Australia TV set for kids' bonanza

ABC kicks off massive upsurge in child-focused programming

SYDNEY -- In the next three weeks the volume of children's programming on Australian television will grow as new free-to-air and pay-TV channels lift the total output to a massive 1,770 hours per week.

A decade ago Australian kids were offered just 136 hours of programming per week. But some in the industry argue that not enough is locally made.
 
The NBC-Crusoe joint venture, Kids Co. launched Sunday on Foxtel and Austar's pay-TV platforms to over 2.3 million Australian homes, and the BBC's CBeebies expanded its distribution by 750,000 with Austar. In addition, the Movie Network's service launched the Family Movie Channel, screening G- and PG-classified films 24 hours per day.
 
On December 4, the Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd throws the switch on ABC3, public sector Australian Broadcasting Corporation's new digital terrestrial channel focusing on 8 – 15 year olds, to which he's committed AUS$83 million ($77.5 million) over three years. That also frees up time on the ABC's second digital channel for more pre-school programming, which will air from 9am – 6pm daily.

They join established services including Nickelodeon Australia, Nick Jr, the Disney Channel, Playhouse Disney, Cartoon Network and Boomerang, as well as the 32 hours per year of first-run children's drama that the free to air commercial channels must provide under a quota system.
 
The changes in the kids' TV landscape are set to be the focus of a number of specially-convened sessions and for the first time, a kids-specific TV market, at this week's Screen Producers Association of Australia conference which kicks off Wednesday.
 
The new Kids Market is designed to allow producers of children's content to meet with local and international children's television executives from broadcasters, licensing, merchandising, distribution, DVD and consumer products companies. Guests confirmed for the kids market include : Nick Wilson, Five UK; Kay Benbow, CBeebies UK; Bob Higgins, Wildbrain USA, and Jules Borkent, Nickelodeon USA. Children's TV veteran, Ken Faier, president of the Vancouver-based Nerds Corps Entertainment, will present a keynote session.
 
The explosion in kids' television comes as Australian producers continue to build audiences and awards worldwide for their programming. But, despite the proliferation of outlets, it is still the commercial broadcasters' quota system which provides the impetus for getting children's drama produced. 


That, however, is about to change with the launch of ABC3. The public broadcaster is scheduling a range of genres including reality series, documentaries, game shows and sitcoms.

The value of kids TV production in Australia was around AUS$103 million ($96.3 million), in the last fiscal year according to Screen Australia's annual national production survey released last week. That was across 15 titles covering 161 hours of television. The hours produced were down on last year's total, but higher than the five-year average, while total budgets, expenditure in Australia and cost per hour were all above the five-year trend.
 
One topic likely to be hotly debated at the conference will be the levels of production to be undertaken by ABC3 which has publicly said that its schedule will reach 50% local content by 2015.


"I'm shocked and disappointed at how low it is. It suggests to me they will be in the market competing with commercial broadcasters and replicating what the market already provides. They're using government money which could drive up prices and that is not the role of public money," said Kids Co CEO Paul Robinson. "They should be doing things that the commercial channels can't and won't do. As a government-funded broadcaster they have an obligation to do it." 


However ACTF CEO Jenny Buckland, who has been working on the creation of ABC3 with the national broadcaster, said such a suggestion is in "fairyland."

"It's laughable to say they should have 100% local content in their budget, there's not a broadcaster anywhere in the world which does that," Buckland said. "50% local content in several years is achievable within the ABC's budget and will make a big difference to what gets produced here."

For Buckland, local producers and international broadcasters and distributors the conference's kids focus and market is timely.

Until now local producers have been heavily reliant on the 32 hours per year of children's drama quota, but current production levels look like falling as broadcasters have programming they've commissioned to meet the quota already in the can.
 
At the same time the pay-TV networks, which often provide "valuable" top up funding for free-to-air commissioned programs, are maintaining their levels of pre-school productions and interstitial programming, as well as licensing local library product and one off events like the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards.
 
One stand-out from the pay sector has been Camp Orange, Nickelodeon's locally made "Survivor" style reality series. 


Where ABC3 will make a difference, Buckland says, is in opening up more production opportunities across genres and getting other non-drama producers more involved in making TV for kids.

ABC3 has been actively searching for new non-drama formats, and has co-produced reality game show "Escape From Scorpion Island" with the BBC. It will include an action sports program "Rush TV," action series "Prank Patrol," a daily current affairs show BTN ("Behind the News"), as well as international co-productions, "Dance Academy" and "Dead Gorgeous" in its launch schedule.
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