I’ve been away from the world of TV news, by which I mean news about TV, for the best part of two weeks. Part of my job at The Stage, apart from burbling about the world of telly and editing the rest of our paper’s online content, is overseeing our web development strategy. That’s taken up a huge amount of my time recently — and will continue to do so, as we’re looking at rewriting every single line of code that drives the various sections of our website throughout 2012.
Last week, for example, I was out of the office every day, working with a company that is developing a new website for The Stage that will launch later in 2012, or possibly early 2013. This has little to no relevance to the TV Today blog, other than to explain why last week’s news that CBBC and CBeebies shows are to be phased out from transmission on BBC1 and BBC2 went uncommented upon.
In hindsight, maybe that’s a good thing. Because if I’d been commenting at the same time as the overpaid, overindulgent, underinformed commentators in the mainstream press were divulging their opinions about the “demise of Blue Peter on BBC1”, my main response would have been “what kept you so long from noticing a trend that’s been building for years?”
For several years now, many of CBBC’s key dramas and comedies have been premiered on its dedicated digital channel, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, before being aired on the children’s section of the more mainstream, higher-rating-all-round channel of BBC1 or (especially when there’s a boring sport event on) BBC2.
For the digitally aware younger generation of today, the existence of the CBBC channel, as well its preschool sibling CBeebies, is simply a fact of televisual life. Indeed, the whole concept of the CBBC brand having an afternoon offshoot on BBC1 can seem like a weird companion of a channel which broadcasts daily until 7pm. With nationwide digital switchover due for completion in just a few months’ time, soon every household in the country that can receive BBC channels will receive a whole day’s worth of two children’s channels featuring content predominantly commissioned by, and featuring, people from the UK, competing with other channels which (paticularly on non-Freeview platforms) rely heavily on American imports.
So for the digital generation, the news that CBBC shows — including the once-venerated Blue Peter — would be disappearing from BBC1 did probably not seem deserving of the column inches that newspaper columnists last week provided. What today’s pre-teens don’t necessarily appreciate, of course, is that those selfsame columnists were brought up in an era where the hallowed hours of 4pm until 5.30-ish saw two of the three (since the early 1980s, four) available TV channels give their content over to them. To us.
The TV columnists of today sprang from that era. So it’s understandable that the changes confirmed last week, even though they’d been trumpeted for ages, attracted commentary from the people for whom those hours helped them form a lifelong love of telly.
But even while I was working offsite all last week, I felt that the change was being overblown. This was an old guard, harking back to a golden age that existed nowhere but in the realm of nostalgia.
I was only partly wrong.
I have no beef with CBBC content remaining on its own channel. My PVR is regularly tasked with recording new episodes of comedies such as Sorry I’ve Got No Head and Horrible Histories — each just as funny as recent mainstream BBC TV sketch efforts such as BBC2’s Watson and Oliver, although that’s admittedly quite a low bar — and dramas such as Tracy Beaker Returns (soon to morph into The Dumping Ground) and Leonardo. All those series have had episodes premiering on the dedicated, digital children’s channel and clearly do not brook any drop in quality as a result.
What I do worry about, though, is how the BBC hopes to move viewers of CBBC shows onto other channels as they get older. Back when I was at school, the end of children’s programmes leapt straight into family-friendly programming that was clearly aimed at being pleasant for both children and adults alike, from the Angela Rippon-hosted Masterteam (think Eggheads, but with both sides being gifted amateurs instead of sourfaced professionals trying not to look smug while they demolish five more hopefuls) and, of course, the sainted Neighbours.
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.