One Monday in June, 2004, children looked through the windows on Play School and saw a child going to the fair with her two mums. Conservative politicians and commentators erupted with disgust. The communications minister complained to the ABC, then-prime minister John Howard called the segment “foolish” and conservative lobby groups described the program as “indoctrination”.
Fifteen years later, Australian children’s TV is among the world’s most diverse and most representative. Last year the ABC aired an internationally-award winning program about a transgender child, played by a transgender actor, First Day. This year, co-production Hardball went to air featuring an actor living with cerebral palsy, Mustangs F.C. played out its second season with a diverse cast playing a girls’ soccer team, and Bluey has been lauded for its non-stereotypical representation of dads (among other things).
Internationally, the controversies continue. Long-running animated series Arthur featured a gay marriage this year which raised the ire of conservatives and was actually pulled from Alabama Public Television.
So how exactly did our kids’ shows get so progressive?
Easy as ABC
ABC head of children’s production Libbie Doherty has officially been in charge of kids’ TV at the public broadcaster since July this year, but was acting in the role for a year previously. She told Crikey the increasingly diverse slate at the ABC was part of their job to “reflect the lives of [Australia’s] 4.3 million children”.
“We want to give a broad view of the world, and how they feed into it,” she said. To do that, her team consults with experts across the sector, as well as children and families, about what topics to broach, and how to reflect Australia back to those kids watching.
She said that on Play School, for example, they try to time out four or five programs that will be talking points over the course of a year. This year, they introduced the show’s first Indigenous toy, Kiya. “That was a deliberate decision,” Doherty said. “When we look at the Play School toys, it’s about time we had an Indigenous toy, and it’s nice over time to build that out and build on a beautiful heritage.”
They’ve also had an episode this year about birth and death, which Doherty said was well-received.
In deciding the social issues the ABC’s children’s programming will tackle, Doherty said they focused on the children, rather than reactions from social media or commentary. “But we get very few complaints [about children’s TV] to the ABC complaints department,” she said.
In fact, the children’s TV offices ended up with “happy” complaints about Bluey from viewers who didn’t know how else to let the ABC know they loved the show.
Within the children’s TV industry, the ABC is widely regarded as bolder and more diverse in its children’s content than any of the commercial networks. University of Sunshine Coast researcher and associate professor Anna Potter said the ABC had made a conscious push to be more “courageous” in terms of representation in its children’s television.
“Social issues around gender have had more attention in the past few years than ever previously,” she said. “Really, in 15 years, we’ve come to a point [since the Play School ‘two mums’ episode] where most people are comfortable for a transgender child’s first day to be on children’s television.”
It pays to be kind
“Kids aren’t a priority for commercial [networks],” Potter said.
Commercial networks in Australia have children’s content quotas they have to fill, but have routinely argued against them. Network Ten, which once made a lot of live-action drama, also retired its well-respected head of children’s content Cherrie Bottger earlier this year and she’s yet to be replaced.
Potter said the networks “play it safe” and “don’t want to make waves”. “They tend to make animation co-productions with international producers which don’t reflect the Australian experience. It tends to be made for international distribution so they avoid markers of Australianness.”
But evidence is showing that the ABC actually has the better approach. Potter points to research from the UK that has shown children were increasingly watching YouTube over BBC shows because they were more likely to find content that reflected their own experiences. “Kids are going to YouTube because it’s easier to find kids that look like them,” she said.
Doherty agreed that making diverse children’s TV was also good for business. The Unlisted, an ABC sci-fi drama picked up by Netflix, features an Indian-Australian family and its scripts were given a cultural pass at every draft stage. “International distributers were clamouring to get on board because of the diversity,” she said. “It’s about having a commitment to it and it being important from a business point of view.”
Australian Children’s Television Foundation CEO Jenny Buckland told Crikey there had been an international trend towards more socially aware children’s content in the past five years.
“Our experience has been that maybe 10 years ago it was very hard to get a lot of diversity in content because around the world everyone was playing it safe,” she said. “The expectation was if it was to be successful internationally, it needed to be safer … [but now] it’s almost as though children’s content makers are looking at it and want to make a kinder world.”
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