CBBC: Putting childrens' feet first

CBBC is relaunching next month with a brief to be both safe and challenging. Nicola Pearson talks to the channel's creative director
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After such a tempestuous summer, it should have been a big relief for the BBC to be able to focus on children's television and the relaunch on 3 September of CBBC.

Unfortunately some of the "talent" the department are keen to promote as part of that success have come back to bite them, first with Blue Peter's Konnie Huq appearing on a political platform with Ken Livingstone (for which her agent has since apologised) and then the CBBC presenter Kirsten O"Brien lampooning her colleagues in Edinburgh for not liking children in her Confessions of a Children's TV Presenter stand-up show.

Still, CBBC's creative director, Anne Gilchrist (who, contrary to O'Brien's comments, does have children of her own and seems to rather like them) is determined to come out all guns blazing, promising a new "multi-platform brand" with fewer, better, bigger shows to grab the attention of the elusive 6- to 12-year-olds.

Of the current embarrassments, she says the BBC deserves more credit than it's been getting recently and of the Blue Peter phone-in fiasco earlier this year, "everyone makes mistakes". Blue Peter stays in the new schedule – "people underestimate how good it is" – although with reduced hours to deliver, "so it can get back to doing what it does best".

After two years in the job, Gilchrist is trying to create a strong brand loyalty, confident that children who have turned away from CBBC – which is a digital channel but is also shown on BBC1 in the mornings and after school – will come back and re-identify with the channel. "We have a core audience who watch regularly and then there are kids who dip in and out. They might have a favourite programme, like Tracy Beaker or Raven that they always watch, but they're not necessarily familiar with the whole portfolio. We want to widen our demographic."

With 20 children's channels available, Gilchrist admits it's hard to do. "We have a lot of hours to fill and in the past there's been the slight attitude of filling the schedule and hoping everything will work. You can't do that anymore. You have to make shows that are the best available."

That means a big new adventure game set on a fictitious island off Brazil, another Doctor Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and a CGI/live action adaptation of Jamie Rix's novels, The Revenge Files of Alistair Fury. Nearly half the programmes being made by independents, many of whom, Kudos (Spooks) Twenty Twenty (The Choir) and Aardman (Wallace and Gromit) are primarily known for their work outside children's TV. It also means a serious interactive element because, Gilchrist says, "that's what children expect".

One of the criticisms levelled at CBBC by independent producers is that they play safe and that some children, particularly the 9-12 age group, find their programmes too young. Gilchrist admits that to a certain extent CBBC is about comfort viewing. "We have to appeal to a broad age range and have a public service remit to fulfil. I'm constantly mindful of the six-year-olds watching and that parents expect a certain type of television from the BBC that has to be safe as well as interesting. Some six-or seven-year-olds are still watching CBeebies, some 10-year-olds only just tuning into Dr Who. We have to keep everyone happy." That means taking them to the edge of their seat but not over it.

Across terrestrial and digital television, CBBC is still the second most popular channel to tots' channel CBeebies, but due to the popularity of their live action shows, the global producers Nickelodeon and Disney are catching up. Hits like Zack and Cody, Hannah Montana, Cory in the House and the phenomenal success of High School Musical mean that Disney has just announced its best-ever ratings, with a 70 per cent audience increase this year, even before High School Musical 2 is aired at the end of September.

Gilchrist is pragmatic. "There is absolutely a place for High School Musical but it's really important that children have their own culture reflected back at them, not just American content, good as it is. So much media representation of kids is that they're trouble-makers, that they can't read or write. There has to be somewhere that inspires and empowers them, bursts open their horizons and where childhood can be celebrated."

The shows children's BBC is making are "unique", she says. Where else would you see a drama about a wheelchair-propelled basketball team (Desperados) or a group of children taken back to war-time Britain (Evacuation) – "ostensibly a history programme but people loved it, gobbled it up" – or animated stories about children's poverty (The Wrong Trainers), a series so successful it ended up in Gordon Brown's office.

Through no fault of its own, CBBC is even more under the spotlight being in the strange position of having a monopoly on British-made children's programmes. CiTV, previously its biggest competitor, stopped commissioning a year ago and now only transmits children's shows on ITV1 at weekends. ITV's executive chairman, Michael Grade, has made it clear he intends ITV's children's output to be as low as Ofcom will let him.

Gilchrist says it is no advantage being the only show in town. "We thrive on watching what they're doing, wanting to do it better. The audience can only benefit from competition."

Sarah Baynes, an ex-Channel 4 executive and supporter of the SaveKidsTV campaign, says that the lack of competition is disastrous for children's television. "ITV shows like My Parents are Aliens and Girls in Love showed a very different, everyday life to that on the BBC."

Will Brenton, one of the creators of The Tweenies (the BBC's most successful export after Blue Planet) says that although the BBC are very committed to children's TV, there's always more to be done; "programmes for teenagers, for one". He says: "The danger is that with no competition, the channel becomes complacent, so the bosses think they can invest less."

Nigel Pickard, controller of children's television when CBBC and CBeebies launched, now at the independent production company RDF, says it remains to be seen whether the emerging, American-owned producers like Nickelodeon and Disney can re-address the gap left by ITV, but he thinks it's doubtful. "Time will tell whether the BBC goes the same way as ITV and puts all children's programmes on to BBC2 and whether that matters. It's very important that CBBC has relaunched and made itself stronger because it's now under constant threat, financially and in the schedule. In terms of the licence fee, it's going to have to consistently demonstrate its value."