Regulator calls U.K. to kids table

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U.K. media regulator Ofcom has called for a national debate on the future of British children's television after research published Wednesday showed that 83% of programming watched here is imported from overseas, with cartoons representing 61% of the total output.

The proliferation of such U.S. kids channels as Nickelodeon and Disney Channel has come at the same time as cash-strapped commercial broadcasters like ITV have dropped children's programming from their afternoon schedules in favor of more advertising-friendly fare.

The industry was dealt a further blow this year when Ofcom imposed a wide-scale ban on junk food advertising, which had been a key driver of kids TV.

Ofcom said the industry is approaching a crisis, particularly in domestically produced live-action and drama shows for kids.

"The thing we are very concerned about is that it's important for kids to understand and reflect their own culture," said Peter Phillips, Ofcom head of strategy and market development. "(Homegrown school soap) 'Grange Hill' does that for British kids in a way that American dramas, however good they are, don't do because of the cultural differences."

The research, part of the most comprehensive study the regulator has ever carried out into the children's sector, found that kids are now watching less TV than they used to, just 15.5 hours a week last year compared with 16.7 hours a week in 2002.

Overall investment in first-run, original British programs dropped from £127 million in 1998 to £109 million last year. Only 1% of total hours of children's programming last year was made in the U.K. and being broadcast for the first time on a U.K. channel.

The review's findings will feed into a broader review on public-service broadcasting being mounted by the regulator, potentially leading to new broadcasting legislation ahead of the new communications act set for 2013.

"There is increasing pressure on the funding models for the traditional commercial public-service broadcasters to provide original programming for children," Ofcom said, pointing out that investment by ITV1, GMTV, Channel 4 and Five had halved in real terms since 1998.

"U.K. broadcasters are stopping investing in British programming, but we know that children, when offered the choice, will choose to watch home-produced programming," Phillips added, pointing out that while only 17% of all content was U.K.-produced, it garnered 37% of all viewing.

Ofcom said that though the BBC had increased its children's output, it might not be in the audience's best interest to have just one broadcaster commissioning so much.
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