SYDNEY — When they were first introduced in 1990, Oz’s children television standards turned a virtually nonexistent genre into one of the Aussie TV industry’s greatest exports.
The turtleneck-sweater-wearing Wiggles may be the gold standard of Aussie kidvid, but with $A248 million ($184 million) pumped into kids’ TV by the Film Finance Corp. alone since 1990, and successful co-productions like “Spellbinder,” “Ocean Girl” and “Round the Twist” selling to over 100 countries — almost double that of blockbuster Aussie export sudser “Neighbours” — kids’ TV is one of the unsung success stories of the industry.
Recently, however, Oz regulator the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) announced a review of the standards to bring them in to line with the new-media age. The authority will conduct extensive research, to be followed by a discussion paper at the end of the year. The full review is expected to take up to 18 months.
As they stand, programs are split into two types: P for preschoolers and C for school-age children. Commercial free-to-air networks must screen at least 390 hours a year — 130 hours of P programs and 260 hours of C programs. These programs must be of a “high quality” and have some educational value; half the C programs must be firstrun.
What the government plans to change is uncertain; what is that the biz regards the quotas as genre-defining.
“When the C drama quotas were introduced there was not a lot of children’s drama at all,” says Jenny Buckland, topper of nonprofit org and producer the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF). “So the fact that a quota existed meant that a lot of drama was getting produced in Australia, and because it was unique it started selling really well, especially to public broadcasters in Europe.”
Ron Saunders, producer of hit skein “Spellbinder,” agrees. “Since the standards were brought in, Australia has been established internationally as one of the new producers of children’s material, both live-action and animation.
“Because we sit halfway between the U.K. and the U.S. in what we see on our televisions, we absorb the best qualities of both of those countries in the work that we produce.”
So if it ain’t broke, why does ACMA want to fix it?
Buckland believes the main thrust of the review is to make sure that Oz maintains its dominant position in international children’s programming. She points to more competition from the States, which used to lag behind in live-action kids’ skeins.
“If you talked to American broadcasters, they equated children’s TV with animation, and it has been a trend in the last five years that channels like Nickelodeon have been coming out with live-action drama,” Buckland says.
She also notes that a lot of the European quotas have been strengthened in reaction to this new U.S. content, making the kids’ market more competitive.
The review also coincides with government media ownership changes, which look at the impact of new media on the industry, particularly how the rise of the Internet and DVDs is affecting when children watch TV.
The industry is united in wanting the quotas to remain in place, with Saunders viewing any removal as “disastrous.” He believes that while new media may be distracting younger viewers, it is still not a viable alternative to free-to-air television.
“I can’t see the other forms of delivery being major economic contributors for the next several years,” Saunders says. “There are small amounts of money coming from other platforms, but they are not significant enough to affect free-to-air, and certainly not enough to finance programs on their own.”
Buckland believes the review should focus on multi-channeling, which provides more competition among broadcasters and allows the huge back catalog of content to find a new home.
“The FFC has invested $A248 million in 17 years in children’s drama, and a lot of it gets screened once or twice and then it is out of license,” she says. “And in terms of the government getting a result, having that content accessible to a child audience in an ongoing way — given the taxpayer pays for it — it is almost scandalous that they don’t.”
But prolific kids’ TV producer Jonathan M. Shiff (“Ocean Girl,” “Wicked Science”) disagrees. “Multi-channeling will have no impact whatsoever until there is very large penetration of digital TV access by young children, and in my view this is many years off.”
For Shiff, the key is to continue to provide the best content and leverage the cost effectiveness of shooting in Oz and New Zealand.
“It won’t be the regulatory environment that threatens children’s television, it will be inertia from producers should they fail to deliver imaginative content,” Shiff says.