Finding an Australian voice within children’s television production

Anne Potter

In recent decades Australia has built a global reputation for its children’s television content. Anna Potter warns that increasingly the Australian voice in much of that content is being lost due to a variety of global factors.  

The Australian children’s movie Paper Planes has taken more than $8.3m dollars since its January 15 opening.

That success with local audiences is a reassuring sign that parents will still fork out for their children to watch quality Australian screen content, especially when it’s released in school holidays.

Whether or not you’ve seen Paper Planes, if you’re an Australian taxpayer you’re already supporting local children’s screen content, particularly television, through the tax breaks and direct funding schemes provided to the Australian independent screen production sector by the Australian government.

These supports were first introduced in the early 1980s, soon after the policy instrument the Children’s Television Standards (CTS), in response to public concern about the lack of quality, locally produced children’s television available at the time.

Content quotas enshrined in the CTS apply to Australia’s free-to-air commercial networks, generating demand for the kind of children’s television, particularly drama, that’s always at risk of market failure. Astonishingly ABC’s dedicated children’s channel ABC3 does not have any quotas for Australian content, meaning investment in local programs can be jettisoned by the ABC when times get tough, as occurred in the mid-2000s.

Despite its lack of quotas, ABC3 has become an important source of commissions since its 2009 launch, particularly for live action drama.

The idea of supporting a struggling independent screen production sector to create the quality television that helps situate Australian children in their own culture is an appealing one.

Australian taxpayers’ investment has underpinned some of Australia’s most successful children’s television, including Dance Academy, H20: Just Add Water, Round the Twist and Lockie Leonard.

The sale of these programs in global markets (a vital component of production budgets) has allowed Australian children’s television to develop an international reputation for excellence and for punching above its weight in the production of high quality television for children.

The relatively simple business of television was transformed however by the 2001 introduction of digital transmission.

The ensuing audience – and ad revenue – fragmentation encouraged commercial networks to reduce their investment in children’s television.

Under these conditions, animation immediately gains a competitive advantage because generally it’s cheaper to make.

Animation also tends to be less culturally specific than live action drama, making it much easier to revoice and distribute in global media markets.

So despite the best intentions of analogue-era policy makers, a great deal of the recent children’s television produced with taxpayer funds in order to situate Australian children in their own culture neither looks nor sounds Australian.

The local production industry has also changed radically since content quotas and tax breaks were first introduced, with transnational ‘super-indie’ production companies buying up large swathes of the sector since the mid-2000s.

Many Australian production companies are now only nominally independent, with Matchbox Pictures, Screentime, Southern Star and Playmaker all under the auspices of much larger, often US-based corporations.

These companies, which remain under Australian ‘creative control’, nonetheless continue to qualify for the state subsidies on offer to those producing local content, including children’s television.

Between 2009 and 2013 for example, while it was majority owned by a US conglomerate, Matchbox received over $9m in Screen Australia funding.

Australian children deserve to see high quality locally made screen content including television that reflects their country, its voices and its stories back to them, allowing them to ‘dream their own dreams’. This kind of television is general too expensive to make without some form of subsidy; fortunately the democratic will to fund it indirectly through taxation exists.

Unfortunately however, despite the obvious benefits of digital to the child audience, which include children’s channel ABC3 and multi-platform delivery, raising funds to produce quality Australian children’s television has never been more difficult.

Government funding cannot and should not replace networks’ investment in children’s television, and it is unreasonable to expect ABC3 to assume sole responsibility for catering to the Australian child audience.

The trick now is for policy makers, broadcasters, producers and the Australian public to ensure that public investment in local children’s screen content deliver public value by producing television that situates Australian children in their own culture.

Otherwise state support for children’s television becomes nothing more than a measure of industry protectionism, something which never intended as a policy outcome.

Anna Potter is a senior lecturer in screen and media studies at the University of the Sunshine Coast, and author of the new book, Creativity, Culture & Commerce, which examines the current challenges for Australian-produced Children’s TV.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.