A Very Special Audience: Children's Television and the Battle of the Brands between Public Service and Commercial Providers

Curator's Note

Multi-channelling and the end of spectrum scarcity challenged old models of advertiser-funded broadcasting while allowing pay-TV companies and public service broadcasters (PSBS) to target multiple niche audiences, including children. From 2002 onwards, PSBS in the UK and Australia began to provide children’s channels that competed aggressively with pan-global subscription services provided by companies such as Disney and Nickelodeon. In the UK and Australia, PSBS are well funded by licence fees and state subvention respectively, meaning these advertising-free services designed to operate in the public interest are trusted and popular with local audiences.

Their expansion into specialised children’s services allowed UK and Australian PSBS to maintain their relevance in fragmenting television markets. The success of their children’s channels is due partly to strong traditions of public service broadcasting in these countries. Thus, PSBS were able to draw on their existing reputations for providing quality television in the public interest to brand themselves as the home of culturally specific, well-made children’s television which parents could trust.

PSBS’s adroit exploitation of their trusted brands, synonymous with quality and distance from vested interests, was quickly supplemented by the use of sophisticated multi-platform resources. PSBS also continued their longstanding merchandising practices, through properties such as the BBC’s Bob the Builder or the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Wiggles. By pursing many of the same strategies of audience capture as their transnational competitors – sophisticated branding campaigns, multi-platform offerings and niche offerings - while investing heavily in home-grown content – PSBS’ children’s channels in the UK and Australia are achieving far greater audience share than powerful conglomerates like Disney. At the same time, considerable tensions are generated between their public service goals and the increased importance placed on strategies of audience pursuit and merchandising. Nonetheless, while the threat to funding for PSBS in de-regulated, fragmented media markets remains, the provision of extremely popular children’s channels continue to ensure the centrality and cultural legitimacy of PSBS in the UK and Australia.

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