The outgoing BBC children’s director has said YouTube and Netflix could not provide the same distinctive British children’s programmes as those funded by the licence fee, as the corporation responds to the coronavirus outbreak by bringing forward the launch of a child-friendly version of iPlayer.
In an interview with the Guardian, Alice Webb defended the quality of the corporation’s children’s output in the face of threats to its funding package, suggesting British parents would miss high-quality children’s shows if the broadcaster’s budget was cut.
On Friday, the BBC launched a new version of its iPlayer catchup service on smart TVs. This makes it easier for parents to find child-friendly content, by clicking on a monster shaped “children” button, which kids can then safely browse. The corporation is also preparing to unveil daily educational programming to fill the gap while schools are closed due to the pandemic.
Webb, who has been the children’s director for the past five years but is leaving the corporation this month, said the BBC had taken an active decision to keep much of its children’s programming off YouTube because it was not a suitable platform. “We took the choice to not be fully on YouTube because we think it’s not a platform that was designed for children. You’re too close to things you wouldn’t want your children engaging with it,” she said.
The BBC has struggled to secure other forms of television, such as big-budget dramas, which have been snapped up by Netflix. However, Webb said the corporation’s commitment to directly funding 70% of its commission from British producers helped produce distinctive shows that parents could not find elsewhere. “There is a very bright future for public service children’s broadcasting because it isn’t Netflix or YouTube and it offers a distinctive and different alternative … The peril comes when we try to be them. We’re not them and we don’t try to be them.”
Highlighting the success of the CBBC documentary strand My Life, which explores the lives of children around the world, she said: “Children love variety, they love factual programmes that help them explain what’s going on in the world. It’s about having a real variety of quality content, stuff they can kick back and laugh at. Stuff that challenges them. Stuff that makes them really think.”
There had been plans to end the afternoon broadcast of long-running children’s programme Newsround and put the resources into online news coverage. This was due to the fact that many children were staying late for after-school clubs and not home when it was being shown. These plans have been put on hold as part of the mass mobilisation of BBC resources to inform the public about the risks of the coronavirus outbreak.
While the CBeebies channel for very young children remains popular, the CBBC strand for older children has been affected by growing choice: “By the age of seven or eight they’re taking independence but parents are having an increasing amount of influence. Parents tell us they really value the quality of what they produce, that it’s British, that it shows other children like theirs, that it’s not wall-to-wall cartoons.”
Webb also said while news outlets often covered changes to long-running children’s shows such as Blue Peter, her job was to ensure the current generation were entertained and informed by such programmes: “The reality is that my audience isn’t reading your paper. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I let it become something in aspic in a museum. My job is to keep it amazing.”