And the Blue Peter badge goes to…

After the announcement in March that Blue Peter was recruiting for a third presenter via a TV series, the reactions were mixed. As I said at the time:

[the series] has always been at the pioneering end of audience interactivity, long before ‘interactivity’ was even used in television circles… In that context, it makes perfect sense for the children who have always been part of the show’s ethos to be let in on the audition process.

Others I spoke to were a little more concerned that this was part of the “dumbing down” of television, that Blue Peter had succumbed to the reality TV format. But concerns like that didn’t stop the applicants: some 20,000 audition showreels were sent in before the production team whittled them down to just ten hopefuls.

Continue reading And the Blue Peter badge goes to…

Wolfblood leaps the channel divide

Back in October, I was extolling the virtues of Debbie Moon’s werewolf drama serial for CBBC, Wolfblood, among other drama series on the children’s channel:

Young Maddy is a 14-year-old girl from a reclusive family ‘pack’ of wolfbloods (the series rejects the term ‘werewolf’). Her parents lock themselves away every full moon rather than risk roaming in the woods – partly to ensure the safety of the locals, but mostly to ensure that their family secret is not discovered.

Part of the reason for writing that post was to give publicity to an under-rated section of Britain’s TV drama output. It’s been wonderful to see news of Wolfblood’s ongoing success as countries around the world have acquired the series, and to know that a second series is imminent.

Part of the reason why shows on CBBC need as much publicity as they do is that, now that they are no longer shown on BBC1 or BBC2 in the afternoons, there’s less chance of grown-ups discovering their joys. When it was first announced that the strands would be phased out, I wrote in The Stage’s now-defunct TV blog, TV Today

These days, while CBBC content remains on air until 7pm, there’s little room to encourage the channel’s viewers to partake in shows on BBC1, 2, 3 or 4. Once the decision to not watch CBBC is made, their attention could wander anywhere else. With so much money being ploughed into good quality shows, particularly by outgoing CBBC commissioner Damian Kavanagh, it’s criminal that there’s seemingly little thought in how the Corporation can encourage the CBBC viewer of today to become the more general BBC viewer of tomorrow.

Maybe there’s a compromise that can be reached. On Freeview, CBBC shares digital spectrum space with BBC3 (hence why the former closes down at 7pm just as the latter starts up). As part of the BBC’s cost saving measures, why not free up an hour either side of the 7pm switchover to form a 6pm-8pm zone, repeating the best family friendly content that straddles that difficult gap between childhood and adulthood — the gap that the now-defunct BBC Switch brand was originally supposed to address? At least that way, CBBC’s regular viewers would recognise that their viewing habits needn’t drift away from the BBC as they get older, and parents would get a better chance to appreciate some of the love and care that the Corporation devotes to its programming for younger viewers.

Given that the 7pm BBC3 slot is so frequently given over to reruns of Doctor Who — itself a family-friendly show which, despite always being commissioned by the “adult” drama department, has never forgotten that children are at its audience core — such a solution would not be a million miles away from where we are now.

I’m happy to say that, while the concept of a formal ‘changeover zone’ isn’t quite in place, the principle is at least being put into play. From tonight,Wolfblood begins reruns at 7pm on BBC3.

Part of me feels validated for having an idea which somebody at the BBC clearly also had. But mostly, I’m just really chuffed for Debbie and the rest of the Wolfblood cast and crew, whose hard work is about to get seen and appreciated by a whole new set of fans.

Here’s a Blue Peter presenter we made earlier

News has come in that CBBC series Blue Peter, which has made do with two presenters (Barney Harwood and Helen Skelton) since relocating to the department’s new Salford headquarters, is to go back to a trio of presenters.

In times gone by, recruiting would be done by means of a discreet casting notice in The Stage, or via other industry contacts. But now, as is the way of these things, it is to be cast by way of a reality show. So You Think You Can Be A Blue Peter Presenter (working title) will see competitors battle through a number of heats, before a final in which the winner will be chosen by the CBBC audience. According to the press release:

Double BAFTA-winning presenting team Dick and Dom will bring their much-loved mix of humour, energy and insights to the series, where they will be joined by a panel of judges. The judges will choose which Blue Peter hopefuls make it through each elimination stage, but they can’t influence the ultimate winner – that’s in the hands of the CBBC audience.

The CBBC team is involving the audience from the very start as well, offering them an opportunity, before filming starts, to go online and vote for one of the challenges that the Blue Peter hopefuls will have to rise to.

To be honest, I gave an inward groan when I heard this news – but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. It even makes me wonder why Blue Peter hasn’t gone down this route before.

BP has always been at the pioneering end of audience interactivity, long before ‘interactivity’ was even used in television circles. From the word go, children were encouraged to write in, whether it was appreciation for a feature that they had seen, pictures of their own ‘makes’, or even ideas for features that the production team would then put into practice.

In that context, it makes perfect sense for the children who have always been part of the show’s ethos to be let in on the audition process. If the shortlist has been selected well, unsuccessful candidates could well get some good exposure, and could expand the scope of CBBC presenter casting – so many shows seem to go to Dick and Dom, or Sam and Mark, when cultivating new talent should surely be one of the BBC’s goals.

And the person who wins will ensure that the new Blue Peter presenter is popular with the audience who will be watching them every week. And looking back at the list of presenters, there are several in each generation who a conventional casting process failed to notice weren’t quite right.

If you are interested in being considered as a Blue Peter presenter, you will need to email bppresentersearch@bbc.co.uk for details.

Why CBBC is my desert island channel

Won’t somebody think of the children – instead of just blaming the broadcasters?

Previously posted on TV Today

Every morning when I get into work, I find an inbox crawling with press releases, most of which are of little to no interest either to me directly or even to The Stage as a whole. This morning, I did see one which deserved additional reading, as it covered children’s television, an area that TV Today readers will know is dear to our hearts.

The release claims that 70% of parents of children under 7 have said that their children have had regular nightmares because of children’s programmes.

Needless to say, both the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have pumped out the story onto their respective websites, pausing only to rewrite every other sentence into their house style. Seriously – the Daily Mail version of the story is, sentence for sentence, exactly the same structure as the release (except for omitting a crucial couple of paragraphs at the end – but more of that anon).

But questions of lazy churnalism aside, the line being pushed by the press release does at least deserve some closer analysis.

Except, I’m not sure it really does stand up to such scrutiny.

The debate about whether television affects young people’s behaviour is an age old one – older, indeed, than television itself. For TV, substitute cinema, theatre or (depending on how far back you want to go) poetry and the discussion existed.

It doesn’t help that so many different research studies often draw different conclusions (examples of such studies, and a basic look at possible reasons for the discrepancies, can be found here).

But one thing that must surely be acknowledged is that, even if children’s programmes were as horrific as this poll of parents suggests, any possible long-term consequence can surely be mitigated by the parents themselves.

I don’t actually believe that children’s programmes are any less scary than they were when I was of that age. I would personally find live action dramas like Into the Labyrinth or Children of the Stones far scarier than any cartoon, violent or otherwise. And I’m not sure I accept that, even at an early age, children are unaware that programmes like Ben 10 and Power Rangers are complete fantasy. But the ability to separate fantasy from reality is something that parents can and should encourage in their children.

The release also targets Saturday evening shows Doctor Who, Primeval and Robin Hood as too scary, suggesting they should be shown post-watershed. Here’s a thought – how about watching them as a family, so that youngsters can enjoy them safely? That is, after all, the type of audience they were commissioned for – and not by children’s departments, but by the grown-ups’ equivalents.

The Mail version of the story continues in a similar vein, but ends with a quote a spokeswoman for the website that did the survey:

“We think that back in the 1950s there was a lot more guidance from broadcasters about the suitability of children’s programmes – they had Watch With Mother banners, and For The Children branded programmes.”

And today we have CBBC, CITV, CBeebies, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. – the list goes on. Whether it’s through dedicated children’s channels on digital networks, or heavily branded strands on the terrestrial channels, it’s never been easier to find programmes specifically commissioned for watching by children.

Indeed, recently the BBC has gone further, and introduced iPlayer for CBBC and iPlayer for CBeebies, which not only include easier layout for young fingers to navigate, but has dedicated links to information for grown-ups.

The whole reasoning behind the press release is fallacious. Is there a link between TV programming and either children’s behaviour or the incidence of nightmares? There may be, there may not be. A guick Google uncovered the aforementioned examination of the possibility of links, looking at various research models. Different research comes up with different conclusions, along with raising more questions. Do naturally aggressive people seek out aggressive programming? What role do peer groups play in establishing children’s understanding of what they watch? And so on.

One thing must be sure, though: when it comes to breaking any possible link between, say, children watching programming they find frightening and having nightmares, parents have an opportunity to provide reassurance and context.

Which brings me to the one section that the Mail doesn’t include in their version of the article: the closing paragraphs of the press release.

[The website spokeswoman says:] “However, parents are left to regulate what their child watches, how much they watch and when.

“This means they would at least need to consult a TV guide to find out which programmes are classed as C band – suitable for all children, and P band – suitable for pre-school children.”

But the poll reveals parents don’t have time to monitor what their children are watching minute by minute, and 70 per cent readily admit they leave their children watching television whilst they make the dinner or get things ready in another room.

How about that – parents being asked to take responsibility for their children’s upbringing, including their TV viewing habits. Er, excuse me, isn’t that your job rather than the broadcasters’?

If you paid a human being to mind your child, you would take the time and effort to ensure that you were leaving your charges in appropriate care. Unfortunately, it seems that when it comes to the box in the corner, not only do some parents want to see it as a free babysitter, they also want to free themselves of any responsibility in ensuring their offspring are left in good hands.

Top of the class

This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2007 issue of **The Stage**

_Rob Gilby, managing director of Disney Channel UK, reveals how the company is responding to the enthusiastic High School Musical audience in Britain_

Our marketing of the films has been driven by the sense of ownership the kids have. They’re demanding it on their desktop, on their mobile phone, as a CD and T-shirt. The ultimate example in the UK is more than 300 amateur productions that have been licensed to schools and amateur groups, where they can not only own a piece of the fun, they can be in it. I wish something like that was around when I was a kid.

High School Musical has really woken the audience to what the Disney Channel has been doing for a number of years with our live action comedy series and our original movies. The funny thing is that High School Musical was the 61st made for TV movie Disney Channel has done.

Our competitors are only just getting into the TV movie market now, but we’ve been doing it for a long time. And all our live action comedies are rating so well, we’re having the best summer we’ve ever had. British kids relate to the humour, the circumstances the kids on screen are put in, the way it captures their values and their lifestyle.

But kids in the UK do get a fantastic choice. There are 25 children’s channels, and a very strong public service broadcaster in the BBC, and that means there’s an opportunity to ask if we’re providing a diversity of choice. We take our responsibility really seriously.

As well as the fantastic programming we’re making on a global basis, we’re making local shows, including a short form show called As the Bell Rings, which has been rating very well. We’re doing our part to contribute towards that, and other players are doing their bit, too. But there is a perception that the industry is facing a number of challenges. The recent changes on junk food advertising haven’t affected us because we’re a subscription service, carried on Sky, Virgin and Tiscali. And while Freeview is the fastest growing service, once people sample the range of channels available they’re saying, ‘I want a little bit more’, and moving to platforms that give them our kids’ channels. We moved to the basic pay TV packages last spring, and that brought us to a much larger audience too.

High School Musical 3 will be going into cinemas first, which is the biggest compliment we could get. The first TV movie was big, and the second one is even bigger, and now they want to make a motion picture release. I’m really happy. It’s still going to be a Disney movie, we’re still going to act as partners. The schedule it’ll be appearing on the channel won’t be on the same timescale, but it’s fantastic news for the cast, the producers and for Disney as a whole.

Last night I was talking to Lucas Grabeel, and he’s really excited because as well as these movies and the others he’s made with us, he’s got other ideas he wants to pitch to us. He’s actually enjoying the ability to explore several parts of his skill set across different parts of the company. And the company is terribly supportive in asking him, ‘How else can we work with you?’. It’s a throwback to the old Hollywood model, I guess.

High School Musical proves there are opportunities for the audience to engage with our programming through many different media. Last week, we started selling shows through iTunes. It won’t undermine the channel, it complements it. Giving people a choice of where, when and how they access our programming is an important part of our brand. If they want it on their iPod, we’re going to give it to them.

_Rob Gilby was talking to Scott Matthewman_