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Saturday, April 30, 2011

The state of childrens television in 2011.

Childrens television: a popular subject on this blog, especially as the most popular post in the history of this blog, was one on Brisbane's childrens TV history, and how it launched so many careers, published in September 2009. But I come here today, to explain what has gotten me to write this. Commercial childrens programming should be benefiting from the changes in technology, that have improved news, sport and drama: then why is it, that only one commercial network these days is investing in kids TV, that is educational, entertaining, and is not a gameshow?
I personally, started asking myself these questions, back in January 2010: when the Nine Network, gave the boot, to The Shak, and then after the final episode in April, the network decided to replace reruns, with new episodes of a gameshow Nine originally commissioned, for the period, where The Shak would be off-air in mid 2009, due to a casting change. But the big difference, with season 2 of Pyramid was the location: Instead of giving away trips to Gold Coast theme parks, they were giving away prizes for various Sydney attractions... for, the program had been shifted: from Nine's relatively safe Brisbane owned and operated studios, to renting studios in Sydney. 

Around the same time as the Shak axe, the ABC launched their new childrens channel ABC3. A project many years in the making, and after many promises since the original attempt of a digital childrens channel (ABC Kids/Fly TV) was axed in 2003 due to cost cuts, it was delivered in December 2009, as a fully funded federal government venture. Suddenly, kids were watching Prank Patrol Australia and it's overseas versions that inspired it, along with other content that the ABC acquired, to furnish the channel. Kids loved ABC3 (along with the reworked ABC2 daytime, as a preschool block), as it was a breath of fresh air, and made people realize what needed to be done. But the two leading commercial networks never looked at ABC3 as a threat, while the Ten Network beefed up their investment, which started, with moving all their C-rated content to the 6-9am time period (the P-rated content had been in the 6-9am period for as long as people remembered), freeing up the 4pm timeslot for counter-programming the two networks who cared more for news in the morning, than countering Ten at 4pm.

So, we fast forward to today. ABC3 is successful with kids (and to a lesser extent Ten's C/P block), because the two leaders in commercial television aren't showing stuff at 4pm, that is compelling enough for young viewers to hang on and make appointment viewing, like The Shak, and Wombat were. Kids may like seeing themselves, but, it's the Prank Patrol element, that is missing from commercial TV, and is seeing the networks, cheap and safe options, of running gameshows targeted at children becoming slowly obsolete, while they are run at excess. Technology has played it's part too, with more and more, being given mobile phones, mp3 players and handheld consoles, just to name a few, to play with, along with the prized childrens drama series, which can be the savior for 4pm (and are quite often sold overseas), being shunted to timeslots, where kids would likely be playing sport: case in note, the TV adaptation of the best selling Lochie Leonard book series by Tim Winton, had it's first season, in 2007, air at 4pm weekdays, timesharing with The Shak. By the time series 2 aired, in 2010, it was airing at 12pm on a Saturday afternoon. 

This schedule rework, has also been caused, by the decision in May 2009, by Nine to shift their entire Saturday kids output two hours down the schedule, to launch a Saturday edition of Today (then nearly a year later, again pushing the start of KidsWB, this time from 9 to 10am, in February 2010, when a Saturday highlights package of Kerri-Anne Kennerley's weekday morning program was launched, and more recently, the expansion of Weekend Today to a three hour program, which saw KidsWB move to a 11am start), and the slow "copycat" decision by Seven to launch a Saturday edition of Sunrise, in early 2010, which pushed Saturday Disney to a 9am start: hence pushing stuff that once aired 9/10am straight out of these Saturday morning cartoon blocks towards 11am/12pm (In Nine's case, it's going towards 1pm), when the target audience is unlikely to be there at home watching, and most critically, pushing towards the concept, of having childrens weekend programs preempted for sport much more regularly. It's decisions like this that is sending young audiences towards ABC3, Network 10, and most critically, to pay television. Nickelodeon, is the biggest example, and is the biggest threat, to FTA in the childrens marketplace in commercial revenue terms. The premiere airing of the US KCA's this year, for example was the #2 non-sport program of the week it aired: but far behind ABC2 and ABC3's ad-free FTA programs, that are pulling good numbers, and are accessible to many more people. It's this situation that has likely led to both 7/9, to cut costs, and centralize production: even outsourcing the whole job, for something that was once handled very well, by in-house teams, working with production companies, who produced much of this content on-site with cameramen etc, such as what existed at Ch 7 and 9 in Brisbane for example, when they were childrens production hubs, which not only had the people who knew the business of kids TV, and knew what they wanted, it also came with the space for production companies to deliver their wildest dreams.

The main thing that the government can do, is to completely rewrite the childrens TV standards in this country. There is a good reason for this: The environment of television in Australia is having the biggest tectonic change (thanks to high digital TV takeup rates), since the introduction of colour broadcasts in 1975. When the latest version of the Childrens TV Standards were released by ACMA in mid 2009, there were only two commercial multichannels, and ABC3 was still in planning. Now, there are six commercial multichannels, and a fully realized ABC3, alongside a major preschool block on ABC2. Quite simply, rewrite the standards for a new generation, who have more choice, and more options than their parents ever did. And there is also one other factor, the growth of subscription television. Simply, that means bringing everyone under one standard: where they will be looked at, by quality, and amount of Australian content. What I'm suggesting is for the main standards to be streamlined. into just 5 categories:

(1) Analogue legacy channels (i.e. main channels, eg. 7,9,10 and ABC1) Existing standards will apply, with some changes, to mainly deal with events (e.g. major news/sports events) which may see P/C programs not airing on the main channel, and to see that they air, on multichannels mirroring the slot on the main channel.
(2) Digital multichannels: New standards would apply, where there would be a maximum on repeat main channel programs, along with first run Australian content filling 30min on weekdays (placed from 6am-7:30pm). P ratings would not apply to multichannels, unless moved off the main channel, due to a major event, that would preclude a main channel from airing their C/P commitments. A network (i.e 7/9/10) can choose to have one multichannel to take up their digital C rating obligations, if they have a genre specific multichannel.
(3) C-channel (dedicated childrens networks (e.g Nickelodeon, ABC3) New standards would apply, with a 20% Australian content minimum, made up of first run C programming.
(4) P-channel (dedicated preschool networks (e.g Nick Jr) and blocks (e.g ABC2 daytime)) Separate standards would apply from P rated shows, but the ad-free restriction would apply to P-channels (except for station ID's), and would have a 10% Australian content minimum, as opposed to the P ratings for legacy channels which will retain their existing 100% Australian quota.
(5) Community broadcasters: 20hrs a year minimum of C-rated content produced in the city of license. No other conditions apply.

The other part will need to be, the major expansion of the ACMA's powers towards childrens content (not just via TV, but via the web), along with the development of a independent regulator who manages the C/P rating (including moving towards the introduction of the C/P rating for the release of childrens programming via DVDs, and other media, such as iTunes, currently all childrens TV content that gets a home release, has to be rated, G/PG), and is responsible for enforcement of the minimum requirements for the various categories, along with with enforcement of standards, of which, punishments for breaches needs to be beefed up, to the point where networks get fined, not told to make amends for major breaches of the reworked standards. It also needs to be up to the commercial broadcasters, to make programming for children that is of high quality, that is accessible to all, and most importantly, something that can be a great legacy. This can be simply done, by ending the funding divide, between regular C programs, and C drama. By allowing commercial non-drama products to apply for funding, it can ensure quality, and possibly, allow for major C-drama producers, to branch out, and create the new products, that would be possible with a single standard for all childrens production, meaning a good program (e.g. magazine program, with a shot at overseas sales) would be able to access government funding. It would also help the subscription industry learn to adjust to the implementation of a Australian content standard, as they would be on a even playing field (meaning that subscription childrens channels would be directly answerable to ACMA) with FTA.

So, the message is simple. Our industry is at a crossroads with digital switchover coming up in 2013. I don't want to see the childrens content take the leap over the edge, and get consigned to a bleak future. It needs to be relevant, and it needs to be in a slot where they can watch, not being pushed toward a future of preemption. Is it any wonder, why Network 10 made sure, that they use their C-drama output wisely, and they made sure, Totally Wild, is still on air, after nearly twenty years (and only two timeslot changes in that time, first from 4pm, to 7:30am in 2009, when Ten moved their C content out of 4pm, and the second, being from 7:30am to 8am in 2010), becoming the measuring stick, and is well ahead of any commercial children's product on the box. It evolved with the times, and Ten stuck with it. The program's longevity is only beaten by one other Australian program: Play School, on the ABC (which has 45 years of history behind it, and is a TV Week Logies HOF recipient). It's the longevity of Totally Wild that other commercial TV products need to aim for and it needs to be what the younger viewer wants.

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