Local children’s television on streaming platforms in ‘very precarious moment’

Australian researchers are calling for policy change requiring Smart TVs and streaming services to provide a one-stop-shop for locally produced children’s content.

Dr Jessica Balanzategui from RMIT University, part of the Australian Children Television Cultures research group, says “Australia is at a crucial moment when it comes to re-thinking how policy can support the survival of local kids’ television.” 

Research led by Balanzategui reveals children today mainly access television via streaming services, but find it difficult to distinguish locally made content. She says, contributing to the issue are the lack of content quotas, the tiny share of home-grown shows on major platforms and the way algorithms privilege non-Australian content.

“Australian TV positions local children within the cultural context that they’re growing up in and provides them with relatable characters and settings. It also facilitates these opportunities to critically reflect on what being Australian means in relation to other cultures,” she says.

Despite the value parents, children and the wider screen industry place on local content for children, there are currently no concrete requirements for TV broadcasters or streaming platforms to invest in Australian children’s TV.

In 2020, then communications minister Paul Fletcher suspended and then removed content quotas requiring commercial broadcasters to air at least 260 hours of children’s programs and 130 hours of pre-school programs. As a result the number of commissioned children’s titles fell from 14 in 2019-20 to seven in 2020-21.

“So we’re in this very precarious moment where we don’t actually have any concrete requirements for any broadcasters or streaming services to screen or invest in Australian content,” Balanzategui says.

In January this year Balanzategui led research involving 44 children, aged seven to nine, observing how they use streaming platforms, and interviewing the children separately and together with their parents. She presents early findings in a submission to a government review of how local content is made available on Connected TV Devices.

Her research shows children today mostly watch television via streaming platforms, accessed via a Smart TV. While children are fluent in accessing streaming content, and have a great deal of agency in their choices, most find it difficult to distinguish or find Australian content.

Deakin University research published in March shows most households (75%) with children under 10 have at least one Smart TV, and half have a TV casting device (like Apple TV or Google Chromecast devices).

Previous RMIT research analysing the share of Australian content on streaming catalogues shows Netflix had the least (with 1.7%) and Stan the most (at 9%) amount of local content, and that these shares remained steady year-to-year.

The European Union sought to address the imbalance by requiring streaming platforms to dedicate 30% of their output to European shows and films.

Adding to the general lack of local content is the way streaming platform algorithms privilege their own original content, and North American shows. This makes Australian children’s programming even harder to find.

The substantial changes in the way children engage with television in the last few years hase not yet been adequately accounted for in policy change, says Balanzategui.

The Australian Government’s new cultural policy says it is important streaming services invest in key genres including children’s content, scripted drama and documentaries. The policy pledges to introduce Australian content requirements on streaming platforms by 2024. 

A separate consultation on a policy framework for ensuring Australian TV can be easily found on smart TV devices recently closed.

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