The contentious issue of obligatory quotas for commercial children’s television is now under review and has polarised the industry. The commercial networks say the quotas are no longer valid as children aren’t watching and they can no longer afford them, and the production industry argues that without these programs children will be denied stories that are essential to their cultural development. But, does available research show that Australian children still want to watch the programs made specifically for them under the regulations that have been in force since the 1980’s? It does not seem so.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is charged with regulating television content to ensure children ‘have access to quality TV programming’ and are ‘protected from the possible harmful effects of television’. One could therefore expect that ACMA’s Report on Children’s television viewing and multi-screen behaviour released in August 2017 would assist the review that’s underway. That review aims to evaluate the efficacy of current regulations in achieving their stated cultural objectives but the ACMA report fails abysmally to properly inform that inquiry.
The report offers no analysis of quality or harm, and only an indirect assessment of children’s TV quotas (for P and C classified programs including Australian C drama). The study does show clearly that kids now spend more time online than they do watching television, but the research is so poorly designed and reported that it is misleading. It claims at the outset – a claim producers have seized upon – that ‘broadcast TV viewing remains an important part of the way Australian children and families access children’s programming’; that the decline in viewing is ‘slow’ and ‘they (children) are still watching programs specifically made for them’ as ‘a regular part of daily life’.
A lay person could therefore assume ACMA’s regulations are achieving their aim. But dig into the data and a different, confused picture, emerges.
The studies were conducted by OmniPoll, a ratings agency using people meters in TV households restricted to the five major cities. The first misleading feature of this report is that the conclusions are drawn from data that lumps together children aged 0-14 into one group. There are in fact three groups that fall within that category, with very different viewing behaviour and media usage patterns. Pre-schoolers’ viewing is under the control of their parents, so it is to be expected they will be watching more scheduled television. They form the major viewing group in the 0-14 category. But simply separating pre-schoolers 0-4 from 5-12 year olds still gives a misleading pattern. There is a stage around 8-9 years where viewing tastes change – the 5-7’s will trend toward the viewing favoured by pre-schoolers but the 8/9-12 year olds go searching for more stimulating fare and they become more mobile. The report shows no understanding of this difference and thus it fails to offer any meaningful data on trends away from scheduled free-to-air viewing overall. 12-14 year olds are different again, as they have entered puberty, their friends have become their focus, and they have moved to mobile devices and spend time online on social media.
The second major problem in the Report is that the category ‘children’s programming’ is defined as ‘any screen content’ including all TV programs, movies, videos, games or DVDs (on any devices) and there is no attempt to differentiate Australian television quota programs from programming in different formats viewed on multiple devices. ‘Children’s programs’ viewed on any device are not quota or Australian programs and data inconsistently differentiated into relevant age groups is of little help to decide future policy.
Thirdly, the key findings from the parallel survey of parents, carers and guardians about their children’s viewing habits, is clearly unreliable. The online survey sample is made up of unrepresentative ‘opt-in’ participants, which is acknowledged right at the back of the report (Appendix B, p. 43) as ‘not without its limitations’, such as ‘recall bias and socially desirable answers’. In fact, the adult sample is biased towards the tertiary-educated, higher-income groups most likely to have access to the internet and to have thought about the issues of potential concern raised. So it is not possible to draw conclusions about the general population from the data.
This research would not make the grade in an undergraduate class on survey research.
Overall, this latest ACMA report merely confirms – but states less clearly – what it had found in 2007 – and what OfCom in the UK had found in 2007, as well as the Kaiser Foundation in the USA had found in three separate Reports in 1999, 2004 and 2009. That is, that children, increasingly, as they move out of the pre-school years, have turned away from free-to-air television viewing and use the internet and mobile devices not just to watch television but to play games, view video clips (especially YouTube) make their own video content and interact on social media , preferring ‘programs’ which they can control on-demand when and where they wish.
When they are watching television the top five Australian programs of choice, viewed by children aged 0-14, are reality TV and Light Entertainment shows such as Masterchef, The Voice, I’m a Celebrity, The Block and My Kitchen Rules. The top ten children’s programs viewed by the 0-14 group were Play School Celebrity Covers, The Wiggles Meet the Orchestra, 7 programs from the UK and two from the USA, all designed for the youngest children in the 0-14 age group.
Most viewing in the 0-14 age group is done by pre- schoolers and of shows not specifically made for children. These are the findings most relevant to any inquiry about children’s TV standards and quota requirements, but ACMA has chosen to highlight the notion that ‘Broadcast TV viewing remains an important part of the way Australian children and families access children’s programming.’ (Overview, p. 1) The report does not spell out the fact that quota programs don’t feature highly in children’s viewing, unless they are oversees programs made for the younger audience, usually in the UK. So the main finding of the report is, to say the least, misleading.
ACMA states, ‘the TV set is the most frequently used device to view children’s programs’, but live broadcast TV is used daily by just 19% of ‘all children’, a definition that includes pre-schoolers as well as teenagers, and most data tables in the report fail to differentiate between younger and older C standards-level (5-12) children. No table offers a breakdown by children’s socio-economic status or access to the internet. An average of 2.9 platforms is used by the sample, with 45% of children using four or more platforms and they are ‘multi-tasking’ as the television is on, even doing homework. Can this be called ‘viewing’?
Although the report purports to be about multi-screen behaviour, there is no breakdown of what devices are used, in what circumstances, or the content on those devices. There is also no data on children’s use of YouTube other than a statement saying 43% of the sample – in the survey of parents – is using free online content, such as YouTube. Only 15% of children use only one platform. They would undoubtedly be the 0-4 group, but no table tells us that.
Not surprisingly, children aged 0-4 predominantly watched ABC2, but the figures are small and also declining. The programs they view are mainly short programs from the UK with Play School and Bananas in Pyjamas not rating a mention in the top ten.
The TARP figure (Target Audience Rating Points = Audience/Universe Estimate) is just 4.7% of all potential viewing children in that age group. In no table does ACMA give actual numbers for the ‘universe’ or potential viewing audience, but if a 5.6% TARP for Play School Celebrity Covers (1) equals 177,000 viewers then that implies a potential audience of close to 2.9 million so the program can hardly be said to be reaching its target widely. (1. This was the program made in 2016 for the 50 year celebration of Play School which was listed as the top children’s program watched by 0-14 year olds.)
The decline in free-to-air TV viewing is consistent across all age groups with even pre-schoolers’ time having dropped by 21%. The biggest shift is for the C and P programs that have been have moved to the multi-channels. In 2016, 81 % of all C and P programs were screened off the main commercial channels. Children aged 13-17 (do we regard someone aged 17 as a child?) watch more television on the commercial networks (double the ABC’s average) but figures are low and have declined markedly since 2005. The data show 13-17 year olds are watching movies, reality television and infotainment/lifestyle programs rather than anything that could be called a children’s program.
Programs made in the USA are the most popular with children aged 5-17, those made in the UK most popular with children 0-4, with Australian-made programs ranking lowest. In the ‘parent survey’, only 59% regard as ‘important’ whether or not a program is ‘made in Australia or contains Australian content’. Of more concern to parents is the type of program, the time of the day, and the amount of advertising shown.
The assertions that have been made about the success of ABC Children’s channels must be questioned as well by these figures. ACMA claims ‘ABC2 is the most watched channel for children, particularly children’s programs among pre-school children (aged 0-4).’ But they show that only 4.7% of all Australian children aged 0-4 watched the ABC network in 2016. There are 1,464,776 children aged 0-4, so although the report claims that 4.7% is a rise since 2005, it’s hardly a resounding success.
The audience share for the commercial networks dropped by between 42% (7 Network) and 59% (Ten Network). The figures are even more extreme for children aged 5-12: just 1.9% of all children in that age group – the group targeted by ABCME – watched the ABC, a drop of 9.5% since 2005. Free-to-air TV viewing has declined overall for all children aged 0-15 by 16% as they are moving to other devices.
So what about the regulated quota programs and their status among children – those that we might expect to be the main focus for ACMA?
‘The data shows that children do not discriminate on the basis of a program.’ They don’t care where it originates.
All we can learn about C and P programming from the Report is that the shift to programming on multi-channels meant a significant drop for the top rating program in 2005 (185,000 viewers), into just 41,000 in 2016. To learn more about quota programs and who is watching, ACMA’s research overview from 2015 is more useful. Children 0-4 represent the biggest audience of children’s programs. Twenty one of thirty top programs were made in the UK in 2013, just three were Australian. Perhaps most disturbing was that the top C drama program on commercial television in 2013 was viewed by only 30,000 0-14 year olds. And Lockie Leonard , often spoken of in the same breath as Round the Twist, scored only 19,000 viewers and fewer than half that number were children 0-14. The overall numbers viewing these programs have dropped dramatically.
For the Australian and Children’s Screen Content Review to be informed about the value of P and C classified programs, ACMA really needs to get its research questions and policy issues sorted out better than this. It should report findings from any such research in terms of the age categories most relevant to quota regulation categories. Reports from ACMA should be consistent. The 2017 Research report reads like an exercise in obfuscation, as though no one who has any sense of the policy issues involved, is overseeing this research. The real trends in Australian children’s TV viewing and kids’ interest in quota programs get little clarification from this report. Their very absences from viewing patterns suggest the current regulated Australian programs have little relevance for children’s viewing.