Patricia Hidalgo Sets Out BBC Children’s Strategy

Six months into becoming director of BBC Children’s & Education, Patricia Hidalgo has revealed her strategy for the division, including an emphasis on “high-impact content ideas” and being “less platform-focused and more audience-focused.”

Hidalgo joined the British kids’ pubcaster in 2020 after a long run at Turner EMEA. “I’ve long been a fan of the BBC,” Hidalgo told reporters on a Zoom call. “It is a force for good that people across the world look at and envy. So it’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to take Children’s & Education through the next stage of its evolution.”

Hidalgo noted that the BBC operates the most-watched kids’ channels in the U.K., “but like everyone else, we are facing challenges. We’ve identified these challenges, but we need to respond quicker than we thought. We knew we had to evolve, and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has expedited that further. We needed to better understand what our audiences wanted and how they consumed our content and evolve our commissioning decisions. We need to deliver our content in a different way. And most importantly, we need to be doing these things faster. We’re now working much closer together with the whole content division and iPlayer to think about the BBC’s offer to children as a whole. We’re looking at how we fit into the wider BBC and how we can use the full leverage of the corporation to ensure we’re reaching as many kids and parents as possible.” Lockdown Learning, a suite of educational resources to help young ones amid school closures, “is a brilliant example of how we can do this,” she said.

Hidalgo referenced the increasingly competitive kids’ media landscape, driven by the global streamers, “but we are in a strong position. Sixty-four percent of U.K. children come to us every week and they’re watching over 1.2 billion minutes of our content. But it is not the time to be complacent. We need a clear strategy. We are only as good as the value we deliver to our audiences and we must grow that value. There has been talk of ‘fewer, bigger, better’ for a long time at the BBC. Now we have started to implement that. We also need to transition from thinking and behaving like linear networks to streaming platforms. No, I’m not planning to close the channels. But we do need to be less platform-focused and more audience-focused.”

The role of the iPlayer is becoming more important to BBC Children’s, Hidalgo noted. “Ninety percent of under-16s used video-on-demand platforms between October and December 2020. This is up from 80 percent during the same time last year. The time spent on video-on-demand has overtaken linear TV for under-16s. Now they are spending 25 percent of their media time consuming video content through on-demand platforms, that is compared to 18 percent of their time spent on linear TV.”

Hidalgo then discussed how the Covid-19 pandemic has “thrown a spotlight on education. As almost every kid in the U.K. was adapting to home-schooling, this tiny team jumped into action to produce the BBC’s biggest education offer. Its success speaks for itself, as it was used by more than 5 million kids every week during lockdown. The combined power of the two divisions [children’s and education] became evident during this last lockdown when we moved Lockdown Learning onto CBBC, the linear channel, and we saw the slot average increase by 438 percent, meaning this invaluable resource was now being accessed by millions more kids around the U.K. This is public-service broadcasting in action and at its best. The success of Lockdown Learning not only demonstrated how audiences turn to the BBC in times of crisis; it also allowed us to evaluate how we can use our platforms more widely for educational content, which creates exciting opportunities for the future.”

One of Hidalgo’s key strategic moves since her arrival was to restructure the commissioning team. The post held by Cheryl Taylor, who is exiting as head of content for BBC Children’s, is being replaced with two new positions—encompassing commissioning and acquisitions—focused around age groups rather than channels: one for 0 to 6 and one for 7 to 12. Combining commissioning and acquisitions gives those two heads “greater control over their slates and puts the audience at the heart of what we’re putting on-screen. We’ve also changed the way we commission content. We no longer have the two set commissioning rounds each year; instead, people can come to us with ideas all year round and we will commission those we feel are good enough.”

Hidalgo went on to note that the needs of her programming teams have also changed. “We’re looking for high-impact content ideas that can be developed longer term. And we’re commissioning more quickly as well. If a show does well, we will order more episodes sooner. We’ve already done that with Malory Towers and JoJo & Gran Gran. And we’ve increased the mix of animation on the channel and changed how we schedule our platforms, again making it more audience-focused and less platform-focused.”

Lockdown Learning’s success on CBBC also made Hidalgo and her team understand the place for educational fare on the BBC kids’ channels.

The shift in strategy is bearing fruit, she noted. “We’re seeing growth in iPlayer numbers. In the last year, our programs have been streamed more than 1.7 billion times, and in the last six months, we’ve seen activations for this target audience increase significantly. This allows us to make great strides in serving relevant and personalized content for our audiences. Our linear and streaming offer is also working better together; kids are coming and staying longer with us.”

Looking ahead, Hidalgo acknowledged the wealth of media options available for kids today. “Competition drives quality and keeps all of us on our toes. At the BBC, we have slightly different challenges than our competitors. Not only do we need to stay relevant and attract audiences, but we also need to ensure that we’re delivering value to them while representing each and every one of them across our programming. It will take some time to fully implement what I want to do, but in the short term, you can expect that we will dedicate more resources to fewer titles. While we commission fewer programs, we want more episodes of those programs that we want to build into brands. This will extend our digital offer, including games and apps. We will work more closely with creative industries across the U.K. to commission shows rooted in U.K. culture and that can have global appeal. We’ll invest more in education titles; we’ll look to commission at least 50 hours of this content this year.”

BBC Children’s will also invest more in animation, Hidalgo said. “We want to effect real change in the U.K.’s global reputation for animation production for children, especially 7- to 12-year-olds. And we’re working on an initiative that will seek to develop new creative talent in this area and ultimately result in commissions.”

Sustainability is also a key focus, she continued. “We know it’s hugely important to our audience and we will have a year-long theme running throughout the content.”

Responding to a question from TV Kids about the importance of international partnerships to the BBC Children’s strategy, Hidalgo said: “There are so many incredible, successful brands that come from the U.K. and have international partners in the productions. We can talk about brands like Peppa Pig, PAW Patrol—there are so many great pieces of content that either have their roots in Great Britain or have a lot of British talent behind them. I want to continue investing in British talent and IP and ideas and find great partners that can come and help us super-size what we’re trying to do here. There’s only so much money to go around, and I want as broad an offer as possible with series that have a lot of episodes. There’s no use for us to create short-run series. Whenever appropriate, I’ve been looking for partnerships with the international community.”

Elaborating on the “fewer, bigger, better” philosophy at the BBC, Hidalgo explained, “A child in the U.K. will be able to tell you about 500 brands they know. That means there is so much out there. We produce about 450 hours of content per year. If you make too many shows, it’s difficult to support all that content. If you reduce the number of titles you’re making but put more episodes behind those titles, you have more time to promote them, you can create more consistency in your offer so the children can grow a bigger affinity to the shows you’re putting in front of them, and in the end, you’re going to retain more of that audience. It’s not a budget thing; it’s just a smart way of doing things. We have to move with the times.”

TV Kids asked Hidalgo about BBC Children’s diversity initiatives. “We have appointed a diversity and inclusion head who is helping us make sure we are thinking about diversity and inclusion in everything we do. Now that I’m recruiting, I’m making sure that I have a really good pool of diverse talent that I’m looking at for any of these new roles and how we support the diverse talent coming to us to continue their careers within the BBC. That’s on the corporate side. On-screen, we are always striving to represent underrepresented audiences and diverse audiences in what we do. In live action, it’s quite straightforward, and we have so many shows that do a great job in showing diversity of all kinds. I’m proud of what we have done lately in animation for preschoolers. JoJo & Gran Gran is the first British Caribbean representative show that’s ever been done in the U.K. for this target audience. It comes from a book. It’s a beautiful property that is authentic in showing that culture. It’s so relatable to the audience. You have a grandmother who looks after you—we see that happening so much now with families. It’s very quickly gone to the top; our audience is loving it so much we have doubled down on that show. We have two more seasons in the pipeline. So yes, on-screen, off-screen, it’s very important.”

On the importance of public-service broadcasting for kids, Hidalgo said, “Our shows represent our audience, our shows are local, they speak to what is happening with local children and their lives. We don’t just entertain; we educate and inform. Newsround is the only news service dedicated to children. And our education offer is second to none. I don’t think any commercial network would have taken the risk of investing all this time, money and effort in producing all those shows [for Lockdown Learning]. Our public-service commitment makes us react in this way and do the things we’re doing. Especially for children, having a public-service [platform] is paramount. It’s the only way to make sure that we are going to be there for them, whether it makes commercial sense or not. We are going to be there for them with the types of content we know are going to be good for them.”