Beyond Bluey: Does Australian children’s TV have a future?

By Meg Watson

Australian kids TV is having a real moment on the world stage. ABC series like First Day, Hardball and Bluey have all won International Emmys in the last two years – with the latter becoming a global sensation.

But that critical success has masked the fact that the children’s TV sector is currently in a state of flux, with industry figures saying it’s never been more difficult to get content in front of Australian kids.

“The industry has effectively come completely to a halt,” David Gurney, executive producer of animation studio Blue Rocket Productions, tells The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

According to Screen Australia’s latest drama report, just seven local children’s shows went into production (including two animated titles) in the 2020-21 financial year. It’s half the number from the previous year, and well below the five-year average of 12.

Bluey was one of two animated TV shows produced in Australia from 2020-21.

“The fact that an entire country of 25 million people put out two animated shows last year is ridiculous,” Gurney says.

Experts and insiders say that drop in content is due to a “perfect storm” of circumstances.

Production has become more expensive, especially through the pandemic. Australians are increasingly favouring streaming services, which have no requirement to commission local content. And, crucially, in 2020, the former federal government removed longstanding obligations that required commercial broadcasters like Seven, Ten and Nine (which owns this masthead) to air a certain amount of local kids’ content each year.

That last move, Gurney says, “put 3500 people out of work and 45 companies on the ropes” – including his own. Gurney says he’s had to let go 40 members of his staff, and the studio is now only being sustained by its work on the ABC/NITV show Little J and Big Cuz.

“With no content quotas on the commercial broadcasters and no content quotas on the streamers, the entire financing model for Australian productions has been unpicked,” he says.

“The ABC is the only real commissioning doorway [for Australian kids shows] and they’re vastly underfunded.”

Of the seven shows produced in 2020-21, six were financed by the ABC and one was a co-production between Ten and Netflix. Netflix also made one local teen drama series, Surviving Summer; and Stan* produced one feature-length animated film.

Jenny Buckland, the CEO of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) says her organisation has provided more than $8.3 million to fund the production of 14 local projects in the past 12 months, with an additional $1.3 million being spread across 25 works in development.

This funding is part of a $20 million budget to be spent over two years, which was allotted to the ACTF when the federal government officially scrapped the broadcasters’ local content quotas in 2021. An additional $30 million was also given to Screen Australia.

But it’s only guaranteed for the next year, and the shows that have been produced so far have almost exclusively been commissioned by the ABC.

Buckland is hopeful this money will “incentivise the streaming platforms” to commission local TV (one recent success story is teen drama More Than This being produced by Paramount+), but she’s also nostalgic for the “combination of support” the industry once had.

“What we had in Australia was really special,” she says. “[We had] regulation that required the programs to be made and then also funding.

“A lot of the really iconic shows that the ACTF and others did in the 1990s [think: Round the Twist and Ocean Girl] were actually on commercial television.”

Jenny Buckland, CEO of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Dr Jessica Balanzategui, who is currently completing a research fellowship on the history of Australian kids’ TV, says quotas have always been “a contentious area with the commercial broadcasters”.

“It goes back a long way. There was even controversy around Round the Twist. It was initially broadcast by Channel Seven in a really bizarre early morning Sunday time slot. So while it was becoming a huge success internationally thanks to the BBC, Channel Seven didn’t support its local success. It later moved to the ABC where it had a better time slot.

“Before the quotas were scrapped, commercial broadcasters were arguing the children weren’t watching the kids shows that they were airing. And it’s true. They hadn’t been rating too well for some time.

“But also, in some ways, I think they were setting those shows up to fail.”

A report Balanzategui co-authored this year found that Australian parents value local kids’ content – particularly “relatable” and “authentic” shows like Bluey.

And, overwhelmingly, they’re watching everything via on-demand services. ABC iView and ABC Kids were the most popular places participants’ kids watched TV, followed closely by Netflix, YouTube and Disney+.

“It would be great to have more Australian kids content available [outside the ABC] in those places where so many kids are watching,” Balanzategui says. “It’s really important for kids to have their own culture reflected back to them.”

People within the industry are optimistic the new federal government will take action. Communications minister Michelle Rowland has pledged to regulate streaming services for Australian content in some way (which the streamers fiercely oppose). But they’d also like to see specific measures taken around children’s content specifically – and soon.

Hardball, set in a Western Sydney primary school, has been widely celebrated for its relatable and diverse characters. Credit:Hardball/ABC ME

Suggestions include extending the funding arrangements with the ACTF and Screen Australia, bolstering and securing budgets for children’s TV at the ABC (which is not formally guaranteed), and a sub-quota for local kids TV on streaming services or even an obligation to spend a certain amount of money that would apply to both streamers and broadcasters.

Streaming services, in particular, have argued these measures aren’t necessary because investment is already taking place. Netflix has co-produced a number of kids shows (including Maverix and The Inbestigators), and is releasing a reboot of Heartbreak High soon. Channel 10 has recently announced a new kids’ panel show that will air on Nickelodeon and 10 Shake.

But David Gurney is adamant that we’re lacking a critical mass of children’s content to sustain the industry long-term. It’s not enough, he says, to have two or three great shows.

“Even the ordinary shows – the ones that just go OK – are still training people up, they’re getting better at their jobs, and getting more experience. And that sets them up to be able to do something like Bluey or Little J and Big Cuz, which are the absolute benchmark.”

“The community loves [local kids TV],” Buckland adds. “But it’s a bit like motherhood: everybody thinks it’s a great thing. But nobody really knows how much goes on behind the scenes.

“People assume that Australian children’s content will always be there. It’s something we won’t miss until it’s gone.”

*Stan is owned by Nine, which also owns this masthead.

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