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Part 5: Children's content

Some of the biggest challenges of the review acutely apply to children’s content including out-of-date regulation, market failure and commerce vs culture.

THE EXISTING SITUATION

The rules that apply to children’s programming on the commercial free-to-air (FTA) channels are not straightforward. Those applying to subscription television are much simpler. None apply to subscription video on demand services, public broadcasters or any other distributors of television-like content.

The Broadcasting Services Act 1992 gives the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) the power to determine the rules on the commercial FTAs and ACMA has done so through both the Children’s Television Standards (CTS) 2009 and the Broadcasting Services (Australian Content) Standard 2016.

Commercial FTAs are subject to:

  • C and P Program obligations: At least 130 hours of P-classified (preschool) programs must be shown each year and at least 260 hours of C-classified (for children younger than 14 years of age who are not preschoolers) programs.
  • Australian and Drama Sub-Quotas: All the P programs must be Australian. At least 25 hours of the C programs must be first-release Australian drama and eight hours must be Australian drama that is not first release. Overall, 50% of the 260 hours of C programs must be first-release Australian programming.
  • Time zone requirements and minimums: The P programs must be broadcast between 7am and 4.30pm Monday to Friday. The C programs have to be broadcast: between 7am and 8.30am or between 4pm and 9.30pm Monday to Friday; or between 7am and 8.30pm on weekends and public holidays. At least 30 minutes of P material and 30 minutes of C material must be shown every weekday within the time zones listed above.
  • Advertising and other matters: No advertising can be shown during P programs and there are limits on how much can be shown during C programs. Alcohol can’t be advertised during either category and children must not be encouraged to act dangerously.

C and P programs must be made specifically for children, be entertaining and well produced, enhance a child’s understanding and experience, and be appropriate for Australian children. As implied above, C programs can be from abroad.

The objective of the CTS is “to ensure that children have access to a variety of quality television programs made specifically for them, including Australian drama and non-drama programs, and to provide for the protection of children from possible harmful effects of television.”

Legislative amendments were passed in 2013 allowing commercial FTAs to meet their obligations across their whole suite of channels. Soon after most CTS programs moved across from the primary channel to such multi-channels as 7TWO, GO! and Eleven.

According to information in the ACMA submission (64), two commercial FTAs exceeded the Australian first release C drama quota by 1.5 hours and the other by seven hours in 2015. Two of them exceeded the first-release Australian C program quota by half an hour and the other was spot on.

Australian subscription television is subject to:

  • An expenditure requirement. As explained in Part 2 subscription television licensees that offer drama channels have to spend at least 10 per cent of the total amount spent on programming for those channels, on new Australian drama. In Australia that catches such services as Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. That said, the licensee – say Foxtel – can choose to funnel all the money it has to spend on Australian drama into content for adults.

THE SAME ISSUES APPLY BUT MORE ACUTELY

One of the three core objectives of the Australian and Children’s Screen Content Review is to put in place policy settings that ensure quality Australian content is developed for Australian children to “help them understand the world around them and Australian values and culture.” The consultation paper makes it clear in other ways too that the needs of children are regarded as important.

Some of the biggest challenges demanding consideration in the overall review, apply more acutely in the children’s space. The regulation now in place no longer suits the way content is consumed, for example, and the content that most needs protection is that which is most important culturally and subject to market failure. Also, while it is necessary to enable Australia’s creative sector and talent to thrive – another of the review’s core objectives – this doesn’t always sit comfortably with cultural aims. (For the record, the third review objective is to “encourage the creation, delivery and export of diverse and high quality Australian content” that “promotes Australian identity and culture,” that is, in addition to content for children.)

Inconsistency is a hallmark of Australia’s local content regime: the commercial FTA broadcasters are rigorously policed while other platforms aren’t at all. Many submissions to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts Inquiry say this must be addressed – though few suggest how.

Whether they advocate for retaining quotas on the commercial FTAs as well – or whether they advocate ditching them – depends on which side of the fence the submissions have come from. As already mentioned, self-interest far exceeds considerations of public good in this exercise.

FREETV WANTS QUOTAS ABOLISHED

FreeTV Australia (submission 135), the representative body of the commercial FTAs, says all the C and P obligations that apply to them should be abolished because young audiences for their high quality shows are “very low and declining” and this indicates that the quotas no longer fulfil their purpose.

According to Children’s television viewing, a research overview by ACMA dated March 2015 and covering  the 13 years up to 2013, there has been a clear decline in the average time spent watching commercial FTA networks but not the ABC or subscription television. The dedicated ABC channels were particularly attracting a high proportion of younger children.

It was also noted that 70% of parents of children aged 10-14 considered it important for commercial television broadcasters to show children’s programming.

Abolishing quotas would also be consistent with the Government’s Deregulation Roadmap, Free TV says. It also notes that: “Monetising this content has always been extremely difficult for broadcasters due to the very stringent restrictions that apply to advertising during C and P programming. The sharp decline in audiences exacerbates this difficulty.”

The Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) submission (91) has a different spin on things: “Commercial free-to-air broadcasters reluctantly scheduled children’s content, and barely promoted it when they did. So their old arguments that children weren’t interested in children’s programming were always unconvincing given the way they treated the content. Indeed, the popularity of children’s content on children’s destinations on the ABC and subscription services demonstrated that argument to be false. But the decline in free-to-air audiences caused by a drift away from appointment based free-to-air television broadcast is now providing them with more fuel for their argument that they should not be required to invest in the genre. The current regulatory framework was simply not designed for this kind of media environment.”

The ACTF also says that FTA broadcasting remains the most accessible distribution platform for content and that those broadcasters “are all developing free online children’s destinations (which they appear to be filling with the low or no cost international animation that comes to them via output and distribution deals with international players).”

Screen Producers Australia (SPA) (86) notes that the rot set in in 2013 when the commercial FTAs were given access to more spectrum and shifted their children’s content to the multi-channels. It floats the idea of requiring greater promotion and marketing.

“Keeping the quotas for commercial broadcasters is preferable to any removal of the quotas without any careful and considered alternative reform.”

DR PATRICIA EDGAR WANTS A COMPLETE RE-THINK

Dr Patricia Edgar supports the commercial FTA’s push to ditch children’s quotas. Being that she was founding director of the ACTF and someone who was very involved in developing children’s programming and the web of regulation guaranteeing that it got to air, this may come as a surprise. But her stance is part of a proposed and complete overhaul of the system which would be, as she says, “in the interests of children, their development and education, and for a digital production industry which should comprise innovative thinkers who would design the content for a new destination for children.”

“A solution will not be found by tinkering with quotas,” her submission reads. (Unlike all the many submissions mentioned in this discussion, this one has been sent not to the inquiry but to the current review. None of the submissions to the review have been made available by the government but this one is here. A reminder: the review is accepting submissions until 21 September 2017.)

The submission comprehensively spells out the history of children’s content regulation and says the commercial FTAs have “resisted the regulation of children’s television with every tactic in their arsenal … and thwarted the objectives.”

It is not letting them off though: Edgar wants each broadcaster to pay $10m per year towards a fund that will go towards projects for a new independent multiplatform on-demand online service for children aged nine to 16. The service could be used in the school system, the Government would fund its establishment, and a committee would be appointed to shape, cost and manage the proposal.

Edgar believes ABC2 is the appropriate host for children aged two to nine years because mobile devices, social networking and interactivity have taken a firm hold by the age of nine.

She says children didn’t get what they deserved with the launch of ABC2 and ABC3 (now ABC ME) and ABC ME should be shut down and the funds redirected to the new ABC2. Of ABC ME she says: “Such a service cannot rest its claims for ongoing support on the transmission of a very few programs of quality, amid high volume repeats, watched by a shrinking audience.”

The submission says that just as Australia needs to subsidise schools, it needs to subsidise programs that will support the development and enlightenment of young children. At every turn it says that the focus of action must be on quality and purpose not volume.

Little J & Big Cuz

THE ABC GETS APPLAUSE AND SLAP DOWNS

The submissions contain a significant amount of comment on how the ABC treats children’s television, with many requesting that the public broadcaster be made to screen minimum levels of new, original Australian content for children – and is given adequate and ongoing funding in order to do so. Some say SBS should be funded and regulated to provide children’s content too.

Since the launch of ABC ME, the ACTF says, the ABC has transformed the children’s television landscape, providing a consistent and reliable source of high quality content for children via its dedicated channels. Numbers are provided from Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) research to prove the point.

Yet the ACTF suggests that funding has been cut by a third since the end of the three-year tied funding agreement that lead to the establishment of ABC ME – and that this is disproportionate to the public broadcaster’s overall funding cuts.

(Various submissions have clearly been influenced by former director of ABC TV, Kim Dalton, who recently wrote a “platform paper” for Currency Press titled Missing in Action: The ABC and Australia’s Screen Culture. It was generally critical of how the ABC runs its own race with little regard for public policy.)

In a supplementary submission (131.1) the ABC told the Inquiry that Australian content amounted to 34.8% of ABC ME in 2015/16 – in linear program hours transmitted – and 28.9% of ABC KIDS. This represented 190.6 hours and 125.6 hours respectively. That resources have been split across two channels explains the discrepancy between now and the 50% Australian content target first applied to what was then ABC3.

The submission also notes that the ABC is aiming for 1,200 hours of first run Australian television across all platforms in 2018 – including news and current affairs and Rage – and a target for first run children’s hours of 294 hours. In June 2017, 0.8 million of its 3.4 million iview visitors were going to ABC KIDS.

The ABC’s initial submission (131) says that it has committed $84m towards 659 hours of children’s content, including children’s drama, valued at more than $263m.

THE DOMINANCE OF ANIMATION IS MUCH DISCUSSED

As already illustrated, market failure is a key reason why local content regulation is necessary in the case of children’s programming. The blossoming of animation in the children’s landscape also demonstrates the power of the market – and the tension that can exist between commerce and culture.

Animated children’s drama far exceeds live action drama on the commercial FTAs – 84 hours compared to eight hours in 2016 according to the consultation paper – and a number of submissions have called for this imbalance to be addressed via amendment to the children’s quota. This is providing the quotas aren’t abolished of course.

Due to its nature, animation is eligible for the 30% Post, Digital and Visual Effects (PDV) Offset, unlike other adult and children’s television drama, which can only access the 20% Producer Offset (see part 1).

The ACTF notes that the commercial FTAs used to meet their drama sub-quota with both live action and animated content until the introduction of the offsets, which allowed producers to make animation using these financing mechanisms and international investment, in part because it’s cheaper to produce and can be re-voiced for global markets with more ease.

In contrast, live action drama needs Screen Australia in the mix as well and there are no guarantees that agency investment will be forthcoming. Also, with Screen Australia standing guard, a local presale of at least $100,000 per broadcast half hour has to be paid by the distribution platform.

In a nutshell, commissioning executives can squeeze producers down on animation but not on live action and the dominance of animation is due to it being favoured under the offsets and by market forces.

In some quarters the concerns about animation are also driven by the underlying assumptions that it has less cultural weight and culture is particularly important when it comes to children.

Says Dr Anna Potter (97) from the University of the Sunshine Coast: “These animated series may be Australian-produced (with international partners), but are made for an international market and frequently will not look or sound Australian, or be based on Australian stories … Most animated series produced to fill the CTS quota carry no recognisable Australian content. They are Australian in their production context only.”

They do nothing to situate contemporary Australian children “in their own landscape, society and cultural context,” she adds. (And by the way, she also asks how well ACMA polices C drama given that it has rejected only three of the 116 applications received between 2008 and 2016.)

BUILDING BUSINESSES IS THE FOCUS FOR SOME

Other submissions don’t focus much on culture but point out that there is a very real opportunity to build a significant animation industry if the settings are right. Bear in mind that the submissions being discussed here were a response to the inquiry not the review, and the inquiry’s focus is more on the growth and sustainability of the industry.

Studio Moshi (100), for example, argues that with a globally competitive PDV Offset, the animation industry could “easily support 1500+ jobs” – and makes the point that the children’s animation industry can be a large scale regional employer. The company’s suggestions include: broadening the PDV Offset to cover all expenditure including overheads, rather than just certain expenditure; providing cash flow for the PDV Offset; increasing it to 45% in some circumstances; and allowing 100% claims on expenditure on Australian cast voices.

It also sees value in setting up a new government agency focused specifically on attracting foreign investment to commercial digital and animation businesses, on providing financial support for large scale projects and on advocating for the sector. The submission suggests that the industry could flourish both as a fee-for-service provider and as a creator of original Australian IP.

Cheeky Little Media (9) draws attention not just to the social and cultural capital that children’s content generates but also to its commercial value as an employer, innovator and international exporter. The two original series the company has created since its establishment in 2013 were each budgeted at about $10 million, the submission reads. While 31-38% of the finance came from Australia, 50% of the production expenditure occurred within Australia, generating 60 jobs and building skills. Some of the physical animation occurred overseas because of costs.

The business is focussed on generating revenue from worldwide distribution. The submission, like others, suggests that the commercial FTAs would cut all spending on children’s programming if quotas were removed.

The most comprehensive set of recommendations – 16 in all – comes from SLR Productions (137). These include: maintaining quotas on the commercial FTAs; increasing the quotas on subscription television platforms; and applying children’s quotas to all new and emerging platforms and to the ABC. SLR is also an advocate for: increasing the PO to 40% and lowering the PO threshold for children’s content; and conducting reviews of various matters including foreign-owned companies accessing government funding of any kind and shrinking license fees from Australian networks.

The submission from Ambience (71) suggests a collaborative approach, saying that producers need to work with the FTAs to help them find ways of monetising their platforms more effectively. In the past five years the company has produced more than 3,500 episodes of children’s content and each year it employs 90 to 300 PAYG Australians and utilises the services of 150 companies.

“We need to put an end to the ever lingering threat of a cut to the Australian content quota,” the submission reads. “Every time it is raised it creates turmoil and instability across the industry. From a cultural perspective – honestly at a time like this do we really want our kids to be dreaming AMERICAN DREAMS!!! This should be a concern for every parent. The adoption of American culture and values leads to the election of a beast as president.”

There’s an echo of this in a submission from Chloe McDonald (42), who describes herself as a young person working in the animation industry.

With the digital age at the height of its influence I have seen my younger cousins develop American accents from continually watching American made children’s programs, these programs aren’t better than Australian simply there are just more of them being produced, easily accessible and made to the standard even children expect.”

Submissions to the Australian and Children's Screen Content Review close C.O.B. Thursday 21 September 2017