Many parents and teachers would probably admit that the past year has redefined what screen time means to them; at best, a guilt-free educational substitute for face-to-face learning and at worst, a free quarantine babysitter. To offset the isolation and lack of social interaction, new children's shows strive to help young minds cope with stress and stay connected, from a safe distance.
What the pandemic has also done, according to Henrietta Hurford-Jones, global director of children's content at BBC Studios, is drive a record number of children and adults to turn back to public service broadcasting for education and entertainment while reversing a trend towards "fragmented" streaming options, where parents had little control. "Parents trust channels such as CBeebies as they know that nothing weird will pop up on screen as children are watching."
Educational and children’s programming had, in 2019, been moved into the same division by BBC Public Service, to sit under the same leadership. “I’m not sure if it was prescient or good timing, but it makes perfect sense for those two genres to sit and grow together,” says Hurford-Jones.
In the industry for 20 years, as director for European programming at Fox Kids (later Jetix and Disney XD) for five years, among other roles, Hurford-Jones knows a thing or two about commissioning, developing and producing children's content. "A few trends emerged in 2020," she says. "The demand for programming around curriculum-based learning increased and parents needed support as kids were homeschooled. The BBC started to supply short, curriculum-based lessons for school-based kids. The larger effect was that everyone suddenly realised how important children's TV is as a genre, with learning at the heart of its content."
The word Hurford-Jones uses is "nourishing" content, whether it's live action, animation and puppetry, or more didactic using numberjacks, letters, art or sport. Already a beacon of trusted, age-appropriate content, reaching viewers in more than 170 countries and in eight languages, CBeebies was poised to take advantage of this evolving distance-learning environment, but the learning curve was still impossibly steep.
Lockdown created a rush to make more curriculum-based content available across all platforms: mainstream TV, iPlayer, podcasts and Bitesize, a BBC app offering study support for learners between 5 and 16 years.
During the first UK school closure from April to July last year, 150 new daily lessons weekly were broadcast in maths, English and another core subject for Years 1-9, plus the usual GCSE content for Years 10-11. By July, the channel had produced 2,000 new daily lessons. During the second UK lockdown from January to March this year, Bitesize offered structured maths and English lessons, averaging 4 million users weekly.
“It took a huge amount of work to pull this all together so quickly. Will it still be of interest going forward? I can’t predict the future, but we’ll see,” Hurford-Jones says.
She lists shows such as Bluey – the top title in Australia – soon to be released by the channel in the Middle East, as an example of a show that invites co-viewing opportunities for all ages with humour and learning at its core. It depicts the life of a modern family: their relationships and how they interact within their household. Another of her shows, Hey Duggee, encourages children to develop empathy and boost problem-solving skills.
CBeebies ranks second in the world for brand awareness in the 0-6 age category in countries such as Australia and the UK. YouTube sits at number one. It's almost impossible for any channel to compete with the speed and affordability of YouTube content, which is most often user-generated. A perfect example of this is the new, award-winning children's series My Stay-at-Home Diary, created and filmed by kids themselves, aged 6-13 years, around the world in Canada, Mexico, Germany, South Africa, The Netherlands and the US. Through the points of view and cameras of the featured children, viewers observed their lives, their worries, and learnt what they were doing to stay busy and have fun during the pandemic.
Last month in the Middle East, CBeebies worked with local parenting influencers, such as Noor Odeh, Suzan Alsadi and Dima Mousseli, to engage their followers in a conversation about using screen time for young kids in a healthy way, primarily through educational and safe content. The campaign focuses on areas that are important to children's development: being active and adventurous, creative, independent, kind and empathetic.
This month, the channel will premiere a number of new series in the Mena and Turkish territories, introducing a range of new characters to entertain and educate preschoolers. From Monday, Garden Tales connects preschool children to the natural world with entertaining stories about cute animals. Other new shows include Teletubbies, Go Jetters, JoJo & Gran Gran and Topsy and Tim – a live action drama based on the adventures of five-year-old twins. Little Learners Education Block continues to show on weekday mornings, introducing educational topics such as numeracy, literacy, cooking and sports.
Beyond this "formative" age group (0-6 years) for children's content, Hurford-Jones lists Horrible Histories as a "laugh-out-loud funny" educational show, also broadcast on BBC Radio 4, where prime-time comedians dress as Romans and act out scenes containing historical facts. Others are Operation Ouch!, all about medical science, and Ricky Wilson's Art Jam, which explores lessons through art. "It's about getting the audience to engage in active or 'hidden' learning," Hurford-Jones explains.
Programming for this older age group (7-12 years) also extends to drama, with shows that depict the lives and struggles of real kids. These shows encourage social and emotional learning and help to build resilience, empathy and compassion, which can support academic achievement, says Hurford-Jones. The 7-12 age group is divided into "bridge" years; 5-7 and 9-11 years, and the difference in content output varies in terms of emotional and social maturity.
There is now a wider understanding of how crucial it is for children to access this educational content, at home or at school, and Hurford-Jones believes that awareness will outlast the pandemic.
Alongside the surge in TV audiences, parents find themselves couch-sharing more with their tweens and teens. What can they do to support their children’s learning at home? “It depends on the age of the child but what’s important is that parents are present for their children and engaging with them; this is almost as important as the content itself and for all ages,” says Hurford-Jones. “Older kids engage more with friends through forums and games sites that are safe zones, but parents still need to be a part of it, [and] enjoy it together, as a family.”
CBeebies is available on beIN Mena channel 103 in countries including UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt