Children's television viewing habits are changing, according to the people who have a vested interest in knowing this the advertisers.
A conference on advertising for children, "Programming for Children and the Daytime Market", held in London last month by Marketing Week, heard that in the past two years young people's viewing of television has fallen by 11 per cent, with this time being taken up by watching videos or playing computer games. Of those watching television, another shift in viewing is apparent, as 37 per cent of the children's audience in homes with cable or satellite now goes to dedicated children's channels, such as Nickleodeon or The Children's Channel. This represents a considerable challenge to the mainstream channels.
Meanwhile the merchandising industry associated with children's programmes is growing massively, with the children's video market in Britain now worth Pounds 400 million a year.
This sequence of figures and the trends they reveal could endanger children's programming as we have so far known it. The argument of those anxious for its future runs like this: the average cost of an hour's children's television on ITV is Pounds 50,000, compared to Pounds 1,000 for the new cable and satellite channels, which rely largely on cheaply-imported animation. As more viewers drift from ITV, Channel 4 and BBC, so the advertising revenue that ITV can claim will fall, putting greater pressure on the programme-making budget.
As the ITV companies are obliged to provide "a range of entertainment, drama and information" for children, this budget is stretched even thinner. The consequences could all too easily be to cut costs and ultimately quality, as children's departments are forced to live within shrinking budgets.
Also adding burdens to ITV's attempts to sell advertising space is the belief, expressed at the conference, that the "quality" areas of children's programmes might not be the most attractive to advertisers. Which begs the question should ITV be shaping output for advertisers or children?
The BBC is committed by its public service remit to produce distinctive, high-quality programming and the children's output is a significant part of this. But like ITV, it also needs to deliver respectable audiences for the early evening schedules. If there is any change to the balance of ITV children's schedules, this would put even greater pressure on the BBC. For both channels, it is not an easy circle to square The money to be made from merchandising, such as toys, games and videos, is in effect a subsidy on programme costs, making it cheaper to sell a series to broadcasters and as such more attractive for companies trying to keep down programme-buying budgets. It takes a strong editorial hand and some assurance of consistent funding to resist the influence of merchandising-led television. Otherwise, factual and drama programming will be a risk, without the merchandising potential of cartoon characters such as Sonic the Hedgehog or The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
A fund for quality children's programmes was proposed, which would be financed by advertisers, who in return could use a joint logo proclaiming their support. But this raised further questions such as who would run the fund and decide where the money would be spent. It also would have to be negotiated with broadcasters how airtime would be made available for programmes.
Britain has rightly been proud of what it has achieved in children's television, but the cracks are beginning to show, with the pressures of falling audiences and advertising revenue making matters worse. This is not simply a problem in this country, as the pressures of transnational broadcasting and new computer technologies is being felt worldwide. To take this wider perspective, next year there will be a World Summit on Television and Children in Australia. Let us hope that it comes up with some actions that can protect the future.