Multichannel choice and narrowing margins are putting the production of top-quality kids TV under threat.
Multichannel choice and narrowing margins are putting the production of top-quality kids TV under threat.

As our special report in this week's issue makes clear, the children's television market today encapsulates some of the key challenges facing public service broadcasting in a digital age. There are currently around 20 children's channels available to more than half of the country and their presence and impact have significantly changed the nature of the business of kids TV.

But while viewers clearly benefit from greater choice, there are deeper and more difficult questions around what the growth of these digital channels means for investment in original high-quality children's programmes.

Competition between channels and the pressure on broadcasters to cut costs have caused budgets to stagnate in recent years. And of the handful of kids channels with big enough budgets for original commissions, it is really only the BBC which can now afford to originate quality programming in expensive genres such as drama. Even so, those working in BBC children's admit that, with cost-cutting across the corporation, it is proving increasingly difficult to meet aspirations.

Of equal concern is the erosion of ITV's public service remit and the relaxation of quotas for kids TV. Which is why Ofcom's current review of the licence arrangements for PSBs must ensure that ITV retains a clear remit to invest in high-quality British children's TV - with a stipulation about size and proportion of budget.

In the meantime, the responsibility for funding the shortfall in budgets ' often as much as a third ' has been placed squarely at the door of independents. Indies are having to become masters in complex co-production deals, in some cases with up to 20 partners, and are exploring how to tap into government funding and tax incentives abroad. In fact, it's becoming such a minefield that some indies suggest only a dedicated commercial or co-production manager can cope with it.

So it is to indies' credit that in this climate they continue to produce the kind of creative and original programming for which British kids TV is famed. But for how long? There is a very real danger that insufficient UK investment and trying to please a host of international partners will result in formulaic, risk-free kids programming - and then there'll be tears.