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Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

The Young Audiences Content Fund – evaluating the evaluation

By Jackie Edwards 15-08-2023

For four years, I had the utter pleasure of leading the BFI’s Young Audiences Content Fund (YACF) – a beautiful initiative funded by the UK government via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to stimulate the provision of public service media (PSM) content for children and teenagers in the UK.

This funding was needed due to the near 75% decline in provision of public service content for children since 2002, when a communications act removed quotas and obligations to serve young audiences on public service channels (no obligation = rapid decline in broadcaster investment) and was quickly followed by a series of unfortunate financial events that included advertising restrictions on high fat, salt and sugar foods around children’s television and removal of tax credits.

The decline of new PSM content coincided with the emergence of huge competition for eyeballs from new digital platforms and saw a migration of viewers to content in rich, but unregulated, places.

The Contestable Fund Pilot white paper of November 2018 stated: “The broadcasting landscape is changing fast. Audiences are engaging with content in a variety of new and different ways. Increasingly viewers and listeners, especially young people, are consuming content online, on smartphones and on unregulated platforms. As the industry changes, it is the government’s priority to ensure that the UK’s public service broadcasting system continues to thrive. In order to do so, it must continue to provide a diverse offering of high-quality content that its audience deserves.”

YACF was the government response to the problems in public service content. As a pilot scheme, YACF was monitored throughout its lifetime. Bigger Picture Research constructed a comprehensive evaluation framework, using a series of metrics against each fund priority (diversity, nations and regions, quality, new voices and so on).

Data captured via the BFI YACF grants software was analysed quarterly – Bigger Picture’s
regular reporting enabled us funders to be responsive and to make improvements to process and engagement. We knew who was applying and from where, who the team was and if they were fulfilling BFI diversity standards, what their projected and actual spend was, how many people they were employing and where, and what they were paying people.

Along with this quarterly reporting, a much chunkier piece of work was conducted annually, incorporating broadcaster surveys and customer satisfaction surveys from applicants. We asked personal questions about sales forecasts and actual sales, ratings information and awards. Most importantly – via research conducted by Into Film (a nationwide content review of supported shows by young audiences) and Cardiff University (using responses collected via our See Yourself on Screen competitions) – we also asked the audience.

The audience appreciated the new content, finding it high quality, appealing, entertaining, informative and representative of their lives and others around them. That was encouraging, given 75% of young audiences report that they don’t recognise people who look or sound like them on TV. The detail and integrity of the evaluation process and reporting has built a hugely comprehensive and compelling story of success about the fund.

The fund distributed £40.1m (US$50.89m) in awards over three years, supporting the development of 160 projects and 61 brand new productions made for the young people of this country. That’s 287 hours of public service goodness – everything from current affairs to drama that could be viewed on free-to-access, safe, regulated channels and platforms. And most importantly, accessible to all.

The fund proved that a small but specific intervention can make a big difference and deliver real value – the lowest predicted gross value added return on investment is £319m (excluding broadcaster funding and factoring no revenue from licensing and merchandise). The fund stimulated commissions from public service broadcasters. Tax credit increases are nice, but on their own they do not have the impact of targeted funding like YACF on getting public service content actually commissioned. There is also a long legacy tail to the fund, with productions still ongoing and yet to land, others yet to go to market, and development projects yet to be commissioned.

The fund supported productions that reflected young lives from all around the country, productions that won ratings and re-commissions, won awards, created jobs, grew careers, improved skills and, most importantly, engaged and delighted young audiences. It delivered on its objectives, proved the efficacy of a funding model, delivered social and economic value and demonstrated good value for money. It is an unequivocal proof of concept. You can read the full report on the BFI Young Audiences Content Fund site.

The YACF was closed in February 2022 prior to final evaluation and contrary to the initiating 2018 white paper that stated a decision to close, maintain or expand the scheme would be taken following the detailed evaluation.

“Our children’s media diet should be of concern,” says Edwards

What now?

The removal of the YACF carrot has meant PSM commissions for young audiences have returned to pre-fund levels, or worse, with the BBC doubling down on “fewer, bigger, better” and focusing on animation. There is little opportunity or support for new public service television programmes for young audiences in the UK.

Allowing the demise of a public service television offer to our young is dangerous. Left to a diet of cultural influence from everywhere and nowhere in particular, to be exposed to information and news that is not accurate or well informed, will diminish their future role as citizens connected to each other and the society they live in.

If we care about the provision of public service content, we have two problems to confront: how do we fund it? And where will we put it?

YACF proved that a small intervention can make a big difference and deliver real value in a targeted and specific way. Where such public funding is to be found remains to be seen but, in the scheme of things and for the economic, industrial, cultural and societal value it delivers back (way beyond the initial cash injection), it doesn’t seem like a big ask.

Alongside investment, regulatory intervention to motivate commissions would be helpful. The YACF carrot has proved its worth. Imagine a world with a carrot and a stick… But getting new content commissioned and funded is probably the easiest part (sort of). How to get more young audiences to discover this content is the biggie. If there were a new fund, should we open up the qualifying platforms?

YACF support was restricted to content intended for free-to-access, public service, Ofcom-regulated platforms. Putting public service content where young audiences are is not a bad idea, but how would it be surfaced and presented? There is much chat around public service algorithms, but there are still safety concerns. How can that be realistically tackled when the extent of the inertia-bound Online Harms Bill is still being haggled over and unknown?

It is of profound importance to reflect our children’s lives back to them, to help them understand and empathise with their peers, to explain the world to them, to support their development and to make them feel connected to our society. The questions are complex and the issues many. But our children’s media diet should be of concern; it’s a big part of their lives and helps shape them as citizens. This needs a bigger conversation. Children should be a political priority for many reasons; their media lives are just one reason, but it’s a pretty important one.

This article was written for the Children’s Media Yearbook, which is put together by the Children’s Media Foundation and can be purchased here.

today's correspondent

Jackie Edwards Children’s media specialist

Edwards is a passionate advocate for public service television and, until very recently, was living her dream job as the head of the British Film Institute’s Young Audiences Content Fund, responsible for the implementation of this game-changing UK government initiative to stimulate the provision of public service content for audiences of 0-18.
This three-year pilot awarded £44.1m of funding, supporting 61 brand new commissions for UK children and teens, and funded the development of a further 160 new projects, over 9% of which have already been commissioned.

Edwards joined the BFI in 2019 from BBC Children’s, where she was the head of acquisitions and independent animation, responsible for pre-buying and acquiring live-action and animated programming for CBeebies, CBBC and iPlayer. She joined the BBC in 2008 as content manager and executive producer.
Prior to the BBC, Edwards was an award-winning producer in the independent sector for 14 years, developing, financing and producing specials and series for young audiences.