In March 2017, the Government decided to support an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill giving Ofcom the power to urge Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs) to commission more children’s television programmes. The Digital Economy Act 2017 received Royal assent on 27 April 2017, enshrining the amendment into law.
The amendment follows a strong effort by PACT and Save the Kids’ Content UK to save the children’s production sector. Since the downgrading of children’s television content over a decade ago, there has been a 93 per cent decline in spending by commercial channels. The BBC now broadcasts 97 per cent of original children’s programming.
The victory was due in large part to the passionate representation of Baroness Floella Benjamin in the House of Lords, who argued that only a change to primary legislation could ‘secure the long-term future and sustainability of the UK children’s content production sector’.
The amendment gives Ofcom the power to produce criteria regarding the provision of children’s television programme on PSBs. Ofcom will consult with the public, and with PACT and its members, in creating the guidelines. Once they have been finalised, compliance with Ofcom’s guidelines will be a condition of the PSB licence.
The amendment should therefore enable Ofcom to put pressure on PSBs to commission more content for children.
Though the amendment requires PSBs to comply with Ofcom’s criteria, it does not specify what these criteria must be. The success of the amendment therefore depends on the actual content of the guidelines. Therefore it is now down to those within the industry to remain actively involved in shaping these criteria, particularly by participating in Ofcom’s consultation.
In the words of Baroness Benjamin, though passing the amendment is an important first step, ‘it is vital for Ofcom to urgently use the powers that the amendment will give it to deliver real change’. Like Baroness Benjamin, children’s television producers and others in the industry should keep ‘a very close eye on the use of these powers to make sure that real change is achieved’.