As the TV-licensing fee paying father of two toddlers, one of the most consumed parts of the wealth of the BBC’s output in our household is CBeebies – the channel aimed at pre-schoolers. Although I use the term channel, content is probably a better description because having been born into the iPlayer age, our two have little concept of the idea of traditional linear TV programming where what you get is what you get, and what you get next is what you have to wait for.
There have been dramatic changes in our ability to consume TV content in the past few years (despite the fact that according to Ofcom, still 90% of TV is consumed live at the time of traditional transmission). This makes the “public service” remit of the BBC an increasingly tortuous tightrope to traverse.
The latest hot water I can see the Beeb falling into comes about at the launch of its CBeebies Playtime App – an Android and iOS app for toddlers featuring games themed on four of the CBeebies programmes. Given that the Corporation must have paid to license much of the content to then build an app that is given away for free brings up questions of whether such activity fall into the public service remit.
Back at the turn of the century, when I was working for BBC Worldwide (the Corporation’s commercial, rights exploiting arm) there was a “Multimedia” team that produced CD-ROMs and PlayStation Games that were sold in the UK and abroad. In the days when such interactive content had to be distributed on physical media, I don’t think that there was any question that such activities should be profit making (whether they were or not is another matter – the first foray into console gaming, “Robot Wars”, was an absolute dog).
With internet content, where distribution costs are very different and there is more of a “broadcast” type nature to it, there was initial commercial activity back in the late 1990s with Beeb.com (which actually pre-dated the public service bbc.co.uk), but eventually the web seemed to become a public service domain – even more so now we have iPlayer.
So what of apps? Well, as a parent I’m very happy to have free app content, particularly as it’s free of the dreadfully psychologically manipulative in-app purchasing that seems to be the way that most child-focused content is intent on monetising itself. On the other hand, is producing interactive content for third-party rights holders (and therefore extending out the brand value of heavily commercial properties like the Octonauts) really an appropriate use of limited licence-fee money? I’m not so sure…