What are the government policies for children’s content?
The regulatory history of commercial broadcasting in Australia has always had three competing interests:
- a commercial imperative to reward shareholders
- a cultural imperative to reflect the multicultural nature of Australia’s population and promote Australians’ cultural identity
- an industry imperative to foster support for local production.
Under the Australian Content Standard 2016 and the Children’s Television Standards 2009 (the Standards), commercial television broadcasters are obliged to broadcast a minimum number of hours of television specifically targeted at children under the age of 14 (C programs) and pre-school children (P programs) during specific times of day. The C and P programs are different from material produced for a family audience and are created specifically to meet children’s needs and interests at different stages of their development. There are also restrictions on what products and services may be advertised during these times (for example, no alcohol advertising and no advertising during P programs).
There are also quotas for Australian-made content that apply generally to the commercial broadcasters.
There is a general obligation on subscription television broadcasters to spend 10 per cent of their expenditure on drama channels on local Australian content. Most of this content is for adults.
There are no specific obligations on the ABC to broadcast local children’s content. However, the ABC does broadcast some local children’s content on ABC3. There are no specific obligations on SBS or on SVOD services to show or commission Australian content.
Why have the quotas?
At the time the Broadcasting Services Act was passed, the Parliament noted it intended commercial television broadcasters to broadcast Australian content which:
- reflects the multicultural nature of Australia’s population
- promotes Australians’ cultural identity
- facilitates the development of the local production industry.
A strong regulatory environment for commercial broadcasters is seen as important because of the power of the television medium reaching nearly all Australian households for free and as a quid pro quo for access to the spectrum: a public good. There are also other regulatory protections for these businesses such as no competition from new commercial television licensees and prioritised access to valuable sports rights through the Government’s Anti-Siphoning List.
Australians on average watch 21 hours of broadcast TV a week and watch 3.42 hours a week of catch up TV. Some of this content should be age appropriate and provided specifically for children to help their development, learning and entertainment.
What is the problem?
The obligations to broadcast children’s content worked well when there was a single linear channel. However, when commercial broadcasters were provided access to more spectrum and multi-channels in 2013, the broadcasters were allowed to acquit their children’s content quotas across their channels. Without delay, the broadcasters shifted their children’s content to a multi-channel.
As children’s content became isolated on a multi-channel, and with little if any promotion and marketing invested in by the networks, audience and advertising on these programs have declined and commercial broadcasters have begun to question their obligations. However, while the first run numbers may be in decline, children’s content has a lengthy currency with strong second and third run audiences.
Commercial broadcasters currently have restrictions around the way they can advertise on children’s content and point to SVOD services like Netflix and say that they aren’t regulated to provide content, which they say is unfair.
ABC and SBS do not have content quotas and their budgets have been cut by the government and the ABC is reducing its expenditure on Children’s content. This means while the ABC does show a lot of children’s content now, this is no guarantee that it will show children’s content in the future.
What is at risk?
It is likely that the Government will review the Standards this year. We hold fears that this Government will tilt the balance too far in favour of the commercial television broadcasters to the detriment of our children and local production. If the current obligations are removed they cannot be re-introduced because of Australia’s free trade agreement with the United States.
With no Australian children’s content on commercial television, it will rob children of the opportunity to be educated and entertained and see children like themselves on these key broadcast services. It will diminish the diversity of content available for children and devastate the local production industry for children’s content.
How can the problem be fixed?
The problem is a tough one to fix so keeping the quotas for commercial broadcasters is preferable to any removal of the quotas without any careful replacement policy.
Fixing the problem could be as easy as keeping the current quotas and requiring greater promotion and marketing and flexibility of children’s programming across a range of a content platforms including broadcast. Obligations could also be extended to SVOD services, the ABC and SBS to invest in local children’s content.
Other options include a children’s television fund, which could be set up to which all the broadcasters might contribute. There might also be an app for children’s content.
How big is the Australian children’s content industry?
In 2014/15, there were 13 Australian children television productions with budgets totaling $95m. Also in 2014/15, the commercial television broadcasters spent nearly $30m on Australian children’s content.
What can you do?
You can write to your local member asking his or her help to save children’s content.