We know the ABC is facing challenging times, given the Abbott government’s decision last year to cut the station’s budget by A$254 million over five years. What we don’t know is how hard those cuts are falling on the locally-produced children’s TV shown on ABC3. The signals, though, are far from encouraging.
Let’s remind ourselves how the channel started. As Australia’s first free-to-air dedicated children’s channel, ABC3 was launched in 2009 after a sustained campaign by the Australian Children’s Television Foundation and the ABC’s then head of television Kim Dalton.
With a target of 50% local content, the new channel looked set to boost production levels of Australian children’s shows, helping to situate Australian children in their own culture in true public-service style.
In the lead-up to the channel’s launch, the ABC began to increase its local children’s production slate, including in that most expensive of genres, live action drama. With quality series such as My Place and Dance Academy – alongside reality, animation and gameshows – the station appeared to be committing itself to the provision of local content for the child audience in a way it hadn’t previously.
The ABC’s charter has historically been considered an adequate safeguard for the child audience. Thus Australian media policy has only ever mandated children’s TV content quotas, including specific amounts of drama, on Australia’s commercial free-to-air broadcasters.
Those quotas have been embodied in one form or another in the Children’s Television Standards since 1979. But prior to ABC3, the ABC was actually investing in fairly low levels of Australian children’s television. Indeed, Dalton, ABC’s director of television between 2006 and 2012, suggested to me in a 2013 interview that:
the public broadcaster, when times got a bit tough as far as its funding went, just de-prioritised children. Children were not part of the priority at the ABC for a number of years. Content just disappeared off our screens by and large.
Going by Oztams’s audience measurements, ABC3 is very popular with Australian children, with an average weekly audience of 562,000 among five- to 12-year-olds in 2015. The ABC’s complementary pre-school offering, ABC For Kids, is similarly attractive to younger children, with an average of 700,000 zero- to four-year-olds watching each week in the same period.
It would appear reasonable, then, for Australian parents to assume that, in digital regimes, the ABC can be relied upon to supply plenty of locally-produced, age-specific television for Australian children.
But such faith may be misplaced because of the vulnerability, in the absence of content quotas, of the broadcaster’s children’s offerings. Following the Abbott government’s unexpected announcement of a 4.6% cut in its funding over five years late in 2014, the ABC quietly reduced its local content target from 50% to 25% on ABC3 – a reduction confirmed to me by the ABC’s Head of Children’s TV Deirdre Brennan when I spoke to her recently.
Further, while ABC3’s recent commissioning of high quality, local live-action drama series such as Nowhere Boys and Ready for This is to be applauded, the broadcaster currently only commissions 13 episodes per series, down from the 26 episodes to which it had previously committed with shows such as Dance Academy.
The production of Australian live action drama for children is further compromised by the free-to-air commercial channels’ reliance on animation rather than live-action drama in the acquittal of their children’s drama quotas. Animation is much cheaper to produce and licence than live action drama, giving it an immediate competitive advantage with networks catering to the child audience.
Thus, although Network Ten continues to commission small amounts of live-action drama, the drama quotas contained in the Children’s Television Standards are now much more likely to be filled with cartoons rather than fondly remembered shows such as as Round the Twist or Lockie Leonard.
A falling off
ABC3’s arrival in the local production ecology masked to some extent a dramatic fall in levels of production of the children’s live action drama for which Australia has a global reputation for excellence.
It is difficult to tell to exactly what extent the ABC is decreasing its investment in children’s TV – or if that is even the case – as none of this is transparent to the public. While the commercial networks have to report directly and publicly to media regulator ACMA, the ABC’s provision of local content for children remains opaque.
Further, without a charter renewal process such as that currently being undertaken by the UK’s BBC, the ABC does not need to make public and measurable commitments to particular genres, such as children’s TV.
ABC3’s head of television Deirdre Brennan was upbeat when she spoke to me recently about the future for high-quality local content on the broadcaster’s children’s services. She suggested Screen Australia’s recent decision to increase its children’s TV funding rounds from two to five a year indicates an important increase in support for live action drama.
Brennan also explained to me that during peak-time (weekdays: 7am-8.30am, 5pm-7.30pm; and weekends: 7am-9.30am and 6pm-8pm), ABC3’s local content levels are actually closer to 35%, with the commissioning of high-quality content remaining a priority.
Nonetheless the ABC will have to do more with less across all its services for the foreseeable future. As one of television’s most expensive genres, children’s live action drama would appear to be particularly vulnerable.