Friday, 1 June 2012

Time To Get Animated: Why Kids TV In The UK Needs More Than Just A Tax Break


By Will Strauss

When the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne promised tax breaks for the animation industry earlier this year there was much rejoicing throughout the UK, not least in England’s North West.

With a great heritage in animated children’s programming (both stop-frame and cartoon), Greater Manchester and its surrounding area is one of the parts of the country that will benefit most if/when the proposed financial incentives are put in place.

Having lost Danger Mouse producer Cosgrove Hall in 2010, and seen some animation outsourced to countries that can boast either cheaper labour or tax breaks (or indeed both), being able to claim a decent percentage of a production budget back against tax is quite rightly viewed as potentially great news for the North West which is, of course, the new home of BBC Childrens and the “birthplace” of Bob The Builder, Roary The Racing Car et al.

Depending on how the tax break is issued, it promises to: allow certain animated productions to stay in this country that would have otherwise gone abroad: provide training and job opportunities for the next generation: prompt the production of more series and a wider variety of types of programming; and strengthen the UK’s position as the world’s leading exporter of pre-school programming.

Perhaps most important of all in a genre like Children’s TV where rights exploitation is key, it should also allow all intellectual property to remain on these shores.

However, with full details yet to be confirmed, the launch still a year away and some skepticism surrounding the government’s motives for such a plan, there are nagging concerns.

Evidence of this was made clear during a recent Westminster Media Forum called ‘Financing children's media - IP, co-pros and public policy support ‘ when a range of contributors welcomed the proposed tax break but warned that it alone will not solve all of Childrens TV’s problems.

FremantleMedia Enterprises’ president of Kids & Family Entertainment Sander Schwartz for one suggested that the UK needs to look beyond its pre-school expertise and embark on the production of what he described as “animated comedies with international appeal” or boys’ “action adventure series.”

These types of programme, he said, are in demand around the world and should be a target for the UK.

Zodiak Media chief executive of kids’ and family Nigel Pickard Pickard, a former director of programmes at ITV, added to that call for a greater range of content and also claimed that some producers were concerned that drama and factual programmes might suffer as a result of more animation commissioning. He cited France as an example of a country where this had already happened.

Pickard also bemoaned the percentage of homegrown television shown to children in the UK. Statistics suggest that he is right to do so. “Five years ago Ofcom research revealed that of the 113 thousand hours of TV broadcast to kids in this country,” he said. “Only 1% of that content is newly made here in the UK per annum.”

With that in mind, plus the deterioration in the number of commissioning broadcasters for children’s shows, the introduction of the HFSS regulations regarding junk food advertising plus an emphasis by US broadcasters to keep their production close to home, it may come as no surprise to learn that tax breaks for animation are not the only initiative being sought by UK producers with an interest in kids TV.

Newly formed campaigning body the Children's Media Foundation has launched an initiative to attract £30m worth of funding that can be used to commission children's TV and film.

Pickard said: [Our] proposal is that, post Olympics, and as part of the Growth Agenda, Lottery funding should be diverted to create an alternative commissioner for kids content. We should re-examine what the lottery is for. If it’s to support culture, then in a kids’ world it is very much screen based. For many kids TV and digital content is their culture.”

The pot of money would be used to produce cross-platform content across a number of genres, not just animation, with delivery made via a video-on-demand kids network online and through “TV window deals with the commercial broadcasters on a series by series basis,” allowing them to co-invest in TV and digital content. A 5-year cost plan for such a proposition has been put together.

Although somewhat audacious, its motives should be applauded, especially in the North West.

While some children’s TV and animation companies around Manchester have continued to do well through recent lean times, including one, McKinnon and Saunders, that I myself visited recently, there are still those living on the bread line.

With a combination of correctly administered tax breaks and a new, government funded, commissioning and distribution network, we could see kids TV in this part of the country return to the heights it achieved before the demise of Cosgrove Hall.

Without them we may as well all pack up our plasticine, our foam latex, our silicone and our copies of 3ds Max and go home.


Will Strauss [] is a Leeds-based freelance journalist and regular contributor to various TV industry publications including Broadcast.