The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?

A Global Perspective On Thinking Locally

What happens in UK kids' media is watched closely by other countries. The CEO of the Australian Children's Television Foundation gives an international perspective on a national problem

Distinctive, quality, locally produced content for children is a bit like motherhood. Everyone thinks it’s a good idea.

But like mothers, it’s also taken for granted.  And no one wants to pay for it. Therefore our work, as advocates for public service children’s screen content, is never done.

The news that the Young Audiences Content Fund in the UK has unexpectedly had 25% of its last year’s budget cut, demonstrates just how infuriatingly true this is.

The need for local content for children is more important now, than ever before. With more and more globalised entertainment options on the table, McCrindle Research in Australia pointed out last year that we are living through a great “screen age” and that:

This newest generation are part of an unintentional global experiment where screens are placed in front of them from the youngest age as pacifiers, entertainers and educational aids. This great screen age in which we are all living has bigger impacts on the generation exposed to such screen saturation during their formative years. From shorter attention spans to the gamification of education, from increased digital literacy to impaired social formation, these times impact us all but transform those in their formative years.
McCrindle Research 2020

Communities everywhere need to address the needs and best interests of the children’s audience. The opportunity is not only to protect children from harmful material, but to ensure that they thrive - by providing them with positive, inspiring, educational and entertaining media, which contribute to their cultural, emotional and social growth.

When children see their own lives reflected on screen – with characters who look and sound like them and live in neighbourhoods like theirs - they experience recognition, affirmation, and gain the opportunity to imagine all the possibilities for someone who looks and sounds like them. Likewise, when they see diversity on screen – and children who may live in their own country but experience life very differently – they gain the opportunity to try on someone else’s shoes and imagine what it might be like to be them. Feeling seen, and really seeing others, are fundamental developmental opportunities that should be afforded to everyone. Providing an array of local stories and programs, reflecting the full diversity of children and their lives, and all their developmental stages, is not just a luxury or a “nice to have if you can get it”. It’s a vital component for building empathy, kindness and social cohesion, along with self-esteem and resilience. That is the power of the narrative.

Children’s content is, however, the most vulnerable of any type of screen content. It is expensive to produce high quality content that children love to watch, and which lasts a long time in the marketplace. It is difficult to finance because broadcasters don’t pay the same amounts for children’s content that they pay for adult content.

In Australia the Commonwealth Government spends well in excess of AUS $500 million supporting the Australian screen sector, over and above the amounts it provides to the public broadcasters. Nearly $400 million is provided via tax rebates (with tax rebates for television set to increase in the next financial year) with $81 million provided to Screen Australia (which will soon receive a 2 year funding increase) to invest in adult drama series, documentaries, feature films, online and children’s content. The ACTF is also receiving an additional $20 million over 2 years from the 1st of July.

These are considerable sums.

And yet in the ACTF’s experience any funds invested in children’s content within that large overall funding envelope are hard fought, sparse and frequently resented by other sectors of the industry. The ACTF campaigned vigorously for the ABC to be given the additional funding it received for children’s content in 2009, only to discover that three years later that funding was being allocated to other areas within the broadcaster. We watched while Screen Australia funding for children’s drama steadily declined in proportion to adult drama since its inception in 2008, when roughly half its drama spend was on children’s drama. We can only imagine that in the UK, someone in the Great British bureaucracy eyed off the Young Audiences Content Fund and helped themselves to a chunk of it for another worthy purpose that they valued more.

All over the world, the arrival of the global streaming giants has seen adult television drama production booming, as it tries to keep up with the appetite of the audiences who are binge watching it. It’s a fabulous thing. But traditional free-to-air broadcasters (both public and commercial) are struggling to keep up with their competition, and in return, Governments are relaxing the regulation and support structures that underpin them, to help local broadcasters stay in the race.

Those support structures that were once the bedrock of local children’s production are falling away. This makes the production of children’s screen content the clearest case of market failure of any sector of the screen industry, and all of us who are involved in children’s content production around the world are looking for answers. What’s the best way forward? How is distinctive, local content – content that in the UK is described as “public service children’s content” – going to be secured for the long term in this disrupted environment?

I don’t think there is a magic bullet.

In Australia at least, children’s content has always been made possible through a suite of interconnected policies. These include the direct funding and tax breaks that are available to support locally produced content, alongside the Australian content regulations applying to commercial broadcasters, and support for public broadcasters.

The sands are all shifting, but the underlying principles remain the same.

Public broadcasters need to have sufficient resources to be able to provide local content, and they must be obligated to make the children’s audience a major priority. Obligations on commercial players need to take account of all the new players and operate in a fashion that is fair to all – for example expenditure obligations for local content could be applied to subscription, video on demand and free-to-air commercial services equally.

Now, more than ever, it is vital that policy makers recognise and acknowledge the special public value and additional vulnerability of locally produced children’s content. Obligations on public broadcasters and commercial platforms should be devised to specifically draw in and value children’s content. Children’s content should be able to attract the same tax breaks and direct investment that content made for adult does. But in addition, there should be special funding available for children’s content, to acknowledge the difficult market position it is in, with commissioners everywhere reluctant to pay and invest in children’s content at the level they do in content for adults.

That’s why the Young Audiences Content Fund in the UK, or indeed the ACTF in Australia, are so vital. Set up entirely to support children’s audiences, those funds cannot be diverted for the benefit of older audiences.

So, we need to argue for multiple things – a joined up suite of policy measures - and ask that every time screen production is considered, children’s screen content is made a priority. Advocacy is always going to be necessary, as is the capacity to re-imagine existing policy measures to suit the times and consider all the ways and places where children engage with content. As this work is never done, perhaps the most important thing is that we enlist a whole new generation of parents, politicians, producers and even viewers, to take up the fight and invest it with new urgency.

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By Jenny Buckland

Jenny is the CEO of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF). She is a lawyer with extensive experience in the production, financing and international distribution of children’s television programs.

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)