New laws could mean children disappear from TV, say broadcasters

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Children could disappear from our television screens if the Government decides to press ahead with plans to tighten regulations covering their appearance in entertainment, broadcasters claim.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families is putting the finishing touches to proposals aimed at clarifying the rules governing reality shows such as Britain’s Got Talent and Boys and Girls Alone, which campaigners claim can cause children unnecessary distress.

The television industry is braced for a fierce battle with children’s charities and the Government over the proposals, which will suggest that programme makers must obtain a licence from a local council virtually every time they want to include a child in a television show. Councils also want the power to do spot checks on production sets.

The department originally intended to publish proposals last week, but last-minute submissions by broadcasters have forced it to delay. The head of one production company said: “You’ve got a whole range of people who want a super-nanny state where kids aren’t even allowed to watch television, let alone work on it. This debate will be acrimonious, to say the least.”

Legislation covering children in the entertainment industry, which has not been updated for more than 40 years, states that under-16s must be licensed if they take time out of school, or are paid, to “perform” — widely interpreted as singing, acting or dancing.

While this already covers drama and talent shows, it is understood that the Government will suggest widening the licensing requirements to include factual programmes and reality shows. Broadcasters say that forcing them to apply for permission to feature children in documentaries will give local authorities political powers to veto programmes they do not agree with.

British children’s programming is already under threat after ITV, Channel 4 and Five reduced spending by 70 per cent between 2004 and 2008. But producers fear that having to go through a 21-day licensing process to allow children to appear in shows such as Blue Peter would be unworkable.

The chief executive of a production company behind a string of children’s programmes said: “British content for British children will all be gone if this is implemented. You wouldn’t see kids on television, you will just see American imports. It is hugely ironic because the areas that they’re trying to save are the ones that they will kill.”

The Government has been talking to campaigners for years about its plans to update the law, but the debate has been crystallised after a Channel 4 documentary shown in February, Boys and Girls Alone, featured 20 primary schoolchildren in a house without adult supervision for two weeks.

Child psychologists claimed that the programme, in which the youngsters were shown fighting and dissolving into tears, was tantamount to child abuse. Under current legislation, the broadcaster did not need to get a licence from a local council, as the show did not constitute a “performance”. The most recent series of Britain’s Got Talent, which showed Hollie Steel, 10, breaking down in tears after forgetting the words to her song, also drew complaints from campaigners. continues here

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