“Remember Skippy?” asks a press release from Free TV Australia.
“Back in the 1960s and 1970s when many of the rules governing Australian television content were
established, children had little choice about what shows they could see and when. This ensured there were large audiences for what are now classified as C (for children aged 5–13 years) and P (for preschool children aged under five years) programs on commercial TV.
“When children watch commercial free-to-air TV, it’s now mainly for family-friendly entertainment programs and major events.”
So argues the body that represents Seven, Nine and TEN who are all pushing to drop Kid’s TV quotas, in its submission to the government’s Australian and Children’s Screen Content Review.
It’s with some irony that they are comparing Skippy to today’s family-viewing shows, MasterChef Australia, Australian Ninja Warrior and Little Big Shots. The beloved kangaroo series is still on the air after 48 years.
That’s because it was a heart-warming show with memorable characters, actors and Aussie yarns. It’s why Skippy was Australia’s first international TV superstar and export. I still remember fondly my parents taking me to Ranger Headquarters in “Waratah National Park.”
It doesn’t cost them a cent.
The other reason it is still on air is money.
Producer John McCallum first offered the show to Frank Packer, father of Kerry Packer, who bought the show after a brief screening. It was a lifetime deal which is why Nine still screens the series at 3am in the morning. It doesn’t cost them a cent.
It also doesn’t cost a brass razoo for the actors, such as Tony Bonner who lost a court case hoping for a cut of the show’s decades of profits.
Ultimately, this is what the campaign by the three networks is about. Money. If they can stop spending money producing children’s television and they can make more profitable programmes. More News & Reality? Sell the airtime for branded content? And all this despite the government dropping license fees this year.
Networks argue kids are C and P programming on commercial free-to-air TV channel is only reaching 0.2% of the potential target audience of all Australian children. Shows like Beat Bugs are only pulling audiences of 1000 viewers -never mind that it won an Emmy and multiple episodes were burnt off in afternoon programming blocks.
“We need to move towards a system that is more relevant”
Free TV argues when kids are watching children’s programming on free-to-air, it’s almost always on the ABC. No arguments there.
“Some of our content regulations date back to the 1960s and most haven’t changed substantially for 15 years, despite the arrival of the Internet and subscription video on-demand services,” said Ms Pamela Longstaff, Acting CEO, Free TV Australia.
“We need to move towards a system that is more relevant and flexible, and where networks are free to invest in the Australian content that today’s audiences want to watch.”
“Kids watching …with their families is not a new thing”
But Jenny Buckland, CEO of Australian Children’s Television Foundation told TV Tonight, “Kids watching commercial television in primetime with their families is not a new thing. But it’s not an excuse for what’s been happening to children’s television shows.
“The commercial broadcasters have been steadily reducing their expenditure on children’s content. This means that the children’s drama quota is supporting an overwhelming amount of animation, a large part of which doesn’t look or sound Australian, and which audiences don’t engage with or relate to strongly.
“That’s happened because the broadcasters aren’t paying what they need to pay for high quality, culturally relevant and relatable content.”
Abandoning a quota for Children’s TV is also universally opposed by the Australian Writers’ Guild, Australian Directors Guild, Screen Producers Australia and the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance who all argue for Australian voices and underline its value to our cultural identity.
“The answer isn’t devolution, it’s evolution”
Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner said recently, “The answer isn’t devolution, it’s evolution. We can’t leave the responsibilities to children’s programming to the public broadcasters. It takes a village to raise a child. We need to evolve the regulatory environment to reflect the current market and include obligations on SVOD services like Netflix and Amazon.”
More than half of the top 30 programs watched by children aged 0–14 in 2016 was dedicated kids programming, compared to one third in 2005.
The numbers indicate that kids are indeed watching children’s telly on ABC, where Shaun the Sheep, Peppa Pig and Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom top multichannels day in, day out. Older kids are migrating to streaming services and YouTube.
Free TV argues its own destinations, such as dedicated 9GO! programming blocks, are also not attracting viewers.
Pamela Longstaff says, “Our members need to be able to follow their audiences. This means changing requirements that are no longer delivering social outcomes and putting in place the right settings to generate new Australian content and keep our production ecosystem strong.”
“They should build up those times with more quality, distinctive content”
But the ACTF says that’s what happens when you are chockful of cheap cartoons that don’t distinguish you.
“Looking at their own viewing numbers, it’s very clear that they get higher audiences for children’s content on Saturday mornings, and on Friday and Saturday evenings at 6.00pm. The very low figures seem to be for weekday mornings,” says Buckland.
“This demonstrates that they should schedule children’s content at times when children are showing they can watch TV in reasonable numbers, and they should build up those times with more quality, distinctive content.”
Something tells me that in 48 years time MasterChef Australia, Australian Ninja Warrior nor Little Big Shots will still be able to boast that they are on the air.