Don’t assume you can let the kids watch TV by themselves right after or before school — programs requiring parental guidance have become the new baseline programming on Australian television.

A new television code of practice revealed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority this morning dismantles requirements for TV networks to air programming suitable for children to watch without their parents immediately before (6am to 8.30am) and after (4pm to 7pm) school hours on commercial TV networks.

The changes come despite opposition from family groups, canvassed in public submissions to the new code. “It is clear that parents continue to trust free-to-air broadcast television more than they trust the unregulated internet [to provide suitable entertainment for their children]”, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation argued in its submission on the code. In a nod to these concerns, the ACMA has placed limits on what advertising can be placed in programs targeted at children. But gone is the assumption that programming at any time of day will necessarily be suitable for children to watch without parental guidance.

Networks will be able to air PG programming all day, and to air mature programming rated M or MA15+ earlier in the day – with M from 7.30pm, instead of 8.30pm and MA15+ from 8.30pm instead of 9.00pm. This is despite the peak viewing time for families, including children, being from 7.30pm to 8.30pm. While the programming can be more adult-themed than earlier in the day, the ACMA has again placed restrictions on advertising during the 7.30pm to 8.30pm time slot.

The new code marks the first major change in commercial TV regulation since 2009, when the last code was developed. Under Australia’s co-regulation regime, the commercial TV lobby, Free TV Australia, drafted the code earlier this year, and then accepted submissions from the public for a six-week period earlier this year (extended by two weeks to make eight weeks in the end). It then worked with the ACMA to change the code based on these submissions.

Free TV Australia argued that given the growth of dedicated children’s programming channels on the ABC and on pay TV, there was less need for children’s programming during the day on the main commercial TV channels.

“Parents can now use parental locks, information contained in EPGs [electronic program guides] and on-screen i-plates available at the touch of a button, DVDs, on-demand content from providers such as iTunes, Foxtel Go and ABC iView as well as dedicated government funded and subscription children’s channels to ensure their children do not see inappropriate content.”

It’s worth noting that the amount of dedicated children’s programming on the main commercial TV channels has decreased in recent years, with many of the time slots previously reserved for G content instead airing family-friendly reality-TV shows. TV stations have pushed kids’ content onto their multi-channels — both 7Mate and Go! air significant amounts of children’s programming. In this sense, the code takes advantage of the fragmentation of the media to no longer require children — something of a niche demographic — to be extensively catered to by the main commercial TV channels. Kids, like many who are after niche programming, can, after all, go elsewhere.

As well as being simpler, the code also has commercial revenue benefits for the channels, who’ll now be able to respond to advertiser and viewer demands more flexibly, with broadly targeted programming on their main channels, which offer the biggest audiences. But the code doesn’t include a change in the number of hours of ads the stations are allowed to air, so the gains won’t be as big as they could be.

Another change in the code relates to how people can make complaints of breaches to the ACMA when it comes to news and current affairs programming. A condition of “materiality” has been added to what needs to constitute a breach, which basically means news organisations will be able to argue a factual breach wasn’t significant to the report when answering complaints. ACMA hopes the change will reduce its regulatory burden by eliminating frivolous complaints (such as a case that forced the body to rule on whether it was a soccer or rugby ball that had been involved in an accident).

The code takes effect from December 1.

Correction: Crikey has updated this piece to note that while M programs can now be aired from 7.30pm, instead of 8.30pm, MA15+ programs can only be aired from 8.30pm, which is half an hour earlier than previously. 

Peter Fray

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