Flemish public service broadcaster VRT plans to extend its services to include a television channel for pre-schoolers that will run alongside its online offerings for this age group. Together, they would operate under the existing Ketnet jr. brand and complement the long-running and successful Ketnet channel, aimed at older children. However, for every new VRT service, Flemish law requires that the Flemish Media Regulator, VRM, undertakes a public consultation on the public value and market impact of any new VRT service, taking account of developments in technology and the marketplace as well as VRT’s public service obligations.
VRT’s plans, grounded on expert arguments about the relevance and need for appropriate original Flemish content for Flanders’ youngest children, have unleashed opposition from domestic commercial broadcasters like Medialaan who point to unfair competition from their publicly-funded rival, VRT. Independent producers, though, are in favour, hoping to secure commissions for local content for children that may attract attention on the international market for children’s television programmes. The VRM’s recommendations are frustratingly ‘inconclusive’. While VRM recognises both the relevance and need for locally produced Flemish-language content for young children, it was unable to decide whether the impact of technology, current media offerings and audience expectations merited a decision in favour of Ketnet Jr. This impasse suggests further discussion is necessary, to which we add some considerations based on academic research.
Children’s content: A Public Service tradition
Children’s content remains an important part of public service offerings across Europe and most institutions, like the BBC and VRT, are expected to serve young audiences as part of their public service obligations. They are obliged to provide free, non-commercial content to all children, motivated by issues of voice and cultural identity that contribute to the national conversation, and that involve children as much as adults. Public service broadcasters are expected to make a contribution by providing high quality domestic shows that are markedly different from what the commercial market offers: live action against animation; news and factual content; young aspirational presenters that look Flemish and speak Flemish; home-grown drama; and innovative cross-platform offerings that enhance linear content, providing children with new forms of engagement.
Importantly, children’s needs and tastes, and therefore the market for children’s content, is highly differentiated. One service cannot serve all children, as the needs and preferences of three-to-five-year-olds are different from those of six-to-eight-year-olds or older children. Therefore, many public service corporations, like Danmarksradio, the BBC, the ABC (Australia), France Télévision and Rai, differentiate channel offerings according to age, including for the youngest children. A pre-school channel allows positive benefits from content that reflects children’s diverse lives (such as home-grown drama and factual programming) and encourages participation in society. Evidence suggests that parents appreciate this, especially in combination with no advertising. For instance, satisfaction rates for CBeebies are exceptionally high, suggesting that the BBC is offering something distinctive and safe to its young viewers across a range of platforms.
Children’s content and commercial broadcasters
Catering to children is not a public service prerogative but extends to commercial players. However, investment in local content for children by domestic commercial broadcasters, particularly in small countries, shows evidence of decline. In the UK between 2003-2014, investment by commercial public service broadcasters ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, declined 95% from £59m to £3m, and commissioned hours dropped 85% from 621 hours to 93 hours. Even in countries with alternative funds to public service broadcasting (Denmark, Ireland, Australia), which might act as an incentive, domestic commercial broadcasters still underinvest in domestic content because it is unprofitable. In Denmark, the Public Service Puljen fund has struggled to find commercial broadcasters willing to support children’s content. In Ireland, most funding for children’s content from the Sound and Vision Fund goes to commissions from incumbent public service broadcaster, RTE. In Australia, local producers are reluctant to apply for Screen Australia funding because it necessitates upfront investment from commercial broadcasters, who are unwilling to invest. As a result, the domestic children’s market is consistently proven as a market failure sector,
In many countries, publicly funded broadcasters are virtually the sole commissioners of domestic content for children. In some markets, commercial players are relatively indifferent to this, in others such as Flanders, they criticise this as unfair competition and claim that public service investments have a negative impact on the commercial market for children’s content, including for pre-schoolers. However, public service broadcasters are not ‘the enemy’ here, but rather children’s specialist transnational channels and new players such as Netflix. Indeed, local children’s TV markets face considerable challenges from global abundance, with hundreds of channels, large amounts of free content on YouTube, and subscription services including Netflix and Amazon. Transnational players like Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network work across many platforms and have few incentives to make content for small language markets or markets where they can simply put out English-language content. Much of their content is sourced from the US and Asia. This content may be good and may be popular with children, but it does not reflect children’s localities and lives as domestically produced content can do at its best.
PSM making a difference
Public service broadcasters are uniquely suited to provide an alternative to globalised children’s content, as they do not have to make a profit or think about ancillary licensing revenues from animation characters. In return, they are expected to provide what is distinctive: real people as presenters, a variety of content across different genres (factual, entertainment, drama) and something of interest for different age groups. All children’s programming has to be entertaining or children will not watch it, but all public service content should have a broad educational focus on learning. This is not just about teaching numbers and letters but about a broader developmental approach that helps children to learn about core values such as caring about others and the benefits of cooperation. In this way, public service broadcasters can provide positive role models and examples, especially in the pre-school arena. To be sure, any intervention needs to have more than a linear broadcast presence. In this respect, PSM can take the risks that serve as a catalyst for independent producers with innovative commissions and new forms of distribution, providing a cross-over space to inform future policy. For preschool offerings, this can also be geared towards general educational and developmental objectives for small children.
Considerations for policymakers
The key priority for any decision about PSM channels for (pre-school) children should be whether it helps to deliver high quality and pluralistic public service content that is distinctive. Today, policymakers tend to prioritise industry concerns and market impact, while, clearly, their first responsibility, like that of PSM, should be towards the interests of children and parents, whose voices are rarely heard in policy debates. If anything, PSM investment in commissioned local content for preteens will create a positive impact on the market of audio-visual productions. The market impact on commercial broadcasters is less relevant if they do not invest in distinctive programming that also supports the domestic industry. However, not letting a PSM run a preschool channel will have a greater impact on the market, because it leaves a vacuum that will be filled by transnational broadcasters and online intermediaries whose business plans do not include hefty investment in Flemish content. What should come first: children or transnational corporations?
Jeanette Steemers (Ph.D.), Professor of Culture, Media and Creative Industries, Kings College, London.
Hilde Van den Bulck (Ph.D.), Professor Communicatiewetenschappen, University of Antwerp.
 In a survey of UK parents 83% agreed that CBeebies provided a wide range of high-quality and UK-made programmes for children. Ofcom, PSB Annual Research Report 2016. PSB Audience Opinions Annex (London: Ofcom), p. 44.
 Ofcom (2015) Public Service Broadcasting in the Internet Age.Ofcom’s Third Review of Public Service Broadcasting, Data Annex, Ofcom: London p. 13
 J. Steemers and F. Awan (2016) Policy Solutions and International Perspectives on Funding of Public Service Media Content for Children (London: CAMRI).
 J. Steemers (2017) Industry Engagement with Policy on Public Service Television for Children. BBC Charter Reviewer and the Public Service Content Fund. Media Industries 4.1, pp.1-16.