Child’s play pays Down Under

Other countries lack regs to support genre

SYDNEY — Aussie kidvid producers are ramping up upscale live-action drama skeins with international partners in defiance of the worldwide trend for merchandising-led, cut-price fare.

Three Melbourne-based companies — Jonathan M. Shiff Productions, Burberry Productions and the not-for-profit Austrian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) — are leading the charge.

Children’s drama is exported to 100 countries, according to ACTF CEO Jenny Buckland, and producers have collected industry awards worldwide.

So how has Australia cornered this niche?

“It’s not a genre other countries produce because they don’t have the regulations to support it,” says Buckland.

And she’s right.

Strict quotas require terrestrial networks to broadcast 32 hours of original children’s drama a year, for which they must pay at least $47,000 per episode, and the government’s Australian Film Finance Corp. stumps up 50% of the budget.

Feevee channels must allocate 10% of their programming budget to local drama.

Last, but not least, Aussies speak English, and at U.S. $.60, the Aussie dollar is still cheap.

Locally, it makes sense for feevees to co-invest with the terrestrial networks because they don’t have the coin to bankroll series solo.

Economies of scale in Australia — population 20 million — forces producers to tap international presales, for which only upscale programs are really eligible. The merchandising opportunities of some animation and format shows rarely apply to dramas.

Cheap kid drama just isn’t an option for local broadcasters but, says Buckland, “I’m sure (they’re) still looking to find that model.”

Last year, a push by the commercial broadcasters to cut costs by reducing their children’s programming was unsuccessful.

The ACTF is a government funded kidvid advocacy group, it also produces programs and acts as an international sales agent.

The org’s multiple priorities irk indie producers, with whom they compete for FFC coin, but the producers also acknowledge the strength of children’s drama in Australia owes much to strident lobbying by the ACTF over 21 years.

There are a number of kid shows in the pipeline.

The ACTF is currently in production on “Noah and Saskia,” produced and exec produced by founding CEO Patricia Edgar.

Blighty’s BBC and Oz pubcaster the ABC have invested in the 13-part series about an English boy and Australian girl who develop an Internet friendship. The ACTF will distrib worldwide.

German pubcaster ZDF has inked for Shiff’s comedy-horror “Wicked Science,” a $A10 million ($6.2 million), 26-part series about two teens who morph into science wizards.

Show will feature CGI dinosaurs, extensive wire work and kid actors (expensive because of the limited working hours and tuition requirements).

ZDF Enterprises is handling worldwide sales for the series, which began lensing in April. Network Ten and cabler the Disney Channel have taken Oz broadcast rights.

Burberry Productions is enjoying the busiest period in its ten-year history. Last year it launched a production services division that produced a 42-part variety show, “sn:tv” for Nickelodeon Oz and a three-hour adult mini for the BBC, “Bootleg.”

It’s just gone into production on “Fergus McPhail,” a 26-part kidvid about a hapless teen for the BBC, and Ten and cabler Nickelodeon for local. For the U.K.’s Wark Clements it is making the 26-part girl’s series “Sleepover Club” is in production to air on Blighty’s ITV, Nickelodeon U.K. and Oz, and the Nine Network. Southern Star is distributing worldwide.

“The worldwide market is strong because Australia is one of the few places making quality drama outside the American system,” says Burberry principal Ewan Burnett.

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