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BBC Hits Back at Netflix et al

The North Koreans weren’t the only people to rain on the United States Independence Day parade. The BBC also chose the 4th July, to announce it was adding an extra £34M over the next 3 years in the battle for children’s TV. This means the BBC will increase their annual spending on children’s TV from £110M per year to more than £124M a year for the next 3 years. Based on data from the UK regulator Ofcom, children are spending less time watching TV and are consuming content on tablets or other mobile devices.

Crucially, BBC Director General Lord Hall, described the “biggest investment in children’s services for a generation”, as the BBC’s response to the way children are consuming content. The Director General went further, stating:

“Investment in British content – particularly for the young – is vital, unless we want more of our culture shaped and defined by the rise of West Coast American companies.”

It is the latter statement, which should serve as a huge wake up call, particularly for the Caribbean, who by proximity alone are perhaps at the greatest risk.

Why Should the Caribbean take Note?

For the last 10 to 15 years there has been a focus on improving access and infrastructure around the Caribbean. When I was involved in the Broadband Project for ECTEL back in 2006, among the recommendations were the creation of IXPs and the need to develop content and services. Since then the IXP movement has begun to gain traction to improve the quality and reliability of the internet in the region, however little has been done to address the question of developing Caribbean content.

Once we recognise and appreciate that Caribbean culture encompases more than carnival, calypso, reggea and soca it should be clear that the region has a wealth of literary, sporting and artistic talents that should be preserved and developed to maintain Caribbean culture. To do otherwise is to run the risk of not only, having “our culture shaped and defined by the rise of West Coast American companies.” but having it diluted or erased all together. We have more basket ball courts, than cricket grounds and netball courts, and one only has to look at the array of men’s underwear on display while walking about your business to get my point.

It’s with good reason that the BBC are targeting children, the Jesuit’s said “Give me the child for the first seven years and I’ll give you the man.”, and Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

There needs to be an appreciation that what goes into our children’s minds and their experiences in their formative years shape their future development and habits. If we don’t take control of what our children are exposed to but cede control, allowing others to inject their values and norms then our culture is dead at the root!

Content, now more than ever is King, and if we don’t preserve our culture and present it in a format that is relavent and appealing to children then we will lose them and our culture to outside influences and ideas that are not our own, only to lament later that “I can’t go with him or her.”.

So What is it Going to Take?

Parents must realise that you can’t simply give a child a smart-phone or tablet as a pacifier and leave the child to get on with it. You have to be mindful of what they’re accessing and what influences they’re picking up. Let them watch a show or watch it with them and evaluate the content, ask them what did they learn or get from the show? If they are unable to answer positively or you determine there was nothing of merit in the show then find something else. The United Negro College Fund’s (UNCF) motto of “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” is very clear and very true (regardless of race), and we can’t afford our most precious assets – our children’s minds – to be wasted watching mind-numbing or senseless nonsense from any source.

One hundred percent commitment by policy-makers to the task of preserving and modernising our cultural content, as well as developing capacity to create animation, web apps and mobile content. No more headlines boasting grand plans to train hundreds of people in animation or mobile app development that doesn’t materialise. No sound bites without substance.

We are going to have to ensure that our content is professionally done and that as many people are exposed to developing content including or especially teachers. We’re going to need to break the silo mentality that persists not only in government but at all levels of society, in order to maximise the scarce resources needed. For example, Ministries of Tourism, Education, Culture and Trade should work together to since content produced can be used to market our country’s culture rather than just the sea, sand and property! Those three things can be found on any island, but culture and the people that create it, is what’s distinctive and should be marketed.

I’m somewhat pleased that the allure of unsustainable “laptop distribution” programmes are being rethought. So too must this seemingly blinkered or tunneled vision approach to increasing access. I return to the ECTEL Broadband project of 2006-7 where the consultant team repeatedly asked “what local services would internet users be able to use? Or whose content will users be accessing?” We have to develop content, local and intra-regional services to which users can avail themselves. This will then create the “pull” or draw for people to want internet access. As it stands, the FANG group of FaceBook, Amazon, Netflix and Google is providing the demand for internet access, and the last time I checked none of them could be described as Caribbean or even slightly interested in serving the needs of the region.

Of course, it’s going to take money, but I believe that our biggest challenge will be the fresh thinking and attitudes needed to pull this off. However, the reality is that failing to make those changes will mean that we will have little or no control of our future ever again. Generations of our youths will essentially be entering society pre-programmed by a foreign power, with cultural and societal norms alien to those we are accustomed to. This is what the BBC Director General has realised and that’s why he’s drawn a line in the sand. The only questions that remain are whether it’s too late? And if it’s too late for the UK what for the Caribbean?

You can read the full BBC article here.