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4 Dec 2007 : Column 218WH—continued

Those who continue to work in the sector are seeing ever-increasing pressures on their fees and are more often expected to work outside the standard industry
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contracts in an attempt to save money. In fact, they are being exploited as a result of the pressures on them. The fees paid to the so-called talent are being squeezed, as the hourly budgets available for children’s programmes are being reduced. It is important to understand that the fees are already modest and are paid for work relating to individual projects, so there is no certainty of continuing income.

I have looked at the minimum weekly rates for performers working in television on Equity contracts, which range from £545 to £640 depending on the employer. That includes transmission on a major UK channel, but it is not a huge amount when one considers that it is paid only for those weeks when the performers are lucky enough to be working. Even so, budgets are so tight that such standard contracts are often ignored within the industry now. That helps to minimise secondary payments, such as royalties owed to performers and other rights holders when a programme is successfully sold or exploited in other markets.

The downward pressure on contracts and fees is now stronger than ever, and many people are finding that it is just not financially viable to carry on within the industry. We need to ensure that there is an incentive for talented people to work in the field, particularly in the production of high-quality programmes for children, and to ensure that those skills are passed on to the next generation, otherwise they will be lost. People entering the industry now need to ensure that they are mixing with the highly talented and creative people who have developed the high-quality programmes that we have seen in recent years.

The Treasury’s review of skills set great store by employer-led training, which is one of the key strategies being developed with Skillset, the sector skills council for the audio-visual sector. The strategy has been welcomed in the industry and by the trade union and is the key to the future. Children’s programming has traditionally excelled at employer-led training, because, uniquely, it is multi-genre and acts as a microcosm for the rest of the industry. It has been a test bed for new young talent in the industry to develop their skills and often to go on to other genres with equal success. Examples of people who got their break in children’s television include—I leave opinions on this to individual taste—Lenny Henry, Phillip Schofield, Ant and Dec and Tony Robinson. As I have said, leave it to individual taste. Behind the camera is a long list of writers, directors and other crew members who learned and honed their skills in children’s television.

The question for the Minister as part of the review is who will nurture such talent in the future? It is hard to see how new talent will be able to come through and develop the skills that are needed in the long term to maintain our status as a world leader, if the funding supply is reduced and the financial pressures continue as at present.

If further public support becomes available for children’s programming at some future point, whether through a contestable fund, tax breaks, which have been advocated today, or other methods, it would be helpful if a condition of access to the funding were the use of appropriate contracts and respect for decent terms and conditions for those responsible for writing and performing the work. That will help to ensure that leading talent has the incentive to continue working in this field, that we
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embed skills for the long-term future and that the next wave—the next generation—have those skills passed on to them in an environment in which they are not exploited but incentivised to perform at their best.

11.47 am

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing this debate on what is a very important topic for a very important industry. Before coming to the substance of my remarks, I want to refer to my intervention on the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). I think I am in danger of every chocolate company in the country writing to tell me that chocolate is, of course, not addictive. The point that I was trying to make was that sweet things in particular have a moreish taste for children and it is important that we carefully consider how we advertise stuff to children. That is what the Ofcom review did and what we have debated in the House. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House have agreed that the Ofcom proposals should be put into effect and then we can review them over a period of time.

Will the Minister examine the cost of the advertising ban in terms of the advertising revenues of TV companies? A figure of £30 million is being bandied around, but I do not know whether it is correct. Perhaps the Minister, in his summation of the debate, will tell us. Will he tell us now, or perhaps at another time, whether the ban is having an impact on children’s behaviour? Of course, it will not work on its own, because most of children’s behaviour in relation to what they eat is about not only advertising, but peer group pressure—it is about what everyone else has. However, before I divert into a health debate, I will give way.

Mr. Gerrard: In some senses, this is no different from the arguments that went on about tobacco advertising and sport sponsorship from tobacco advertising. We have to find alternatives, if we agree that such advertising is not desirable.

Richard Younger-Ross: I take the point, but I am not sure whether I would like to draw many parallels between chocolate, fats and cheese, and tobacco and alcohol. Tobacco is harmful to health. Alcohol in excess is definitely harmful to health. Of course, none of us here would ever indulge in either of those terrible things—at least, I do not in one, but I perhaps do in the other.

In preparing for the debate, I was thinking about my own childhood and the TV programmes that I used to enjoy as a child, and what impact they had upon me. I remember watching every week a programme called “How”, which included a lot of scientific explanation. I found that programme absolutely intriguing, and I think that I learned a lot from that. Jack Hargreaves, I think, did a country life programme about fishing and other things, which I was also intrigued by. I remember science fiction programmes like “The Tomorrow People” from when I was a teenager. I remember the first programme of “Magpie” and even appeared on the second programme—I have, I believe, the first ever “Magpie” bird badge ever presented to anyone. As a consequence, I was addicted to “Magpie” for ever afterwards. There
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was also, of course, “Blue Peter”, which we would always watch, I think, on a Monday afternoon. I also watched the programmes my kid brother, Paul, used to watch—he was 10 years younger than me. He watched things like “Byker Grove”, “Grange Hill” and “Tiswas”. I never quite understood “Tiswas”, but he seemed to enjoy it.

Then we look at today. I do not know what kids of today watch, because, unfortunately, I do not have any children. Congratulations to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster on his forthcoming parenthood. I am sure that he will have many a happy hour watching TV programmes with his toddlers. There are programmes that have been mentioned already, like “My Life as a Popat” and, of course, the still-ubiquitous “Blue Peter”.

Today, the market is very different for children. They can shop around more for media and other activities—they can go online and they have DVDs. When I was a young lad, there was no such thing as a video, let alone a DVD, and there was no way to buy programmes or films in shops. That competition is diversifying the advertisers’ market and is partly causing the problem. To say, as I think that some might, that it is the fault of the Ofcom ban would in my view be misleading, because the problem of advertising, as it concerns the main TV companies, is a lot bigger—and in some ways a lot worse—than that. We need to look at the future of TV itself.

The real question about the figures on the number of British companies is whether we should produce here or whether we should import. We can buy in American programmes. I remember a lot of good American programmes, such as “Hopalong Cassidy” and “The Lone Ranger”, which we used to enjoy. I do not think that we had many cowboys in south London at the time—actually, maybe we did have a few cowboys in south London, but not with big hats and horses. There was, however, an essential difference between those programmes and British-made programmes. I think it important that children are exposed to programmes that have an inherent British cultural element, and we are in danger of losing that if we allow production to be, in effect, moved abroad, or to be restricted to just the BBC.

One has only to look at examples of British comedy programmes translated and remade in the United States. I watch the UK versions and I laugh. I do not know about other hon. Members, but when I look at the US remakes, I do not understand where they are coming from, because they appeal to a different sense of humour and a different cultural element. We have, of course, different cultural mixes and subcultures in this country, and it is important that our industry tries to reflect that—a programme that I mentioned earlier, “My Life as a Popat”, is a very good example of that. The BBC is investing, but it has no competition. If the genesis of the creativity that we had in the ’70s and ’80s was competition between the independent sector and the BBC, then we are losing that vital dynamic between the two. It is good for the BBC for there to be a flourishing independent children’s sector in TV programming.

How much TV children should watch is a matter of debate. Dr. Arik Sigmund and Sue Palmer, the author of “Toxic Childhood”, suggest that too much TV is
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bad. Yes, we all agree that if a child is plonked in front of the TV and left there all day, it is not good for their upbringing. However, restricting the number of TV programmes will not prevent that situation, because, as I have said, there are DVDs, and parents are very good at sticking their children in front of a DVD that they have bought at the local supermarket or on the high street—on the high street, I hope.

Many TV programmes can be good for children, and the debate pack lists several such programmes. “Rainbow” explored language and number concepts; “Book Tower” encouraged creativity and reading; “Art Attack” encourages creativity; the “Fun Song Factory” encouraged young children to dance and sing along; “Fifi and the Flowertots” promotes the environment and health; and “Brainiac” is science made fun. The only one of those that I have seen is “Brainiac”, which is an intriguing programme that is very well put together. A 2006 university of Chicago study of 800 schools concluded that an additional year of pre-school television exposure for students in the model had slightly raised average test scores, so the idea that we can let children’s TV go to the wall because it is bad for them is wrong.

The question is, what can we do? We could wait for the Ofcom report, but what will we lose in the meantime? Children’s TV has expertise, and as the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) has said, we are in danger of losing its writers and producers. The problem is that if we lose them, it will be hard to bring them back later. When the phone-in competition debacle happened a few weeks ago, one suggested cause was the lack of training given to TV producers, which meant that they did not understand what they were getting themselves into. If we lose children’s TV programmes, we are in danger of losing the expertise and the training that people have to produce those programmes, and it would be hard to bring it back.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned tax credits. I shall not today commit the Liberal Democrats to spending £10 million, purely because we all know about the wit of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable)—I should not like to be on the wrong end of something that he said. However, the idea of tax credit must be examined. The Government should consider that option’s costs and benefits, and in particular, the argument that if one increases production, the cost is not a tax loss, because one brings more revenue back into the country, as has happened with the film industry.

11.58 am

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing the debate. It is customary in such debates to congratulate the Member who has secured it, but my congratulations are heartfelt, because he has brought to the attention of the House an important subject that deserves debate. The debate itself is timely, as hon. Members have made clear.

I also congratulate those organisations that have campaigned so assiduously over the past few months about children’s television, particularly the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, Save Kids’ TV and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer. Some of their campaigning has found its way to stage 1, because it was reflected in the recent excellent report by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.

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It is fair to say that children’s TV has been caught in a perfect storm. The Communications Act 2003 removed a direct obligation on public service broadcasters to provide children’s programming, replacing it with an indirect obligation to provide children’s programming as part of broadcasters’ general public service remit. There are the continuing difficulties faced by some of our commercial public service broadcasters, which have led to cuts in children’s programming, most notably at ITV. There is also the inevitable consequence of a multi-channel digital environment providing much more competition and choice.

There is also the issue of the forthcoming advertising ban by Ofcom, so ably highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) in his most excellent speech. Before I move on to the substance of that speech, I will also briefly congratulate my hon. Friend on the news of the impending birth of his first child, which fills us all with joy. My second child will follow his about five weeks later, and I can tell him what he has coming as a new parent. He may represent Soho, but I can assure him that he will not see that place again for the next six or seven years—at least, not after seven o’clock in the evening.

My hon. Friend made a most excellent point, and while it is not my place to question the ban that is now being put into effect, one does wonder about the intellectual coherence of such a ban. For example, I have already referred to the multi-channel environment, but children get their messaging not only from the television, but at the bus stop and on the internet. That ban, which is estimated to cost some £20 million or £30 million of advertising revenue per year, could throw the baby out with the bath water. We might be spuriously protecting our kids from inappropriate advertising, while replacing it with less quality programming to watch in direct consequence. My hon. Friend’s points were extremely well made, and I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

As I indicated in my opening remarks, some of the crisis facing children’s television might well be an inevitable result of a rapidly changing technological environment. Reference has been made to the Channel 4 announcement yesterday that it is moving its £6 million education programming budget on to the internet. Indeed, from a sedentary position, the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), made the point that the provision is going on to the internet, which reminds us how much we have lost from his elevation, given his candid remarks in previous debates on many issues that have proved so helpful to me as the Opposition spokesman. However, that is not an attempt by Channel 4 to cut its funding of provision for children, but a recognition—made explicit in its announcement yesterday—that providing educational programmes for kids while they are at school is not the best way of reaching them. Most research shows that almost everything that kids learn or watch nowadays is via the internet, so it makes sense for Channel 4 to look at putting things there within its innovative remit.

As the Minister will no doubt say, one aspect of technological change is this peculiar paradox: although there is a crisis in children’s television, we have never had so much of it. In the past five or six years, we have moved from having six dedicated children’s television channels to having 25 of them, and from 20,000 hours
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of programming to 112,000 hours of programming, which is an increase of around 500 per cent. The BBC says that it has more than doubled original programming from 476 hours to 1,276 hours, while Five still broadcasts 652 hours. Indeed, public money on original programming has risen from £70 million to £126 million. One could be forgiven for asking, “Crisis? What crisis?”, except that when one hears that phrase, one knows that there is a genuine crisis.

We therefore need to narrow down the terms of this debate. The headline of our debate makes it clear that we are talking about the need to preserve plurality and competition in children’s programming, above all to preserve a semblance of original, British-made programming for British children. Of the 25 dedicated channels, for example, 18 are owned by American companies such as Disney, the Turner Broadcasting System and Viacom. Indeed, within the hours of programming that I have mentioned, public service broadcasting hours have fallen from an average of around 4,500 to 5,000 hours a year to 4,250 hours. The hon. Member for Walthamstow made it clear in his speech that most predictions see those hours falling dramatically. As we have heard, ITV’s hours have fallen from about 724 to 468. In evidence to the Select Committee, the chairman, Michael Grade, was asked whether he could see children’s programming forming a part of ITV’s main schedules. His reply was explicit:

At this point, it is appropriate for me to congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on his excellent speech. He reminded us again what a fine leader of the Labour party we have lost, and how different things could have been, if party members had seen sense in July. He brought alive for us the unique nature and quality of children’s television, of our production skills and of the pressures being brought to bear.

John McDonnell: I am about to leave the Chamber for another meeting, for which I apologise. I have made that clear because I did not want the hon. Gentleman to take it as a response to his reference to my leadership of the Labour party.

Mr. Vaizey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—he is more senior and wise than me—for that warning.

The theme of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was picked up by the hon. Member for Teignbridge, who focused on the need to preserve British programming and on the innate qualities inherent in it. He got to that point only after a lengthy disquisition on comparisons between chocolate and tobacco. Indeed, at one point I had a vision of his acting as a reverse Willy Wonka, going around closing chocolate factories. I have no doubt that he will be inundated with Wispa bars in the weeks to come, just in time for Christmas. However, he has made some valid points. Among the reams of statistics cited today, it is telling that repeat programmes now form 86 per cent. of children’s programming and that original programming has fallen from about 29 per cent. of public service broadcasting to 10 per cent.

That is the crisis that we face. We are considering plurality: is the BBC to remain the sole provider of original children’s content; and will we have British-originated programming in years to come? In many
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ways, that change mirrors the decline of the British film industry after the second world war.

Ofcom is conducting a review, which is useful for many reasons, not least because of the international comparisons. I was struck by the fact that, when it comes to intervention, the British model appears to be as stripped back as the German and Spanish models. Even America—it is supposedly the home of non-intervention, but those who study American politics and systems know that it is a highly interventionist and regulatory environment—has a quota system on top of the system that we use. France, Australia, Canada and many other countries have a mixture of output and production quotas, with direct funding and even tax breaks.

If one looks abroad, one realises that countries across the globe value their indigenous broadcasts, although they may not be of the same quality, depth or breadth as British children’s programming, even at this late stage. We have a viable, highly successful and high-quality industry, and we should be considering what options we have to help to sustain it. Some of the options are set out in the Select Committee report published recently, and some are set out in the Ofcom review. Those options include doing nothing and allowing the status quo to be maintained—in effect, allowing the BBC to become the only commissioner of British-originated children’s programming. However, I doubt whether anyone would be content to leave things like that.

Two viable options are emerging. The first is the tax credit. I hear the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster about the danger that programmes may be made simply to benefit from the credit. The Government have spent several years trying to get the film tax credit right, which is a useful comparison. Although many in the UK film industry are annoyed at the way in which it has come about, given that less money is now available for UK film, I have to tell the Minister—through gritted teeth—that there is a grudging recognition that the tax credit is now narrowly and properly focused to try to root out abuse of the system. However, it is early days, and I may change my mind on that point.

As I understand it, PACT has proposed a sensible and narrowly focused option of a tax credit worth 30 per cent. of the production cost that will expire in 2012. To pick up explicitly on what the hon. Member for Walthamstow has said, such a tax credit would act as a lifeline for the industry until an alternative model is present. When we talk about an alternative model, we are talking about not only children’s television but the bigger picture of what we should do about public service broadcasting in a multi-channel environment. That is the big debate that will kick off early next year, and children’s programming will form part of that. In fact, it may form the vanguard of what we do.

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