You may remember that TV channel BBC Three became an online-only brand in 2016. The reason given at the time was that teenagers and young adults, the channel’s target audience, now all streamed television online.
The naysayers (including academics like me) suggested this was a bad move. And we weren’t exactly surprised when BBC Three returned as a linear TV channel earlier this year.
Now the BBC has announced that it plans to put the children’s channel CBBC online. The BBC says this is largely to cut costs, but also because children and young teens are seen to primarily watch YouTube and other streaming sites, which has impacted the channel’s ratings. However, as the BBC Three movement showed, moving the channel online will incur significant other costs.
CBBC, like BBC Three, has been important to the overall national and international brand identity and reputation of the BBC. It has produced and commissioned some excellent content including The Dumping Ground, Horrible Histories and the much loved Blue Peter and Newsround.
It originated as a station in 2002 when the switch from analog to digital broadcasting freed up space to offer more stations on the same frequencies. And in the 20 years of its existence, it has delivered programs aimed specifically at audiences ranging from children into the early teens.
Such an audience will always be small compared to the regular audiences of BBC One and BBC Two. As such, at first glance, it doesn’t seem really financially viable.
In this context, the role of public television is often mentioned. The BBC’s job is to serve the entire country 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 license-paying adults. But even seeing the BBC’s financial strategies in light of its role in building loyal viewers by delivering quality children’s content is a narrow view.
Especially children’s television, commissioned or produced by the BBC, is doing well internationally. 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 asset to the BBC, despite the perception that it is not financially viable if produced domestically. It is also incredibly important to create brand awareness internationally.
The BBC now gets about a quarter of its revenue from its commercial arm, including international sales which brought the BBC £30 million (excluding royalties) in revenue in 2020/21. Children’s television is an important part of this.
Turning to an international view
Researchers in Norway have found that it is the public service broadcasters who often respond to their needs in more innovative ways, as they need to address specific local audience needs and involve as many audiences in the country as possible. This finding was confirmed by research on a regional audience in the UK.
But it is precisely this innovation and the need to cater to a limited audience that make BBC programs produced in this way so internationally successful. They feel authentic and address specific concerns. They are distinctly British and distinctly BBC, but recognizable to audiences elsewhere. Again, all that important brand recognition.
The problem with moving CBBC online is that, as the case of BBC Three pointed out, its local identity and relevance will diminish. The identity that a linear TV channel offers and the sense of simultaneously bringing the audience together around the same programs – which is such a central function of television in general – 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 clear. Now that that’s lost, the trend could be to turn the commissioning sights to an international audience, possibly universal audience. And that is fundamentally against one’s own interest.