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“It’s very heartbreaking”: Jonathan M. Shiff warns of Children’s TV cliff

As his latest work, The Bureau of Magical Things, debuts, seasoned Kid's TV producer fears for the future.

EXCLUSIVE: “I really put a lot of work into plotting and brainstorming this one. I really wanted a sophisticated approach to layered storytelling and character, perhaps because I’m getting older. I may not be doing too many more shows before I retire,” says seasoned Children’s TV producer Jonathan M. Shiff.

“I actually spent a lot of time writing, plotting, developing this from my home in Port Douglas, walking around in circles in a park every day for seven hours with my writing team: Mark Shirrefs in Melbourne and Alexa Wyatt in Sydney.

“We were only in production for a few weeks in March 2020 and we had to shut down.”

Persevering through challenges is not new to Shiff, with Season 2 of The Bureau of Magical Things the latest in a long line of acclaimed titles including Lightning Point, The Elephant Princess, Wicked Science, Cybergirl, Horace & Tina, Thunderstone, Ocean Girl, Pirate Islands, H2O Just Add Water, Mako Mermaids.

Collectively they have entertained millions globally, won industry awards (include AACTA, Logie, BAFTA, Kidscreen accolades) and ignited the early careers of Margot Robbie, Liam Hemsworth, Phoebe Tonkin and Jeffrey Walker.

But while a pandemic is undoubtedly a new challenge, the removal of the children’s sub-quotas, leaving commercial broadcasters with no obligation to produce and air Australian content for children, may be a much greater threat.

Shiff has had his eye on global horizons for many years, co-producing with Germany’s ZDF and co-commissions with 10 and Nickelodeon.

But he laments the changes for what they mean not just for employment and exports, but for Australian children.

“It’s hard enough to actually get a Children’s TV drama series going in Australia, now nigh on impossible, with the demise of the regulatory environment,” he tells TV Tonight.

“You’re seeing it completely trashed now”

“It’s very, very heartbreaking watching the whole thing from the sidelines. You’re seeing an industry that I’ve been in nearly 30 years. Brand Australia, a huge export success, high quality, high calibre Children’s TV, pioneered by the Australian Children’s TV Foundation, followed up by people like myself, and many other fine Children’s filmmakers and storytellers… you’re seeing it completely trashed now. Basically sidelined. It’s very heartbreaking.

“We’re in 170 – 190 countries around the world, and to see them crying out for Australian quality product, but finding that the wheels have been taken off. The car’s just sitting there on the blocks, basically.”

Season 1 of The Bureau of Magical Things recently screened in a second window through Netflix USA where it hit the streamer’s Top 10 shows worldwide. Australian Children’s TV has a long legacy in exports.

“I’m a bit cynical about the whole exercise, because it’s been heartbreaking to see the devastation that’s been caused to that industry,” he continues.

“Certainly the way the government approached it here by pulling the rug out, without having any carpet underneath to stand on, meant there’s a freefall for most.

“We were processed under the old regime before the new ‘vacuum’, as I call it”

“We were one of the last shows to do ‘C certificate’. We were processed under the old regime before the new ‘vacuum’, as I call it, with 10, ZDF with whom we’ve got a long standing partnership, and Nickelodeon -bless them. They had actually pre-bought on the basis of a cappuccino with me, had faith that I was going to deliver a high-quality Kid’s show as good as the first if not better.”

The Bureau of Magical Things is a whopping 20×30 min season which has its World Premiere on 10 Shake this weekend.

Set in Australia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, filming was completed in Queensland in 2020 with cast Kimie Tsukakoshi, Elizabeth Cullen, Mia Milnes, Julian Cullen, Rainbow Wedell, Jamie Carter and Christopher Sommers.

The story sees Kyra (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and Darra (Julian Cullene) embark on a quest to find the legendary lost Temple of the Purple Lotus. Kyra’s Orb Magic awakens an ancient artefact that threatens to bring an end to elves and fairies. Kyra and the Bureau must use everything they have learned in a desperate attempt to stop the Purple Lotus, while Kyra discovers her true identity.

“The story is a fabulously-dense, layered adventure / mystery for the Temple of the Purple Lotus – a fabled temple in the magical world. Kyra and Dara, team up, so there’s a good frisson between the boy and girl leads as they team up to solve a mystery, without sharing that secret with anybody else. But not realising that they’re delving into something that has been hidden for centuries for good reason.

“I wanted to pace it so that not everything was dangerous and scary”

“There’s danger, magical mayhem… at the same time, there are episodes that are fun along the journey. I wanted to pace it so that not everything was dangerous and scary. So there are moments of fun and mayhem and they help keep the show light and fresh and accessible, particularly for a younger kids’ audience,” Shiff explains.

“The stories will engage because it’s a classic adventure-action-adventure.

“But the real theme is quite subtle and not heavy-handed for a kid’s audience.

“The real story, for me, is the inclusiveness”

“The real story, for me, is the inclusiveness. This story of working together as a team, not withstanding ethnicity, colour, race. Basically, it’s the diversity subtext of all of this, that I think really anchors the show as a contemporary story. At the end, no-one will survive unless everybody survives.”

The series is being dubbed into 45+ languages for Nickelodeon worldwide. But Shiff is also a big believer in having Australian voices on screen.

“Without Australians stories without Australian voices, children don’t have role models”

“With the children’s audience it’s fundamental and critical as part of the identity of who we are. Without Australian stories without Australian voices, children don’t have role models. They don’t have stories to frame their own life experience. Aussie kids need Aussie stories, and Aussie voices on screen. Otherwise, we’re in a market of diminished animation and foreign accents,” he insists.

“Or worse still, and I don’t want to name names, but I’m already seeing inappropriate Children’s content that actually breaches codes. I was a lawyer before a filmmaker and in my opinion, I’m seeing stuff now that actually won’t make it on air in the UK because (UK regulator) Ofcom will pull it off. They’ll say ‘This is not appropriate.’ So deregulation of a children’s market in Australia will result in no Australian stories and inappropriate modelling behaviours… violence, knives… modelling that’s simply inappropriate for a children’s audience being unregulated. We’re already seeing that on Free to Air.

“It’s a huge issue for Australian kids. This is why it’s mind-blowing that someone’s been allowed to take the wheels off the car because it was actually the only car that was carrying Australian Childrens’ stories.”

The Bureau of Magical Things double episodes 2pm Saturday & Sunday on 10 Shake.

12 Responses

  1. Jonathan M. Shiff certainly deserves a lot of kudos for his years of service to children’s entertainment but trends move on, his shows are mostly light entertainment and unlikely to offend anyone, making them ideal for release internationally when dubbed in various languages, this is probably the reason ZDF partnered with Mr. Shiff, because it was a good marketing choice.
    In my observation kids from ages eight upwards are watching You Tube influencer marketing shows selling plastic rubbish or abstract superhero cartoon characters who use innuendo and nastiness more suited to stories with adult themes, I’m not sure Jonathan would be enthusiastic about that.

    1. Sure there is room for short form, interstitial, light ent, Tik Tok -call it what you like. But the streamers are all having success with long form storytelling including in Kid’s. As noted S1 was in Netflix top 10, briefly.

  2. The idea that there used to be tonnes of quality Australian Kids TV is just nostaligia. While there were some good shows a lot of it was Romper Room, Fat Cat etc. The stuff I enjoyed was Eagle of The Ninth (Roman Britian), Cat Weazle, Worzel Gummage (UK/NZ). There is value in stories about other times and places too.

  3. The decline started long before quotas were removed. As cost rose, viewers and advertisers deserted FTA, advertising in C slots was restricted and parents stop their children from sitting infront of commerical TV for hours in morning and afternoon revenue plumeted. Firstly the commerical networks swiched to making cheap shows animated overseas and could be dubbed with different languages for the globoal market. As competition there made that unprofitable they just started churing out even cheaper quizs an infotainment for the local market just to meet the quota. 7, 9 and 10 haven’t made quality kids TV for years. The ABC has been doing most of it, funded mostly by Neflix (Little Lunch, The Inbestigators) and BBC (Bluey). TV production, including kids TV, is now a competitive global business and local quotas won’t change the economics.

  4. On a channel that does 0.60% in the ratings and is not available in many regional areas. It would be a shame if 10 couldn’t replace one of the endless, mindless advertorial ‘programs’ or cooking programs on their main channel.

  5. I doubt there’s any real creatives running networks these days, so they’re not being programmed with any kind of innovation or passion, and the pushing for reduction of content is led by lawyers and bean counters, because TV is not about telling stories for the networks, it’s about making money.

    And look what is happening because of it. Early 700k is a nightly win and next day bragging rights. Schedules are etched in sand and change daily. No one is watching and the networks are celebrating mediocrity.

    They are making less money every year, but cling to this horrible TV model that we’ve got here of stripped reality and news all day with no concrete start times after 7.30pm. And if you don’t like dating, cooking, or d list celebs acting stupid in revived 20 year old formats, then what is the point of watching at all?

    Hopefully Mr Shiff can continue to get shows commissioned overseas where networks aren’t as far gone as they are here.

  6. 2pm weekends on a grossly underperforming multi-channel? They aren’t even trying to give this one a fair crack, are they?

    I loved Wicked Science in my teens, as corny as it was. Bridget Neval and Saskia Burmeister were scene-stealers, and I was naturally disappointed when the latter didn’t return for its second (and final) season. I was disappointed that it was never issued a complete series release (there was a local “movie” release, which was merely a summation of the first season, with the majority of the season being reduced to a mere “supercut” gag). Oddly, it was issued complete DVD releases in some European markets, but nothing here. Perplexing to say the least. Too often we aren’t even given the option to put our money behind local content.

  7. Thanks for the interview. I’ve always enjoyed the work of Jonathan M. Shiff, even though I’m older than his target demographic. Such a shame to read about the sad future of Australian story telling.

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