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Commercial broadcasters mull paying ABC to take on kids’ TV obligations

Australia’s commercial TV networks may attempt to drop their obligations to deliver a quota of children’s drama content and instead pay the ABC to it, it emerged today.

The possibility came to light during a session at the Screen Forever conference in Melbourne that was dedicated to the future of the children’s television production sector.

Children's panel

Children’s quotas: From left – Enker, Buckland, Guthrie and Mason

At present, the commercial free-to-air players are obliged to meet content standards which include delivering 96 hours of first run children’s drama content over each three-year period. However, the networks struggle to cover the production costs of the programming through advertising revenue, leading them to spend less and less on making the shows.

Meanwhile, the public service broadcaster ABC, which is governed by its charter and so does not have quota obligations, has dramatically increased its children’s output in recent years via its channels ABC Kids and ABC Me and its iView catch-up service.

Jenny Buckland, CEO of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, told the conference: “For quite a while we relied on the commercial sector more perhaps than the ABC to stimulate that industry. But those quotas are looking really, really shaky because the commercial broadcasters are paying for those programs an absolute fraction of what they were paying 25 years ago so, we are seeing far less live action drama on commercial broadcasters and programs that are less distinctive.”

She warned that the only way to pay for some children’s dramas is to get an overseas production partner who can sell it in other markets – although the appetite for international children’s content is declining.

It’s also an issue because of the way children’s programs are funded because broadcasters pay so little, they’re absolutely dependent – more so than adult drama – on foreign investment and on pre-sales. That’s something that’s becoming harder and harder to do as the whole world is going local.”

However, she warned that the commercial broadcasters were a long way behind the ABC in delivering shows as catch-up programming, and had a reputation for treating audiences poorly by only showing half a series or changing schedules.

She said: “The ABC is so ahead of the game. It’s a real shame the commercial broadcasters have lagged in digital and in growing that audience in catch-up services.

“Unfortunately, it has created two tiers of programs where the audiences for these shows tend to be so much stronger with the ABC, than the commercial broadcasters who are a little bit famous for screening half the series then stopping because they’ve reached their quota for that year, or changing their time slot halfway through.”

Fellow panelist, Graeme Mason, CEO of Screen Australia, said that other than meeting quota obligations, children’s programming offers commercial broadcasters an opportunity to invest in connecting with their future audience.

He said: “They can’t monetise the content, so the only reason for them to do it – other than having to because of the quota – would be that it’s helping their brand.

“If that can cement those viewers and their families to the network then you could see the value. It’s up to everyone in the room to work to assist them to do that. There are still some very dedicated people working at the commercial networks who are fighting along with us in this space. It’s up to us to help them stay in this game.”

Last week Nine announced it was extending its childrens’ offering with the launch of GoKids. The network also confirmed the return of its flagship children’s show Hi-5.

Moderator, Debi Enker, asked the panel: “With a media review due next year, there’s a strong feeling that perhaps the quotas… could go. Why do we need the quotas and what would the impact be of them not being there?”

Buckland warned: “If they weren’t there, children’s content on the commercial broadcasters may well disappear. They are the reason they do a lot of content. It might not disappear altogether, but it may not be the high-quality material, it may not be Australian stuff.

“I think it’s crazy because as they do start to look at digital and their audiences they will eventually want to grow their audience right through from cradle to grave. The quotas are really fundamental.”

Buckland also criticised last week’s move by the Government to drop the commercial broadcasters’ licence fees by 25% without demanding any further quality commitments in return.

She said: “It was a real shame when Donald Trump was being elected last week, quietly their licence fees were reduced in the Parliament and we didn’t all know about that. As the government improves their situation, they need to say to them: ‘But hold on, what are you going to do for Australian content and for children’s content?’ There’s quite a groundswell of people in Canberra who are thinking that.”

Asked if the licence fee reduction should have come with conditions, she said: “Yeah, I think that would have been appropriate. It makes it harder for us to come up to an alternative to the quota.”

Mason added: “We need the industry to be lobbying or saying what its point of view is.”

Meanwhile, asked by Mumbrella whether the ABC was ready to pick up the slack if the commercial network quotas were reduced, Guthrie said she was open to the idea, with proper funding.

She said: “The money has to come from somewhere. There is money going into the system from the quotas right now. If there is an alternative funding mechanism we would be delighted to make more kids programming and have more funding for that.

“If that happens we would be delighted to work with the commercials to do that.”

Mason revealed: “At least one of the network heads has suggested that. I don’t know how serious he was. They would put money into a fund.”

However, Mason warned that one drawback for independent program makers of the approach would be that they would have fewer outlets to approach with ideas.

He said: “You’ve got to have a variety of voices.” And Buckland said that if such a deal was done between the commercial networks and the ABC, any fund would have to be quarantined for children’s programming.

She said: “There would have to be KPIs and obligations around that. You would still want incentives for the commercial sector to still do some children’s stuff.”

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