by one source. Ironically, my main argument in support of this assertion is to do with competition: not commercial competition, but competition in quality, in imagination, in innovation. There is no doubt that such competition keeps participants creatively on their toes. (Paul Ashton and I were very much on our toes creatively in the friendly rivalry which existed between BBC Schools and Channel 4 Schools when Channel 4 had a schools service.) And my conversations more widely with children’s producers and commissioning executives in all the public-service broadcasters confirm that assertion.

The limitations of the market

However dramatically the media environment has changed in the nearly 30 years since I joined the world of television, the market alone will not, cannot, properly supply all children’s needs for education, information and entertainment as supplied by electronic media. My experience in the specialised area of schools media makes that obvious to me. The same is true of children’s media more widely. I recognise and welcome many commercial providers’ productions for children. In the UK and elsewhere, however, some kinds of programming, in particular indigenous live-action dramas and information programmes for children, as well as educational programmes, are not sufficiently attractive to commercial organisations’ balance sheets to make them worth producing. Yet no one — not the commercial organisations themselves — denies the cultural and experiential value to children of having access to a broad range and rich diversity of media experiences. Such experiences are an investment in the future.

An example of ‘investment in the future’

This example is current. As I write, schools across the UK have just re-opened after long periods during which they were closed to all but children of critical workers and those who are vulnerable for other reasons. The emergency visited on the world by Covid-19 has had an enormous impact on all sections of society, in the UK and across the world, but all the evidence is that socio-economically poorer families have been hit the hardest, and that the children of those families will suffer the worst as a result of the interruption to their education. This is because they are less likely to have sophisticated equipment to receive educational media in their homes, and less likely to have the quiet spaces conducive to concentrated study. This has been true for many years: Livingstone et al. (2005) conclude that ‘Middle class children are more likely to have access to the internet at home and to use it.’ With regard to the current situation, a recent medical study notes that ‘for some children the lack of internet, electronic devices, and quiet space at home will further exacerbate inequalities in educational outcomes.’ (Sinha et al., 2020) All generalisations of this kind are dangerous if applied glibly, but there is truth in them nonetheless.

In these circumstances, what commercial organisation rapidly stepped up to provide educational media, virtually free at the point of use, to — at worst — mitigate the damage done by the closure of schools and — at best — give the pleasure and fulfilment which successful learning affords, even if it does take place in a cramped bedroom or on the corner of a dining table? The BBC, at short notice, supplied a rich variety of educational media to support home learning. Now, it may be that it could have done even better than it did, as the UK’s premier public-service media provider, to meet the emergency. But the key point is that in this crisis a non-market player, a public-service entity, at least did something, and something significant, to rise to the challenge. And why was the BBC in a position to move as quickly as it did? Because it has an enviably large library of content, accumulated over many years, paid for by the licence fee.

My numerous contacts over the last year with schoolteachers, school governors and the parents of school-age children have offered me frequent testimony to the value which they have put on the BBC’s recent support for home learning. A school governor of a rural primary school in England, who has special responsibility for the safeguarding of children who may be at risk, has told me that she is sure that the service has been a life-line in some households where the adults are not confident or competent in undertaking even a modest amount of home education for their children.

In sum…

To summarise my argument so far:

I welcome the diverse range of providers of content intended to educate, inform and entertain children in the UK;

I have no animus whatever against commercial providers offering such content;

however, as things stand, commercial providers, by the nature of their obligations to shareholders, will not willingly invest in content which is unlikely to pay its way;

therefore, however excellent much of the commercially provided content may be, there are serious gaps in overall provision;

only a non-commercial funding model will guarantee the range and diversity of genres of and contexts for children’s content which children have a right to expect;

I recognise that the maintenance of a place for public-service media for children has become a more complex matter to legislate for and organise, given the proliferation of channels, means of carriage and receiving devices;

so we need to find a model which can live and thrive in this proliferated environment, while continuing to offer to future generations of children the experience which, at its best, the various public-service broadcasters of the past and present — the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C — have offered to yesterday’s children;

it is regrettable that the public-service responsibility for children’s media, including educational media, has largely — not entirely, I admit — devolved onto one organisation.

What do we do about this?

In order to answer the question effectively, I need briefly to venture beyond the limits of the title of this essay, and to make a proposal about the funding of public-service media generally.

Paying for public-service media

I believe that the licence fee, raised as a quasi-tax and given in its entirety to the BBC, is reaching the end of its useful life as a way of paying for public-service media. Equally, I vigorously reject the arguments of those who would turn the BBC loose into the commercial world, probably as a subscription service, with customers choosing whether or not to buy into it at various levels of cost. Often, the ideological nature of these attacks on the current method of funding the BBC is disguised by appeals to technological modernity: ‘In the age of Netflix, how can something as antiquated at the licence fee be justified?’ Behind such arguments stand powerful media and political interests which would like to see the wholesale privatisation of UK broadcasting, as in the USA (where the only exception is PBS, which relies for its continuing existence on the generosity of individuals and wealthy organisations), and the abandonment of UK broadcasters’ obligation to be impartial politically. The equivalents of Fox News and MSNBC would be born in the UK.

I accept that there are also less ideological voices who would keep the obligation on UK broadcasters to be impartial, but who still think that the licence fee should be scrapped, and replaced by a subscription system.  If this happened, the BBC’s ability to appeal to and serve the whole community in the UK would immediately be savagely reduced, as would its ability to project ’soft power’ across a world increasingly in the control of autocrats with no interest in factually accurate reporting.  Additionally, the BBC has an important responsibility to keep the whole nation informed in cases of national emergency; and it has been doing precisely that as the Covid-19 pandemic has continued.  This responsibility could not be fulfilled under a subscription system, except by some awkward ad-hoc arrangement whereby the government would give the BBC temporary funds to keep the whole population informed when it deemed that a national emergency was at hand.

But the licence fee is imperfect, and its principal imperfection is that it’s regressive: the Duke of Westminster pays the same amount to access BBC services as does someone on the minimum wage. The argument against funding the BBC from direct taxation is the old one about the corporation not being a state broadcaster: it should have the right to challenge and criticise the government without risking its funds being cut off.  But the licence fee is effectively a tax, imposed after a conversation between the government and the BBC every 15 years. I don’t see that a hypothecated tax, raised by other means, needs to compromise the BBC’s independence from government.  It could be imposed either as a specified addition to income tax or to Council Tax. In either case, there is a degree of progressivism: obvious in the case of an addition to income tax; less obvious but still there in the case of an addition to Council Tax, which is banded according to the rateable value of property.  

So my proposal for a replacement of the licence fee would be a hypothecated tax, attached either to income tax or to Council Tax.

Public-service funding for children’s media spread across the board

I would set the rate of the tax so that it raises a little more money — between 5% and 10% more — than the licence fee does at the moment. The great majority of these funds — at least 90% — would go to the BBC, ensuring that it continues to be funded to at least its present level. But an amount beyond the BBC’s share would go to other media providers, whether those who retain public-service status (ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C) or straightforwardly commercial organisations, for the commissioning of public-service content in a group of specified areas, including children’s media other than media for schools.

Why ‘other than media for schools’, given my earlier remarks about the abandonment of the Channel 4 schools service? Simply because that lamentable situation can easily be rectified: Ofcom should once again require Channel 4 to have a high-quality schools service at meaningful scale. Demand for educational programming has been demonstrated in the past: in the loyalty conversion rates for Teachers TV (McMahon, 2008) and in teacher accounts of its value (Tanner, 2006); while evidence for demand for the continuation of TV provision by the BBC and Channel 4 in the face of alternative online provision is well-documented in the longer history of programming for schools (e.g. Moss, 2000; Chien, 1999). Ofcom’s extensive consultation on the state and future of public-service media shows that today’s audiences value its distinctive content highly, including educational provison (Ofcom, 2020). Current demand has increased due to the coronavirus pandemic, leading — as I have described above — to the BBC’s rapid expansion in provision of both online and broadcast resources, with a marked shift to television to offset limited access to broadband and devices (BBC, 2021), a trend against the longer-term decline in general broadcast viewing (Ofcom, 2019).

With regard to children’s media other than provision for schools, an expert commissioning group, taking account of the BBC’s offer in this area, would agree where overall provision was lacking or where creative competition would enhance that provision, would invite bids from organisations other than the BBC to produce content to meet those needs, and would oversee production. With the help of a non-executive board, it would judge the quality and the take-up of the content so provided. ‘Take-up’ of course means reception across the full range of platforms and receiving devices to which children and young people have access.

Fortunately, such an expert commissioning group already exists. The Young Audiences Content Fund, based at the British Film Institute, is currently funding a wide range of content and development in children’s media. It has a budget of £57 million for a three-year pilot, funded by some unused licence fee money originally earmarked for a digital project at the BBC. It is headed by a former executive at BBC Children’s. To quote from its website, the YACF:

‘supports the creation of distinctive, high-quality content for audiences up to the age of 18... Production and development awards will contribute to the funding of programmes, shown on television and online platforms, that have public-service broadcasting values in live-action and animation and across all genres. We are looking for content that entertains, informs and reflects the experiences of children and young people growing up in the UK today.’

These ambitions and this expertise are exactly what we need longer-term. The YACF, its personnel expanded if necessary, funded by its share of the hypothecated tax, could be charged with seeing that public-service media for children and young people in the UK, supplied by numerous providers alongside the BBC, has a thriving future.

In conclusion

I conclude with the thought that when the UK sported two and then three, four and five public-service broadcasters, in a technologically relatively simple world, those broadcasters’ offer to children and young people in the areas of education, information and entertainment was the envy of much of the rest of the world. There is no reason, in today’s and tomorrow’s technologically relatively complex world, why that excellence should not be maintained, if the right policy decisions are taken. Those who serve children’s and young people’s media needs and choices retain both the necessary talent and the underlying passion for the task.

References

BBC News (2021) ‘Lockdown Learning: What educational resources are on TV, iPlayer and online?’ Accessed 11.3.21 at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-55591821

Chien, M-Y. (1999) ‘The Contribution of the Characteristics of Schools Programmes to their Use in English Primary Schools’. Journal of Educational Media, Volume 24(3).

Livingstone, S., Bober, M. and Helsper, E. (2005) Inequalities and the digital divide in children and young people's internet use: findings from the UK Children Go Online project. London: London School of Economics and Political Science.

McMahon, A. (2008) Teachers TV: Education Analysis Report. London: DCMS.

Moss, R. (2000) ‘Closing a window on the world: Convergence and UK television services for schools’. Cultural Trends, Volume 10(40).

Ofcom (2019) Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report 2019. London: Ofcom.

Ofcom (2020) Small Screen: Big Debate – Consultation: The Future of Public Service Media. London: Ofcom.

Sinha, I., Bennett, D. and Taylor-Robinson, D. (2020) ‘Children are being side-lined by Covid-19’. theBMJ (369). Accessed 12.3.21 at https://www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m2061

Tanner, R. (2006) ‘Unexpected Outcomes from Teachers' TV’. Mathematics Teaching Incorporating Micromath, number 199, pp. 28-30.

Acknowledgements

I thank Andrew Burn and Anna Home for significant improvements and additions to this essay.