By PATRICIA EDGAR. Kids Technology and the Future: Radical revamp needed for Children’s TV content quotas.

Today’s kids are way ahead of our broadcasting regulators and television producers in the way they use both television and digital media. It’s time for a radical rethink of content regulations, quotas, and subsidy for children’s media education and entertainment in their best interest.

The Government continues to hold back from releasing any response to the Australian and Children’s Screen Content Review that reported many months ago. Clearly, in the lead up to an election, they do not want to ‘take on’ the production industry or the networks and the inevitable dispute that will follow if they reduce quotas or recommend the kind of changes sorely needed for relevant children’s television and media regulation. The producers are demanding ‘more of the same’ – that is increased quotas – across all media platforms, an unworkable proposition based on their self-interest. The networks are demanding relief from quotas which they say are not working in the digital media environment; a view also based on their self-interest. The Government is wedged between the two interests knowing a change in the system is necessary to provide content relevant to children’s needs and interests today. 

The aim of children’s media content regulation and subsidy must be to achieve the best from the myriad of media choices available to children in this new era, to further their education, social development and cultural understanding. That will require creative solutions from new leadership. 

Today’s producers need to acknowledge quotas were not devised to provide business support for them to crank out formulaic, banal series, akin to soaps, that have minuscule cultural and educational value, as many quota programs have become. It is their job to attract children with projects of substance otherwise they have no right to subsidy and regulatory support for their projects.

Designed in the late 70’s, the quotas are now more than 40 years old. They were created for an era when broadcasters were dominant, when there was no children’s production industry in Australia and most programs came from the UK and the USA. Growing up in Australia then, we did not see Australian locations, hear Australian voices or see ourselves on screen. There was an indisputable cultural argument for Australian television content across all age groups. But to increase quotas today would fly in the face of local and global evidence about the behavior and interests of the child audience and their response to the programs now being produced under the quota system. It’s time for a new funding and regulatory model more attuned to twenty-first century children’s needs . 

It is not easy to create quality, engaging children’s programs. Despite the rhetoric that is thrown about by those who have learned to work the regulatory system, subsidy and quotas do not equate to quality, relevant content. Quality programs emerge from talented people engaging in thorough, interactive workshop development based on strong original ideas; a process that takes time and considerable application. 

The global broadcast television child audience is tanking. Kids today are voting with their feet and going online, making their own films, watching YouTube, playing interactive computer games, exchanging ideas and videos, chatting with friends, and learning from the engaging fun of digital media. They are viewing programs based on the old quota system in very small numbers. The producers maintain that low numbers don’t mean disinterest, that there is ‘a long tail’ to kids programs through ‘catch-up’ and repeats, but the data do not support them.

The BBC, once a dominant world player in children’s television has found, despite making their biggest investment in children’s content and services in a generation, more than 80% of their potential audience goes to YouTube for on-demand content, half go to Netflix and fewer than 20% now go to the BBC. 

Ofcom, the UK regulator, following extensive investigation, argues that setting quotas to solve the problem would not be an effective approach for their broadcasters; that reaching children means exploiting the opportunities presented by the internet.

Nickelodeon, Viacom’s global children’s channel, has suffered the same fate as the BBC, with ratings for children aged between 2 and 11 down 25% in a year. Across the globe this migration of children from traditional broadcasting will only increase as Apple and Amazon roll out their programs.

ACMA,(the Australian Communications Media Authority), the production industry and the ACTF (Australian Children’s Television Foundation) – now a funding and distribution company, since abandoning its essential role of innovator in the successful tripartite strategy designed in the 80’s – are locked into an outdated paradigm: a media world that children have left far behind. 

A new model for children aged 2-14 years should support the production of cultural content which capitalizes on the potential educational opportunity presented by digital online media for their development. 

I see three major objectives. The first would be to develop a new agency charged with the task of initiating innovative projects which could include games, multi-platform narratives, collaborative projects, or children’s own productions which should have an educational and cultural purpose, as well as being entertaining. 

Secondly our public broadcasters should be charged with commissioning quality, educational, programming for pre-schoolers, moving away from merchandising and the exploitation of young children and their families with character-based cartoons and puppets. Programs should be linked to the national early childhood curriculum as we know these early years are vital in children’s development and their readiness for school. Pre-schoolers are the only young audience whose viewing can be controlled by parents and the ABC is ideally placed to reach them in their home or in day care with programs designed both to entertain and educate them. The ABC should rationalize its current children’s programming, reducing the hours of mediocre programming they transmit on their two digital channels which are losing audience. 

Thirdly, we need a new approach to media literacy curricula in schools, one which supports understanding of digital media, online protocols and learner-centric projects that develop initiative and adaptability as skills which will enable students to learn in school and to transition to the rapidly changing workplaces of the future. There should be a concerted research effort to document the links between children’s media use and their learning in order to initiate effective educational and entertaining projects for children. 

This model would include relief from quotas in the commercial sector for an annual payment to the new agency’s innovation fund of $10 million from each network for new projects. The networks should not be let off from their responsibility to children. They still have privileged access to public airways and have recently been relieved by Government of their licence fees. The Government should match the annual $30 million contribution from the networks on a two dollar for one basis for funds totaling $90 million. This is not a lot of money from the arts and education budgets.

This three-pronged approach would be the most effective response to catering for young people from 2-14, capturing the potential of multi-platform diverse children’s programming, their social media and gaming interests and dealing with the problems digital media are exposing. The comprehensive aim of such policy should be to prepare children for a new world, strengthening a desirable civil culture, through supporting schools, children’s media entertainment and their transition from school to the workplace. 

A fast-encroaching ‘new media information order’ is unstoppable. We need to be clear that, used responsibly, social media has many beneficial effects for the social development of children and adolescents, enhancing their education, well-being and cohesion by connecting them to peers with similar interests at home and across the globe. Parents need to play their part by knowing how their young children engage with digital media, but the education system must assist them. 

It’s time for a new paradigm of entertaining and educational media for children and a wiser use of available resources. But it will need a visionary Government, and a new guard, to make it work.

Dr Patricia Edgar was the architect of the C classification for children’s television and oversaw the implementation of the Children’s Television Standards (CTS) and the Drama Quota. She was the founding director of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) 1982–2002, and Founder of the World Summit on Media for Children. 

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