The first big battleground for Australian TV in 2007-08 was launched yesterday with the Australian Communications and Media Authority  releasing its terms of reference and associated papers for the long-awaited review of the standards covering children’s TV broadcasting.

The predictable part of the inquiry, which ACMA hopes to complete in about nine months’ time, is the contentious question of whether advertising, especially food and “special-offers” advertising should be banned during children’s viewing times.

But the likelihood of any sort of ban, let alone a total ban on advertising, has already been undermined by ACMA with this statement in one of the papers released yesterday: “Further limitations on advertising could further limit the profitability of children’s programming. In making regulatory decisions, ACMA has a responsibility to address public interest considerations in a way that does not impose undue financial burdens on providers of broadcasting services.”

Game over, as they say. The commercial networks, with the ABC and SBS giving them tacit support, will use this qualification to defeat any attempt to limit advertising. Certain types of food advertising might be sacrificed, but the networks will strongly oppose a blanket ban.

There was an interesting analysis of children’s TV viewing patterns released along with the terms of reference, which calls into question much of the accepted truths about the drawbacks of TV. It looked at TV viewing in 2001, 2005 and 2006 and is based on the accepted Oztam ratings information.

The findings will come as a surprise to the lobbyists and others in the community who fear their children are watching too much TV. They show that children are now watching less TV than adults and less than in 2001.

Here’s some of the findings:

The size of the 0–14 audience for the top 20 children’s programs in 2006 ranged from 324,000 to 246,000. All of these programs were by the ABC Network, demonstrating the significant role the ABC plays as a broadcaster of children’s programs. The top rating C programs with the 0–14 age group in 2005 were the telemovies Blinky Bill’s White Christmas and Hildegarde, A Duck Down Under which attracted audiences of 185,000 and 150,000 respectively.

Programs specifically made for children dominated the viewing habits of the 0–4 age group. Forty-seven of the top 50 programs watched by the 0–4 age group in 2005 were categorised as children’s programs. All of these programs were broadcast by the ABC.

So all of the top 20 programs for children from 0-14 years of age were shown on the ABC, which doesn’t show ads. In fact, over half the viewing of TV by children is of the ABC, so that doesn’t support the contention that a ban on all advertising (or just food advertising) would somehow have an impact on obesity and other health issues being experienced by children and young adults.

These papers should go some way to balancing the argument on this contentious issue.