You may remember when TV channel BBC Three was made an online-only brand in 2016. The reason given at that time was that teenagers and young adults, the channel’s target audience, were now all streaming television online anyway.
Now, the BBC has announced that it plans to move the children’s channel CBBC online. The BBC says this is largely to cut costs, but also because children and young teenagers are perceived to primarily watch YouTube and other streaming sites, which has impacted ratings for the channel. However, as the BBC Three move showed, shifting the channel online will have significant other costs.
CBBC, like BBC Three, has been important to the BBC’s overall national and international brand identity and reputation. It has produced and commissioned some outstanding content, including The Dumping Ground, Horrible Histories and the much-loved Blue Peter and Newsround.
It emerged as a channel in 2002 when the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting freed up space to deliver more channels on the same frequencies. And over the 20 years of its existence is has delivered programming specifically aimed at an audience of children up to the early teenage years.
Such an audience is always going to be small in comparison to the mainstream audiences of BBC One and BBC Two. As such, it looks, on the face of it, as not really financially viable.
In this context, the role of public service television is often mentioned. The BBC has a remit to cater to the whole nation and that includes a specific focus on children and teenagers.
However, such an approach also makes economic sense as the children who watch and often love CBBC eventually become licence-fee paying adults. But, even seeing the financial strategies of the BBC in light of the role of building loyal viewers through the delivery of quality children’s content is a limited view.
Children’s television, in particular that commissioned or produced by the BBC, does well on an international level. The reason is that very few countries invest so much money in public service content (that which informs, educates and entertains them).
This content is a valuable commodity for the BBC, despite the perception that it’s not financially viable when created domestically. It also is incredibly important in creating brand recognition internationally.
The BBC now gains approximately a quarter of its income from its commercial arm, including international sales which brought the BBC £30 million (royalties excluded) in income in 2020/21. Children’s television is an important part of that.
Pivoting to an international view
Researchers in Norway have found that it is the public service broadcasters that, because they need to cater to specific local audience needs and engage as many audience groups in the country as possible, often respond in more innovative ways to their needs. This finding was echoed by research into regional audiences in the UK.
But it is precisely this innovation and the need to cater to limited audiences that make the BBC’s programmes produced in that way so internationally successful. They feel authentic and speak to specific concerns. They are distinctly British and distinctly BBC, but are relatable to audiences elsewhere. Again, that all important brand recognition.
The problem with moving CBBC online is that, as the case of BBC Three already indicated, its local identity and relevancy will diminish. The identity that a linear TV channel provides and the sense of bringing audiences together around the same programmes at the same time – which is such a central function of television more generally – will be lost.
The BBC will most likely still produce and commission children’s television, but its importance to the nation as a whole will be less apparent. With that lost, the trend may well be to direct its commissioning sights on international audiences, potentially universal audiences. And that fundamentally operates against its own interest.