Why kids need their own ABC TV channel


TV; In the lead-up to the Budget, the Federal Government has announced a new ABC television channel dedicated to commercial-free children's programming.

ABC3 will include ABC Kids programs already being screened, and also new material. It aims to broadcast 50 per cent Australian content — good news for local TV production houses.

The UK, USA, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden have dedicated, publicly funded children's TV channels. We will hear more in the budget, but if estimates of $20 million for the new channel are accurate, ours will cost us about $5 per child per year. Usual 'tough economic times' concerns notwithstanding, that's not a lot!

But why do we need it? Aren't kids all glued to YouTube and Facebook? Is anyone under the age of 15 still watching TV?

Quality television for children is widely regarded as a good idea. Educational programs help kids learn. Studies suggest Sesame Street viewers perform better academically, even years after they have stopped watching.

And children learn much more than just spelling and maths from watching and discussing TV. Dramas and cartoons help them learn about the world and their place in it.

But not all children's TV is designed with their best interests at heart. Research from the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television suggests girls are under-represented. Most cartoons are designed for boys on the (shaky) assumption that girls watch boys' TV, but boys don't watch girls' TV.

When they appear, female characters, especially in cartoons, are often grossly thin or highly sexualised. While children are, to some extent, able to interpret critically the shows they watch, some female characters are commonly believed to inspire youth fashion and inform notions of beauty.

In addition, many children's TV shows make their money out of toys, DVDs, accessories and games. If there's a Dora the Explorer trinket my four-year-old niece doesn't want, I have yet to find it. Although commercialisation isn't bad in itself, it limits certain types of children's TV, especially quality drama and factual programming.

Australia's commercial networks screen children's TV because they are made to, not because they want to. Federal Children's Television Standards require commercial stations to show 130 hours a year (about 30 minutes per weekday) of programming for pre-schoolers ('P' programs) and 260 hours of programming for primary school-aged children ('C' programs). This is under review but not expected to change significantly.

The Australian Children's Television Foundation has long argued that C programming fails to reach its intended audience. Poor scheduling and scant promotion are blamed for this. One reason the networks are unenthusiastic about children's TV is that the restrictions on advertising placed on P and C programs make them unprofitable.

Who can blame commercial networks for being commercial? But the result is that children, especially those aged 5–12, watch TV that is not made for them. They currently have no choice. No children's TV screens from 6–9pm, the time most children are watching. ABC3, we assume, will address this.

But are kids still watching? The evidence suggests Australian children still watch on average from 2–3 hours each day. This is about the same as in 1995. But some things have changed. Subscription television is now widely available, and makes up a significant amount of children's TV viewing. The audience is fragmenting.

Children now also consume, and increasingly participate in, 'new' media, principally through the internet and mobile phones. These are here to stay, and are intertwined with traditional media. YouTube has not completely replaced the 'boob tube'. Many children's programs have websites, Facebook groups, and mobile downloadable content. Look out for iPlaySchool, the iPhone application that tells stories through the 'square window'.

So ABC3 will not address all our concerns about, or take advantage of every opportunity promised by, the broader children's media environment. It would have been better to have introduced a dedicated children's TV channel 20 years ago, had it been possible.

But if ABC3 delivers programs that are of high quality, are appropriate to the ages of their viewers, and reflect the diversity of Australian children's lives, we should applaud and welcome it. Our kids need and deserve it.

Damien SpryDamien Spry is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on comparative policy responses to changing children's media environments, and is supported by the Australian Research Council and the NSW Commission for Children and Young People.

Topic tags: children's television, ABC3, kids TV channel, dora the explorer, bananas in pyjamas, sesame street



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Existing comments

I have a different perspective - but one that involves personal choice rather than public policy. My children have been brought up without a television in the house, and it's made for far more creative, interactive, and well-balanced individuals. With all too rare exceptions, television is a great waste of time, and induces a passive trance rather than an active engagement in the world. We would not have had a lot of the fun we enjoyed as a family if we'd had a television to be our default entertainment. Reading aloud to each other, playing music, playing board games, drawing - it all seems a bit much if you have to watch the latest episode of your favourite show.

Our position is a minority one, but I question the real educational value of a medium which is about entertainment, not learning. Children watching an average of 2 to 3 hours a day is a national tragedy - what a drain of our creative potential!
Brian Walters | 08 May 2009

ABC 3 is a great idea, and something that is desperately needed, particularly with the withdrawing of children's programing and the 'Today/Sunrise' programing.

Sadly, it was supposed to go to air in April 2008 but had the funding pledged by the Howard Government stripped by the new Labor Government. Rudd must be hoping that the 'Our ABC' fans have forgotten this ugly history.
Wesley | 08 May 2009


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