Paddy Conroy, head of television at pubcaster Australian Broadcasting Corp., believes children’s TV has never faced more opportunities – or greater dangers.
He’s not alone. Growing concern about kidvid’s fragile place in an increasingly more commercial, deregulated era, is one potent raison d’etre for the first World Summit on Television and Children, which runs here March 12-17.
Proof of the event’s importance is the fact that it’s attracting more than 500 delegates from around the world, repping nearly all the key players – broadcasters, producers, regulators, distribs – in the field.
The crucial issue is “the information superhighway and its effect on children – global broadcasting and the danger children’s television will be overwhelmed in the communications revolution,” says Australian Children’s Television Foundation director Dr. Patricia Edgar, who is organizing the summit.
Much more than a talkfest at the World Congress Center, Edgar expects the summit will result in a “historic international charter protecting the rights of children to participate in a society’s cultural life through television.
“Children are a major part of the television audience but they are one of the least considered and most easily exploited sections,” says Edgar.
“A children’s charter would change that; it would ensure that children have quality programs made specifically for them and which do not exploit them.”
Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, a keen supporter of the summit, frequently has railed against violence on TV, and last month suggested he’d like to see a fourth commercial network in Oz dedicated to family fare.
Keating rebuffed the opposition coalition’s plea for less regulation, warning, “We would have American bilge coming in here. We would wipe out Australian drama, (and) have our kids subjected to American drama.”
That view is sure to be contested by some of the speakers at the summit. Edgar has assembled a formidable list including Nickelodeon prez Geraldine Laybourne, Cartoon Network prez Betty Cohen, FCC Commissioner Rachelle Chong, U.S. Children’s Television Workshop president/CEO David Britt, and BBC head of children’s programs Anna Home.
Also slated to attend are “Barney” creator/exec producer Sheryl Leach, Lucky Duck prods’ Linda Ellerbee, U.S. kidvid pioneer Peggy Charren, Atlantis Releasing prexy Ted Riley, Nelvana chairman Michael Hirsh and DIC topper Andy Heyward.
Expect some clashes of opinion on TV violence. The ABC’s Conroy argues there is a lot of confusion between “wholesome” children’s product and programming aimed at all the family.
Conroy sees some risks to kidvid in the rapid development of multimedia, noting, “More markets don’t necessarily mean more money. Quality will continue to cost money. But this is one area where if you produce good programming, it sells internationally: there is never enough.”
Dina Browne, head of children’s TV at Australia’s Seven web, detects some hypocrisy in the debate on violence. “You put on a program (containing) violence and the ratings go through the roof,” she says.
Browne hopes the summit will engender a charter to protect children’s TV “as an area of its own, rather than being swallowed up by family TV.”
The future of public broadcasting, educational TV, indie production, and co-prods are among the topics on the summit agenda.
There will be an interactive media presentation by telco Telstra, the summit’s major sponsor, screenings of children’s programs, and a video resource center where participants can view cassettes. Kidvid merchandising will be under the spotlight amid concerns of lax program standards and exploitation of kids. In the U.S. alone, merchandising for kidvid is estimated to be worth around $15 billion.
Some critics claim series like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” are toy advertisements masquerading as programs.
“If you look at ‘The Lion King’ and the marketing that has gone along with that – it’s massive,” Edgar says. “Kids and consumption is as big an issue as kids and violence.” If there’s not a character ripe to be merchandised at the center of a program proposal, Edgar worries that it won’t get made.
The counter view from Australian animation director Yoram Gross is that merchandising helps by promoting the related films or TV programs.
And Ian Fairweather, general manager of a new Oz pay TV children’s channel, contends, “There is nothing wrong with merchandising kids programs; to get programs made you have to have merchandising.”
Capping off a big month for kidvid will be the Festival of Television for Australian Children running March 20-24. In unprecedented cooperation between broadcasters, the three commercial networks plus the ABC and Special Broadcasting Service will show programs from Australia and around the world in non-competing timeslots. Each station has donated 30 minutes per day over and above the quota-mandated times for broadcasting during school hours.
The fest includes programs from the U.S. (“Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”), New Zealand (“Kimi and the Watermelon”), Switzerland (“Agata”) and the Netherlands (“Tiger”).