Children's television in Britain is under unprecedented threat as the under-12s turn to tablet devices and mobile phones for their entertainment.
The BBC, it was revealed today, is urgently looking at ways of developing new Apps, more complex computer games and easier access to YouTube in order to retain audiences on its children's services. A review of those services by the BBC Trust found that "BBC Children's feels it is at risk of falling behind children's fast-changing media consumption habits."
Although the Trust was generally complimentary about the quality of BBC children's programming, it noted that audiences for CBBC (which serves 6-12 year-olds) and CBeebies (which serves under-6s) fell last year. Some children appear to regard the children's channels as too babyish. The report found that 2.1m children aged 4-12 watch BBC1 and BBC2 every week but do not watch the children's channels.
The Trust called on the BBC executive to consider showing some of CBBC's "older-skewing content" after 7pm on mainstream channels in order to reach some of the 4.5m children aged 4-12 who watch television in the evenings.
"Some children responding to our consultation expressed frustration at the lack of games on mobile devices and stakeholders commented that the [BBC Children's] websites are relatively basic compared with some other commercial provision. There are indications that the limitations of the current offer - at present only a minority of content is available on smartphones or tablet - may be starting to impact on online reach figures."
The review spelt out the pace of technological change. In 2012, one in seven children aged 5-15 were using tablet devices - three times the number in 2011. In the same 12 months, the number of 5-15 year olds with smart phones grew from 20 per cent to 28 per cent.
In response, the BBC is seeking ways of incorporating more social media, especially Google's YouTube, into children's services. "The BBC's own research shows that children would value greater opportunities to engage with their friends," said the review.
"You Tube is just a phenomenon with children and they use it in ways that adults don't," the Director of BBC Children's Joe Goodwin, told The Independent. "If we were a private broadcaster we could make quicker moves in that area but because - rightly - the huge responsibility I have got with regards protecting children online, we have to tread very carefully."
He said that by persuading children to sign in to the BBC online, he was confident ways could be found to enable them to play games with friends "within our framework around child protection". But he said: "We can't compete with the depth and cost of console games and neither should we. Whatever we do is not going to replace Playstations and Xboxes."
To retain the interest of older children, CBBC is looking to develop more programming on the subjects of computing and coding.
The BBC recently launched the CBeebies Playtime! app featuring the popular Octonauts animation characters. A CBBC app is in the offing.
The BBC Children's department is planning to develop comedy shows that "can attract a family audience as well as children" to CBBC. It is also hoping that some successful BBC1 dramas "that work well with teenagers" can be edited or remade as "reworked, age appropriate, versions" for a children's audience.
Richard Bradley, managing director of Lion TV and executive producer of Horrible Histories, said: "These days you are competing with Hollywood and computer games with millions of dollars of investment and social media. You need to find a way to compete."
It's not that British children are short of television choice. In homes with satellite TV, 32 children's channels are available. Godwin described it as "the most competitive children's TV market in the world".
The problem is that, although ITV's CITV screens Horrid Henry and Channel 5 has the Peppa Pig brand in its Milkshake! children's output, the commissioning of new original British children's shows by any British broadcaster other than the BBC has virtually ended because it is not commercially attractive.
"You have a monopoly buyer which is not healthy for competition or creativity. Everyone has to go to the BBC, which only has so much many and so many slots," said John McVay, of the independent production sector's PACT.
And the Trust review noted that the BBC Children's department will have increasingly less money to spend as it tries to address the challenges of reacting to fast-changing audience behaviour. Its budget will decrease from £101.7m in 2011-2012 to £91m in 2016-2017. "The BBC's the only game in town but it's under huge pressure," said McVay, who complained of a dearth of British children's drama shows. "The diet [of children's audiences] should not be exclusively teen soaps based in Los Angeles."
The Trust reported that only 20 per cent of original children's programmes are made in Britain. In homes with satellite and cable television, Disney outperforms CBBC (although CBeebies is the most popular pre-school channel).The television publicist James Herring said big American producers such as Disney were the global powerhouses in children's production. "The American model is to make 50 to 60 episodes and build a brand with merchandising, tours and theme park rides."
It is 32 years since the invention of Postman Pat - and Bob the Builder first went on air in 1998. Tim Dams, editor of Televisual, said new tax breaks for animation productions were helpful but he described the current low proportion of home-grown children's content as "incredible". He said: "I can't think of any other genre where that's the case."
Godwin is especially proud of the long-running Newsround. "Broadcasters around the world marvel at the BBC's commitment to four news bulletins a day for kids."
He cited Deadly 60, the Tracy Beaker spin-off The Dumping Ground and the animation Tree Fu Tom, as some of the department's biggest recent successes. "I don't think they're ever going to be of the order of a Disney princess in terms of global domination but that's not what we are here for."
GREAT BRITISH CHILDREN'S TV BRANDS
Created in 1981 by children's author John Cunliffe and TV producer Ivor Wood. The Royal Mail's greatest ambassador went round the world and had his own theme village at Longleat. TV run lasted until 2008.
Bob the Builder
Began in 1998 and developed into an international brand that made a fortune for production company HIT Entertainment.
Starring a five-year-old pig nimated in London by production company Astley Baker Davies, launched in 2004 and broadcast by Channel 5 and Nick Jr. Has a theme park in Hampshire.
Adapated from a book character created by author Jacqueline Wilson in 2002, evolved into spion offs Tracy Beaker Returns and now CBBC's The Dumping Ground.
Made by Lion TV, it uses comedy actors to re-enact moments in history. Began in 2009 and is working on its sixth series. The CBBC show is admired by Ofsted for making history popular in the classroom.
Children's BBC's newest hit, the CBBC show features presenter Steve Backshall tracking down the world's deadliest animals.
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