Australia is rapidly finding itself home to producers of top-flight children’s drama who are benefiting from a growing world market for quality programming, and in some cases, getting lucrative merchandising deals.

“Sure, budgets get squeezed and there are commercial pressures, but we’re involved with more product and with more partners than ever before,” says producer Paul Barron, who began making children’s drama in 1981.

From its Perth base on the West Coast, Barron Entertainment has produced a slew of kids dramas with combined budgets of $A19 million ($14.2 million) in the past four years, with another $A10 million ($7.5 million) worth of projects to roll in the next 12 to 18 months.

Barron, Film Australia, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, the Australian Broadcasting Corp., Jonathan Shiff, animation specialist Yoram Gross, the Grundy Organization and Crawford Prods, are among those regularly turning out kidvid for Australian and overseas markets.

Barron credits this success rate to the Aussies’ ability to make quality programming more cheaply than elsewhere; the industry being underpinned by funding from the Australian Film Finance Corp.; and the mandate for local commercial webs to air 16 hours of first-run Oz children’s drama a year.

A proposal by the regulatory Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) to double the annual minimum to 32 hours predictably has drawn fire from broadcasters.

The Aussie quota and regs governing kidvid globally are sure to be hot topics at this month’s inaugural World Summit on Television and Children in Melbourne.

Tony Branigan, general manager of the Federation of Australian Commercial TV Stations, told Variety, “We think (the ABA proposal) is probably an unwise move. The problem is children’s TV does not rate all that well. We do it because we have to do it, by and large; the amount produced for commercial reasons is only a few hours.

“We believe if you increase the requirement, the quality will go down because the money available will be stretched (further).

“If the requirement doubles, it will compound the problem of getting children to watch drama; they prefer cartoons and programs like (soaps) ‘Home and Away,’ ‘Neighbors’ and American sitcoms.”

Australian Children’s Television Foundation director Dr. Patricia Edgar, who’s organizing the summit, disagrees.

“Australian regulation of pay TV, quotas and (government) funding have led to a unique position,” Edgar says. “Our programming has a reputation for being outstanding and we sell to 91 countries.”

The ACTF produces some $A10 million worth of programming each year, usually one 26-part series and a smaller project.

Recent successes include “Lift Off 2,” story-telling using live action, animation, puppetry, docus and songs (the first series was a ratings triumph for Britain’s Channel Four, prompting the BBC to snap up the second series) and “Sky Trackers,” a science-based adventure series.

Aussie pay drama channels are required to spend 10% of their program budgets on new Australian fare, and that’s expected to double by 1997.

But ABC head of children’s television Claire Henderson still foresees a threat to quality drama. ‘We have to be certain to maintain quality output and not be swamped by an influx of outside material,” she says.

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