With news that Ofcom has lambasted the likes of ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 for underserving UK children through lack of original and diverse programming, hitting the headlines, ToyNews thought it time enough to revisit its exclusive interview with a hero of the kids' TV space.
Anne Wood, the chief executive of Ragdoll Productions and creator of hits like In the Night Garden and Twirlywoos can’t remember exactly when it was that she founded the UK charity org, Save Kids Content Campaign.
“It was somewhere between two and four years ago, but it feels like forever. Let’s say three years,” she laughs as we discuss the latest developments in the world of children’s TV over the phone.
The latest, by the way, is that the UK government has pledged to invest a further £60 million into nurturing home-grown children’s television content across commercial broadcasters such as ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 among others.
It has been seen as a means of encouraging commercial channels to compete with the BBC’s children’s programming and in turn battle the heavy influx of US-led animated productions found among the growing digital space.
It’s also a huge win for the Save Kids Content Campaign, who has been lobbying for a greater recognition of the importance of and current plight of UK made children’s programming among politicians, for as long as Wood’s memory serves.
From the days of Pob and Rosie and Jim, through the Moomins era, the introduction of the Teletubbies (now owned by DHX Media) and to contemporary day’s Abney and Teal and In the Night Garden, creating television for children has been Wood’s life’s work.
It’s what earned her the CBE after her name and it’s what continues to drive her desire to see the UK’s children’s TV production industry return to the strength it once was.
“It’s what Save Kids Content Campaign is all about,” continues Wood. “And this bit of funding is a ray of light that we are most grateful to the Minister for Culture for, for shedding in an area of the UK’s creative industry that is in desperate need.”
From within the parameters of the toy industry, it’s all too easy to overlook the struggles felt within the children’s television production sector. But suffice to say that in a market as driven by licensed merchandising as it is, British television is the lifeblood of the children’s entertainment sector.
And according to Wood, it was only some 20 years ago – when TV was terrestrial
and kids’ content was a priority upon the platform - that it was a booming place.
“Now days, we feel like the last man standing at Ragdoll,” she says. “The issue with UK made children’s television content is that it simply isn’t flourishing.
“A big part of this issue stems back to when ITV decided it was going to stop producing children’s programming, leaving those of us making and originating UK content with only one customer, the BBC. Nobody can run a business with only one customer so a lot of UK producers went away.”
Much of the rest of the problem is down to funding, or as Wood explains, and the tribulations that UK studios have to endure to get a hold of it, tasked as they are so often with funding productions themselves and only receiving payment (a maximum of 25 per cent of production costs, to boot) once the series production is completed.
This itself is a key reason as to why the younger children’s television sector is extraneously linked with the toy industry and has been for a vast number of years, allowing production companies the chance to fund their series through numerous toy and licensing deals.
However, over the last year, that income was halved, leading to a serious cash
flow problem that has all but signalled ‘the death of new, original content being produced in the UK.’
“It is thrilling for us to see that over time we have succeeded in bringing the government to an understanding between politicians as to what the issue is,” continues Wood.
“However, while we are deeply grateful to the culture secretary for making this money over to just children’s programming, no one has decided where this £60m will be going.
“The worry that I have is that young children’s television is not seen to need it [the funding], because we have sourced our funding through putting together toy deals and merchandising deals an so on, because we were in the sweet spot of the young children’s market,” she explains.
“I don’t object to that support because I have benefited over the years from quite a lot of it, as indeed have other producers. But what is highly dangerous and not necessarily true anymore is that we are being left to rely on those deals to fund work.
“Income from that source has fallen by 50 per cent over the last year, so, even if
we wanted to get our money from there – which we don’t feel we should have to, although we are grateful for what we do get – it isn’t there anymore, even that avenue is closing down to us.
“Therefore, to have this money acknowledged because politicians have understood the cultural importance of UK’s children’s television is a big boost.”
What the money does mean is that through its political lobbying, Save Kids Content Campaign – an organisation founded by Wood, but one that includes the work of PACT - has succeeded in having an amendment put on the Digital Broadcasting Bill.
This amendment is devised to increase the pressure on Ofcom by the government to ensure that independent and commercial broadcasters look at funding UK kids’ content.
But why has this become a topic for discussion? And even more so, why is it the toy industry’s problem? After all, the industry knows its perennial favourites, and has enjoyed quite the success with them over the years.
“You can’t fault the BBC, they do their best with what they have got, and if they weren’t there, we wouldn’t have anything,” explains Wood.
“But they do repeat a lot of programmes with a useful backlog of programmes, some of which are my own creations including In the Night Garden, Abney and Teal and Twirlywoos. So it does some very good work on CBBC , but of course, of the money that is allowed to the BBC, the older kids get far more of the budget than the younger children do.
“There’s probably a feeling that you can repeat more on the younger children’s space. But what they fail to see is that at some point it is going to come to an end, and the position we are in at the moment is that it is hard to see other programmes coming through.
“What’s more is that nobody is dishing out the £40m it cost to make In the Night Garden anymore, even a less complex series costs £7m. And then you have to make so many of them in order to have the presence on the screen that allows merchandising to happen to support you in making the programme in the first place. It’s a vicious circle.”
A circle, yes, but how vicious need it become? Surely, an increased output in UK children’s content is mutually beneficial for both the production and toy industries?
“At least, it would be,” says Wood, “if the retailers, manufacturers, etc. weren’t so adverse to taking the risk. The whole thing is about people not being able to take a risk or being too scared. What we are seeing in today’s television is that if something is not an instant hit, it’s not given time to grow.
“Of course, often children’s programmes need that time to bed in before they can become a success in merchandising. So what we really need is the broadcast platforms to take that chance on programming, give it time to find its audience and then, we hope to see a revival of home-grown children’s TV content and its wider cultural impact.”
What the next step will be remains to be seen, and until it is detailed how the £60m in government funding will be spent, all parties can only wait. But rest assured, Wood has promised to keep applying pressure to the right points.
And when Wood makes a promise, something tells us that she keeps it.