Patricia Edgar on Children’s TV: Part One

Image result for round the twistMany readers will have heard of Patricia Edgar who was a giant force in Australian cultural life from the 1970s. She more than anyone else was responsible for lifting the tone of children’s TV in Australia. In any event I was talking to her recently about the current woes of children’s TV and out of our conversation came a three part essay from Tricia the first part of which is below: Nicholas Gruen

Commercial Networks Versus Producers – Quotas for Children’s Television

On May 6, 2017, the Minister for Communications, Mitch Fifield announced ‘a broad ranging and comprehensive review of Australian and children’s content’ within a broader media reform package aimed at assisting free-to-air networks to remain viable in the highly competitive digital era. At the same time, the House Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts is inquiring into the ‘factors contributing to the growth and sustainability of the Australian film and television industry’. These enquiries have come about because of the impact of digital technology on the free-to-air networks and have triggered off a battle royal between the networks and the producers with both groups acting from positions of self interest.

For forty years the networks have been opposed to children’s television quotas. They’ve employed every tactic in the book to subvert successful programming. But for the first time they have a legitimate case as the child audience is now deserting scheduled television in droves for the Pied Piper of social media; the networks claim child audiences have gone down as low as 2000 viewers for a program.

The producers, who have enjoyed the most effectively regulated production system for children’s programs anywhere in the world, are understandably, wanting to cling to the quotas and subsidies that have allowed some of them to establish profitable businesses. They want them expanded to include the ABC and pay television platforms. However they have shown few signs of adapting to the new technologies.

The rhetoric on both sides of the argument is extravagant and misleading with little attention given to the needs and interests of the audience they claim to serve.

In the 1960’s and early 70’s Australian children watched American sit-coms for their entertainment as school and community groups called vigorously for Australian programs.   When the Children’s Television Standards (CTS) were first mooted in 1976 in a report from the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB), the networks ridiculed the proposal. They claimed then they did not have the resources for such programming. They asserted they did not know what a children’s program looked like, that Australian kids couldn’t act and they would not watch such programs. They argued the high costs of technology in converting to colour in 1976 would consume all their revenue. But colour proved to be a bonanza.

Fortune then favoured the networks as Prime Minister Whitlam was sacked and Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister. The Federation of Commercial Television Stations (FACTS) persuaded Fraser to sack the recalcitrant ABCB and set up a new regulatory authority, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT), with a Chairman of their choosing. Bruce Gyngell a former Channel Seven and Nine Executive was appointed Chairman. Gyngell’s first task was to chair the Self Regulation for Broadcasters? Inquiry and he came to the view the industry should accept the regulation of children’s programs. The best laid plans went astray. Kerry Packer was furious and the two long term friends fell out for a time.

The ABT set up the Children’s Program Committee (CPC) to implement the Standards in 1979, and the networks set out to undermine the process, first by withdrawing their representative from the Committee. Led by FACTS, which was dominated by Kerry Packer’s Nine Network, the industry fought a vitriolic battle in the media condemning the ABT’s proposals for C and P (pre-school) classified programs. Fifteen commercial television licensees challenged the validity of the ABT’s power to classify programs, in the Federal Court. They lost, but pursued their argument in the High Court which held the ABT’s Standards were invalid. Labor’s Communication Minister, Michael Duffy then introduced an Amendment Bill affirming the ABT’s powers. Finally the networks had no choice but to comply or risk losing their license. This entire process took eight years.

For the following decade the system of subsidy and regulation worked, in part because, as the networks had not prepared for losing their case, they had to buy the programs eager producers had in the pipeline. The Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) was established, and along with other children’s program producers, who shared a passion for their audience, they came up with a range of quality Australian stories which attracted the child audience and spawned both a domestic and international industry.

Australia had in place, a regulatory structure through the CTS and drama quota, subsidy through the FFC and state film bodies, an ACTF that demonstrated quality in children’s programs and had drawn the attention of world broadcasters to Australian programs by winning awards. An industry concerned with quality had been created, despite network opposition, and Australian children were the beneficiaries.

But in 1995, with the best of intentions, the ABA made a strategic error. They doubled the quota and things began to unravel. It became simpler for the networks to fill their quotas with long-running series and animations which undermined the diversity of live-action programs. The bigger problem was that the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), the major source of funding for children’s programs, was facing cut backs. In 1994 the FFC invested $ 20 million, 23% of its funding, into children’s programs. By 1998 their investment had dropped to $9.3 million. This was when the drama quota doubled.

Networks, aware of this problem, drove down license fees and squeezed producers. They put pressure on the FFC to approve cheaper programming and pressure on the ABA to classify such programs C, but such programs inevitably fell short on quality expectations.

The problems were exposed by the ABA’s evaluation of 20 Years of C, released in March 2000. This review demonstrated that, after a courageous beginning and a record demonstrating significant improvement in children’s programming, the hard-won system was failing and children were once again missing out on the programs that had made a significant difference to their Australian cultural experience. But nothing was done to redress the problems.

The number of active live-action producers declined. Longer-running series increased, program diversity declined and animations soared. The networks continued to meet their quotas as cheaply as possible and buried programs in their schedules, doing nothing to promote them in order to attract an audience The values on which the children’s drama quota had been based – giving a window into children’s lives from their perspective – were undermined.

In this climate a number of producers realized there was money to be made out of the children’s market through animations, merchandising and mediocre long running series that could be sold overseas to fill the voracious appetite of digital children’s channels. Some producers effectively worked for overseas companies as production managers allowing them to access Australian funds while retaining creative control.

The claim that has remained the production industry mantra today is that producers are still ‘creating quality programs’ in ‘the best interests of children’. But given the extent of public investment the highlights are few. The most iconic Australian children’s program, one I produced, is Round the Twist and it is still named to support the quotas. Such a program could not be made today – the budget could not be achieved and production partners would sanitize the content and destroy its appeal. The evidence also shows children have come to be seen, not as individuals in an audience, who are there to be informed and entertained, but as a market.

Ironically Screen Australia’s Convergence Report in 2011 pointed out Australian children didn’t want to watch the Australian programs being made for them then, they preferred to watch thirty-five year old American sit-coms such as I Love Lucy, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Happy days and Mork and Mindy. We had come full circle. The latest report from ACMA on Children’s television viewing and multi- screen behaviour, (August 2017) will give no comfort to those wanting to retain quotas. Children are not watching Australian produced children’s television.

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12 Responses to Patricia Edgar on Children’s TV: Part One

  1. conrad says:

    Is there any evidence in terms of what type of social media is replacing their viewing or even whether it really is? A lot of the online stuff kids are watching (and indeed adults too) seems to me essentially the same as TV, but it’s simply not delivered via traditional TV (youtube channels, Netflix, simple downloads that arn’t tracked etc.), so it’s not really replacing TV, it’s just changing the source of it.

    • Patricia says:

      That’s true up to a point in that they areviewing Tv on mobile devices but their usage of multiple devices together has steadily grown. The only viewers watching scheduled TV are preschoolers or kids are watching reality TV and programs like Masterchef and the Voice in a family context. Kids are on social media , playing games and trawling You Tube much more than they are the Aust. programs made for them under the regulations. Viewing has steadily tapered off even for preschoolers . I am working on an article on this question now

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  3. A good and interesting essay which I hope leads to further discussion.

    The organisation I lead, ARACY (www.aracy.org.au) has a strong interest in this. Research shows that one of the essential components of children’s wellbeing is a positive sense of culture and identity. Given how pervasive television is, the capacity of programming to add to or subtract from a positive sense of culture and identity is huge. Although, as the article suggests, this is to an extent weakening in the face of competition from online media, broadcast TV remains an important influence.

    One of ARACY’s members, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) plays a lead role in relation to the present inquiries, and is encouraging people to have their say on #OzKidsTV.

    A positive sense of identity comes from programming that reflects Australia (in its full diversity) and gives Australian kids content to which they can relate in their everyday lives. This doesn’t mean boring. Fun and quirky, as in Patricia Edgar’s example of Round the Twist, is brilliant.

    Suggest readers whose interests are piqued by the article check out the ACTF.

    Patricia Edgar is much more expert on the industry and trends than I am, but there were a couple of points I thought not quite right, or needed elaboration:

    1) “In the 1960’s and early 70’s Australian children watched American sit-coms for their entertainment” – not so sure this applies for the younger audience, where there were plenty of iconic and well loved shows like Play School, Mr. Squiggle, Here’s Humphry, Adventure Island etc. Possibly a statement directed more at the slightly older age group?

    2. “…producers realized there was money to be made out of the children’s market through animations…” Agree completely with PE on merchandising and on cheap animations, but animation per se is not necessarily a bad thing. Examples of really good Australian animation in recent years include Little J and Big Cuz, which is great especially for Indigenous kids but enjoyed by many others as well.

    • Stephen
      Not sure you know I established the ACTF and ran it for 20 years. In that time the role was to produce exemplary quality Australian programs as the industry was in its infancy and the networks were saying it could not be done. Among them was Round the Twist which I initiated and produced. Such a program could not be made today for reasons I will be writing about shortly. When I stepped down the ACTF became an investment and marketing company for independent producers. What we need now with the transition in media is an organization with the same objectives ACTF began with to show the way with productions for multi-platforms in the digital age. It is a very different ball game.
      The programs you mention were ABC programs with the exception of Here’s Humphrey an Adelaide production inspired by Rex Heading who became a member of the Children’s Program Committee I chaired for 5 years when we set up the standards for the ABT. He was a rare exception in a hard nosed commercial industry.
      There are many outstanding animations but those designed as character based advertisements with a suite of merchandise are dominating kid’s TV

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Stephen, I look forward to Tricia’s response particularly to your point 1). For my part I loved Mr Squiggle in the 1960s – and also Why is it so btw. But a lot of these were five minute ‘packets’. In the meantime I watched imported kids shows – mostly American. Jet Jackson, The Lone Ranger, Rin Tin Tin and some English ones – like Robin Hood. Then later American sit-coms – the ubiquitous and well loved Gilligan and programs like Hogan’s Heroes.

    I also quite liked Play School but it’s pretty basic TV it seems to me.

    • Nicholas
      No doubt you learnt to be a very nice conforming middle-class boy who could color in watching Play School. As you say it was and remains pretty basic and young kids are very smart developing at a rapid rate in those vital years. We should stretch their minds not restrain them

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Yep, agreed. Play School comes across as a kind of pacifier.

        • conrad says:

          Having to watch a fair bit of kids TV due to my daughter, I’ve noticed that certain aged kids still love Playschool even if it is pretty simple. In terms of a pacifier for younger ones, In the Night Garden and the Telly Tubbies are mesmorizing for them. The Wiggles are also entirely captivating for kids too, although then at least they are running around trying to dance etc. .

          On a different note, one of the curious things about the cartoons is that there are ones that look very expensive to produce, but they still use terrible writers and so you end up with very repetitious scripts and kids get bored of them. Alternatively there are ones like Peppa Pig that have stories every night that differ and I assume would have been cheaper to produce, so perhaps part of the problem is not just funding but who the funding is going to.

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