A radical future for ABC children’s television programs

Jul 8, 2022
Illustration of three children watching television
Image: iStock

Now that the new Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland is considering a review of the whole broadcasting sector, the lid might be lifted on failures in the system for children. Among all the resets needed for the digital age, the ABC should be charged with the mission for children it should have been on for the last 50 years.

Bananas in Pyjamas, Pepper Pig and Bluey have been trotted out to claim and demonstrate what a wonderful job the ABC is doing for our children. Behind the scenes the story is not so rosy. There is more puffery than substance in the Public Relations blurbs. The real history of ABC children’s television programming has run under the radar because children are a lower priority than it is often claimed.

The new Labor Government has announced a change in approach to the education of young children. It has taken years of lobbying, but finally two State governments have agreed that the early childhood years are crucial in child development. Labor policy states ‘that investing in the early years is good for children, families, and the economy. Early education and care programs should meet the learning and development needs of individual children, including children with disability. We believe early intervention programs for children at risk and children with specific educational or developmental needs are particularly important.’

This policy should include the role of media in child development, supporting parents and child-care workers and particularly the role of the public broadcaster. Politicians have never considered the importance of media in education and child development policy. This stems from the way Governments approach their administrative roles, which is in silos. Education is separated from the Arts or Communication, and Social Development programs separate again.

Premiers Dan Andrews and Dominic Perrottet have flagged changes for 2023, announcing a plan to overhaul pre-school education in their states in what they are describing as; ‘the greatest transformation of early childhood in a generation, with pre-school for 3-and 4-year-olds: 30 hours of a free, play-based, four-year-old kindergarten programs will be introduced from 2023, so young children can thrive’. Fifty years ago, I wrote (with colleagues) a book called Under 5 in Australia about the imperative of developing the education of all young children and utilising media to help reach them all. That plea fell on deaf ears.

Fifty years on the ABC should be charged – as a priority – to focus on pre-school programming and work with the education system and parents to harness the opportunities for child development today’s media present. The contribution they could make to all Australian children could be transformative.

When ABC television began in 1956, the Children’s Department looked to the BBC for a model for their pre-school programming. The BBC was happy to license their children’s program Play School and their producers trained our people to produce the Australian version, which was launched in 1966. They believed they held the Holy Grail for children and their beliefs were so well ingrained that when Sesame Street emerged from the U.S. in 1969, Play School producers fought tooth and nail to keep the series out of Australia. They deemed it ‘harmful’ and ‘inappropriate for children’, though Sesame Street was designed specifically to help disadvantaged children, together with the new Head Start program.

Twenty years later the Play School mafia carried on the fight, with fanaticism, against the Australian made Lift Off. They argued in a submission to the ABC Board; they were ‘alarmed’. Lift off ‘would change the ecology of childhood’. Play School was ‘irreplaceable, it was the best television could do for children’. Lift Off should not be funded and allowed on air. (Three years earlier, in 1988, the BBC had cancelled Play School in the UK, judging it then to be dated content for their increasingly, diverse audience.) I found it hard to believe. As producer of Lift Off my argument was simply if we had two worthwhile programs made in Australia with children’s interests at heart, children could only be beneficiaries.

The Lift Off series was multilayered and multi-cultural. It differed from the top-down curriculum of Play School and was for an older audience of 3-8-year-olds, the pre-school group that bridged school entry. The program recognised the amazing capacity of the minds of young children and set out to stretch them by presenting music, philosophy, an understanding of the world they lived in as well as challenging their emotional and interpersonal understandings. The program was endorsed by the top creative people working in Australian early childhood education and by Professor Howard Gardner, the Harvard psychologist whose ground-breaking work on multiple intelligences helped inspire the program.

However, the Play School dogmatists eventually won the argument to get Lift Off taken off air, with fate playing a hand. Channel Nine’s Sunday program aired allegations that the ABC, contrary to its Charter, was accepting back-door advertising through co-productions with outside producers. In response to the allegations, and questions in the Senate, ABC Chairman Mark Armstrong commissioned an inquiry by a leading barrister who found, ‘the contributions of investors influenced the content of such programs.’ That inquiry ended Paddy Conroy’s 35-year television career.

Conroy, a former Head of the Children’s Department, had set out to refresh ABC programming generally. He wanted to shake up in-house production, flush out tired entrenched staff, bring in independent productions, but also generate revenue for the broadcaster which was always under siege.

Claire Henderson, the Producer behind Bananas in Pyjamas, became the ABC Head of Children’s Television and the ACTF (which I ran) was black-balled. Our output deal with the ABC was terminated, and Lift-Off taken off air to be shelved, although the broadcaster held unlimited repeats. Everything required for the program to become a national early learning stimulus and support across Australia was in place. The program was endorsed by all Directors of Curriculum. The Curriculum Corporation had developed supporting educational materials linked to the seven multiple intelligences defined by Gardner. The Prime Minister launched it, State Premiers backed it, the audience loved it as well as the critics. Overseas markets were circling, with the makers of Sesame Street, by then a global success, asking to buy it to put it on the shelf. But the ABC threw the opportunity away and a ground-breaking resource for children was lost.

The show has not been broadcast since. A $17 million resource was buried: a tragic, and extraordinarily short-sighted approach to children’s programming by the ABC. Play School and Bananas in Pyjamas have reigned supreme as iconic programs on ABC television since (until Bluey of course). They are dated, low-budget, in-house productions, fully owned by the ABC, but with merchandising support they have been lucrative properties, which tells another story about the confused approach to children’s programming over the decades by our public broadcaster.

What is wrong with this record? A combination of doctrinaire beliefs, a conservative education system that distrusts the media, the manipulated fears of parents who think that any viewing damages children, and parental nostalgia for the program have all inhibited change. We have ignored or not understood, over the last 60 years, what we have learnt about child development, how children learn and how the media may supplement (not replace) that process. Lift Off is a model of an approach so sorely needed today to help the 5 million pre-schoolers all over Australia develop in the early years that are crucial to their future. All the work done at that time is archived.

The cult of Bluey is a red herring in this debate; Bluey is a 7-minute cartoon. But it does show how popular and far-reaching a program can be, with parents and children, when it genuinely touches the hearts and minds of its audience. The ABC is carried away with the program’s reception. The Managing Director noted in his rave about the success of Bluey ‘the show is so Australian that one of the episodes is called Dunny. Disney+ has chosen to honour this authenticity by keeping the original Australian voices.’

Seriously? I created Round the Twist more than 30 years ago and the first episode was called ‘Skeleton on the Dunny’. I fought Disney vigorously when they wanted to cut the very scenes children loved, such as the stream of pee in the boy’s peeing competition. The program’s four series were an international hit despite the censorious approach of several international children’s broadcasters, including the ABC and Disney.

At the time of production for Series 3 and 4, the Head of Television at the ABC was a former Play School producer who threatened to cancel the contract for Round the Twist, because Bronson the 10 year old lead, had sucked his twin siblings’ brains out in a science experiment, and they were bouncing on a barbecue. The ABC has censored what they term ‘offensive language’ in recent Bluey episodes and the woke community is calling the dog Dad, Bandit, ‘a bad dad’. These points should be irrelevant trivia but for the fact they are indicators that traditional children’s programmers have been unable and almost determined not to respond to the forces of a changed childhood culture.

The ABC signals their virtue. While cleaning up perceived offences, they tout Bluey as a revolutionary achievement for children. A cartoon is seen as the answer to keeping an audience. The ABC is not alone in taking this position. When the BBC registered that its child audience had shrunk as low as 14%, the Head of Children’s, Patricia Hidalgo, called for more cartoons to replace other genres including drama but ‘rooted in British culture’. ‘I’m saying what about roast beef instead of turkey?’ ‘Imagine if we could have a British version of The Simpsons, for children and families in the UK. That would be amazing right?’ The lack of ambition for children is quite shocking.

Our national broadcaster could help transform learning and development opportunities for all Australian children, reaching those whose families are disadvantaged and not in early learning institutions anywhere, and furthering the development of those who are; nothing else can match the potential and reach of the national broadcaster.

The ABC Channel for older children should go; close it down as the BBC is doing. These older children have already deserted broadcast television and have the media skills to satisfy their interests elsewhere. Resources and time should not be wasted on trying to win them back. The exception I would point to is Behind the News (BTN) which works brilliantly as an important educational resource.

A review of the broadcasting system would examine the needs of children today. We need a whole of government approach so the underutilised resource of a national broadcaster could be integrated into educational, entertaining projects so all children could access systematic, creative engaging content to encourage their development.

This mission should be the focus for our public broadcaster serving pre-schoolers, and those in school transition, using every available platform. With the backing of communities and support from parents all children can be accessed, including those in most need. Media use is an intrinsic part of child development.

The third article in this series, read Happy Birthday ABC and In our identity culture wars is the ABC promoting cohesion or pulling us further apart?

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