Public Service Television (children)

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): As someone who represents Soho as part of his constituency, I have obviously seen the benefits of having such a tax credit in the British film industry over the past 10 years, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that it does not come without a certain amount of controversy and that there has understandably been a paring back. How can we ensure with the tax credit system that we are not just producing a hell of a lot of quantity, rather than having quality programming coming through? The Government have wrestled with that balance over many years. Obviously, there have been financial issues, but there is little doubt that the balance was wrong three or four years ago regarding quality and quantity, and the Government have understandably taken action, as far as the film business is concerned, to ensure that it is put right. I am not sure that tax credits, even for children’s programming, would necessarily result in the right answers that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Mr. Gerrard: I understand the point and I would not argue that a tax credit is the longer-term answer. My question is what can we do immediately in the short term? I hope that over the next couple of years, through the reviews that are taking place and through what Ofcom is doing, we will get some idea of longer-term provision. Can we wait that long before we do anything? Perhaps a tax credit is one way of plugging a gap. I understand about quantity and quality, but we are at such a crisis point that the issue is finding something that stimulates a bit more creative programming in the interim, pending the longer-term review.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): On the tax credit paring back problem, one of the ideas that has been put forward is that the tax credit should be awarded to broadcasters who can demonstrate an investment strategy over the previous three years that includes stability of investment and then growth, so that we are not replacing what would have been otherwise planned.

Mr. Gerrard: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. The conditions attached to a tax credit are obviously critical in making sure that we avoid some of the problems that could otherwise turn up. Channel 4 is one of the channels that ought to look at re-entering public service children’s TV. Yesterday, I heard the news that Channel 4 is pulling out of educational programming.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): It is not.

Mr. Gerrard: That was the news. I understand that the programming is not being chopped and that it is being transferred to the internet. It is easy to assume that that means that everybody can still see it, but that is not necessarily the case. Channel 4 could be an alternative home, and it could create some healthy competition for the BBC. It has produced some good stuff?I have mentioned “Wise Up”, which recently received an award. Of course, under the Communications Act 2003, there is no explicit requirement for Channel 4 to broadcast children’s shows, but we expect it to provide programmes that appeal to a diverse audience and programmes of educative value. Channel 4 seems one of the obvious channels that could step in and fill some of the vacuum, particularly for older children. That is where the biggest problem lies, since the cuts and since Five withdrew from programming for children over seven. We are missing shows that could fit in with Channel 4’s strengths.

There is a dearth of high-quality UK-made programmes and a danger of their further disappearance. The evidence is clear that public service programming for children on the commercial channels is under threat. Virtually everybody, including the BBC itself, agrees that the BBC on its own is not enough and that we need intervention. The Select Committee has asked the Government to identify an appropriate number and range of UK-made children’s programmes and to take steps to intervene, if there is a shortfall. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport acknowledged that the Government value UK programming and that there is pressure on commercial broadcasters. Ofcom is still consulting, so I understand that the Secretary of State might not want to specify any particular intervention today, but I hope that he will acknowledge that problems exist and look seriously at what might be done, whether it is tax credit or some other short-term intervention. If we do not act soon, within two or three years it will be too late.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on his thoughtful contribution and on securing this debate. He referred to the profit motive and the lack of profitability of many children’s programmes. He mentioned some great concerns, such as that only 17 per cent. of product on our main television stations is home-grown. As he rightly said, the explosion of channels?they are not necessarily widely available, although I suspect that they will become increasingly so to both young and older people in the years ahead?plays its part as well.

It is a little depressing that more of our product is not sold overseas. One appreciates that it might not earn the same enormous sums as “Inspector Morse” or many of our period dramas, but we make some tremendously high-quality children’s television that should have a broad overseas market, particularly in the two great economic superpowers India and China.

The hon. Gentleman gave an interesting example, which I suspect was a counter-example, in relation to S4C. I do not know all the facts, but I presume that there is quite a large demand on the Welsh Assembly’s education budget to ensure more and more Welsh-language programming. Throughout Wales?not just in the traditionally Welsh-speaking parts in the north and west?children from the age of 5 or 6 are expected to be learning Welsh, and television is an important part of that. I suspect that his example is the exception that proves the rule about the state of children’s programming.

This debate is about public service television for children, but as anyone in the TV production world can tell us, some of the current problems stem in large part from proposals for strict new regulation of advertising during children’s programmes, and I shall concentrate some of my remarks on that matter. The proposals to restrict advertising have played a large part in the virtual standstill in commissioning, producing and creating shows for young people in all parts of the commercial television world. We all know the acute financial problems faced by the ITV companies as well as Channels 4 and 5 and, as the hon. Gentleman made clear, budget constraints at the BBC will only get worse.

I am not blaming the Government. We now live in a world of many channels, and it is difficult to sustain the idea that there should be any licence fee, let alone one that is so high. I suspect that there is a political consensus that we should get the balance right, but it is almost inevitable that children’s programming will suffer. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, both ITV and Channel 4 have completely pulled out of commissioning new UK children’s shows, and Channel 5 has cut back on its range of programming, having already axed shows for older children. In one sense one might think that that would be good news for the BBC as a public service broadcaster. However, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow pointed out, that does not lead to more consumer choice, which I view as the key engine for greater innovation and flair in programming, and for ensuring that we have a product of such quality that it will be marketable on a global basis as I have described.

My instinctive reaction to the news of proposed new regulation is invariably suspicion. In the present context I think that that is justified. I confess that when the body that regulates television, Ofcom, began its widespread consultation, at the end of last year, on a proposal to restrict food and soft drink advertising in programmes with a particular appeal for children, my hackles were raised. I am to become a father for the first time in a matter of five weeks, and I suspect that in the years ahead I shall watch lots of programmes and get used?as the hon. Member for Walthamstow probably did in the ’70s and ’80s?to hearing children talking about particular products. I might take a slightly different view at that juncture; but, fundamentally, I believe that advertising is one of the most important safeguards for a free and open society.

In principle I do not object to the notion that advertising of dangerous or highly addictive products should be outlawed, but products that are widely and legally available should not be subject at all to advertising bans. Naturally, some intoxicants, such as alcohol, or addictive products such as tobacco, cannot legally be sold to minors, and in that regard it seems to me that commensurate restrictions on advertising such products to minors should be acceptable. However, activists have waged highly orchestrated media campaigns in recent years for a blanket pre-9 o’clock watershed ban on junk food advertising on television.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that other products might be addictive to an extent, such as chocolate?

Mr. Field: If that is the case, then one should ban minors from buying chocolate. My distinction concerns products that are considered unsuitable for minors to
buy, and restrictions on advertising of such products before a watershed is fine; otherwise, I do not want advertising outlawed.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that there are more fat children in Sweden than in Finland, and yet Sweden has a ban on advertising to children, and Finland does not?

Mr. Field: My hon. Friend is obviously considerably better travelled than I am with respect to such matters, but I look forward to getting a box of Scandinavian chocolates from him before too long.

Ofcom has regarded many of the proposals as disproportionate in the way that they balance economic impact and social benefit. As has been pointed out, two groups stand to lose most from the marketing restrictions: one is, of course, the advertising industry, but the other consists of the many independent television companies that rely on advertising to fund the production of high-quality new children’s programming. Perhaps understandably, the advertising industry expresses deep frustration at the recent turn of events.

Recognising the increasing concern about childhood obesity, the advertising industry has proposed some fairly strict new rules on content, such as the removal of licensed characters and celebrities from advertisements that are directly targeted at primary school children. That amounts to an effective voluntary code, albeit one that is established in the shadow of concerted media-led pressure, which one might argue is tantamount to blackmail.

The advertising restrictions originally proposed were specifically targeted at children up to the age of 11, but it now seems likely that there will be an extension to the age of 16. As ever, with any blanket proposal, there is a risk of unintended consequences; and so it has proved. My constituency, and particularly Soho and the west end, contains the heart of Britain’s independent television industry. A number of companies that create children’s programmes have written to me to say that high-quality and domestically-produced programming has a five-decade-long tradition of excellence, and one that they hope will continue. That thriving and, to a large extent, world-leading industry feels under threat, because of the financial problems faced by ITV, which was previously the biggest single investor in new UK children’s programming in the commercially-funded broadcasting sector, and because of the food and drink advertising proposals.

It is accepted that the broadcasters’ investment in programming is directly linked to the amount of advertising associated with that programming. By restricting advertising, Ofcom, as the TV regulator, effectively restricts the broadcasters’ ability to invest in new UK programming. The advertising companies’ lobbyists suggest that the proposed advertising ban would result in a loss of revenue in the order of £40 million a year. According to Government figures, that would fall away over time as advertisers began to adapt to the new rules. However, it is estimated that the average annual investment by commercial channels in new UK children’s programming would be about £30 million.

Paradoxically, that would also undermine one of the strongest defences for maintaining the TV licence fee. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow pointed out, we are heading towards the BBC being the only significant
investor in new UK children’s programmes. The ban would end the tough competition between the BBC and the commercial sector. Only strong competition will ensure that innovation and flair are at the heart of children’s programming, which will be a joy not only to generations of British children but to young people across the world to whom such programmes should be marketed.

The health benefits of reducing the amount of sugar-filled food and soft drinks that children consume cannot be denied. However, other countries have succeeded in stimulating the production of children’s television while introducing advertising restrictions. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) pointed out the differing approaches in neighbouring Scandinavian countries. In Australia, where adverts during children’s programming have been restricted for some years, the leading public film and television agency invests more than half of its total television funding in children’s programmes.

It is fashionable to criticise all such measures as being the result of a nanny state. No one can deny that children need a level of protection greater than that afforded to adults when it comes to the content and surrounding material that they are likely to see on television. Even for the youngest and most impressionable of minds, advertising should be regarded as a positive experience, allowing a younger generation to make a choice about products that it wishes to consume; without that plentiful choice we would all be living in a far duller and a less free world.