CHILDREN AND THE MEDIA
Children’s sections were included in many newspapers from as early as the 1870s, developing into important vehicles for writing aimed specifically at younger audiences. In South Australia, the regional Farmers’ Weekly Messenger began a children’s section around 1874, while the South Australian Chronicle followed suit with its ‘Little Folks’ column.
The practice of writing for children really took off in the early 20th century. Between the wars, many publications featured dedicated children’s pages, including ‘Our Children’s Page’ in Perth’s Daily News, ‘Children’s Corner’ in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express and Aunt Kath’s ‘Children’s Section’ in Lismore’s Northern Star.
The novelist Ethel Turner began as a contributor to children’s pages, in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and the Bulletin. She also edited ‘The Children’s Corner’ for the Australian Town and Country Journal, one of the first broadsheets to feature a dedicated children’s space. Other important works of youth fiction were serialised in major newspapers: several of Louisa Lawson’s children’s poems from the ‘Dolly Dear’ series first appeared in the Sydney Mail in 1907–09, while Mary Grant Bruce’s A Little Bush Maid (1910) first appeared in Melbourne’s the Leader. In the mid-20th century, Irene Gough, a well-known journalist and writer of children’s fiction, became the editor of the Adelaide Mail’s children’s page.
The publication of periodicals increased exponentially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Children’s Friend, launched in London in 1824, was one of the first. Later international publications, such as the Boy’s Own Magazine (est. 1858) and Girl’s Own Paper (est. 1880), were conceived as wholesome antidotes to the so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’. Australian fiction for children had previously appeared in general magazines, including those published in Britain. One of the first stories for young people related to the Australian goldfields was Frank Layton: An Australian Story by George E. Sargent, serialised in London’s the Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation in 1854.
The first magazine for children published in Australia was the Children’s Hour (1899–1963), originally produced by the South Australian Education Department. Many stand-alone youth-oriented publications of the period did not enjoy such longevity. For example, the Children’s Newspaper: A Monthly Journal for Young Folks, issued under the authority of the NSW Education Department, began in 1899 but ceased production the following year. The Australian Boys’ Paper: A Monthly Journal of Instruction and Amusement for the Boys of Australia, published by W.M. Forster of Melbourne, only ran from 1898 to 1907.
The early 1920s through to the 1950s are considered the heyday of Australian children’s magazines. Titles appearing at this time included Pals (1920–27), a weekly publication of the Victorian Boy Scouts; Fatty Finn’s Weekly (1934–35), based on the popular Syd Nicholls comic strip; and the Silver Jacket, published in the mid-1950s. From the 1950s, the market for local magazines declined due to an enormous influx of mass-produced comics and back-dated magazines from American syndicates, as well as the introduction of television.
Early radio broadcasts for children followed models from England, with children’s hours or sessions, featuring talks, singalongs and storytelling, often hosted by Aunts and Uncles with names such as Bobby Bluegum. In the early 1930s, 3AW Melbourne hosted Chatterbox Corner, its presenter adopting the persona of a Ginger Meggs cartoon character. The children’s ‘club’,which invited active listener participation, quickly became a popular model. ABC Melbourne’s 3LO programmed the Budgeree Club, whose membership qualifications were based on a good deed done at home. While technological issues such as transmission range and unreliable interstate relays ensured that most programming was local, the development of the ABC into a national broadcaster (1932–39) resulted in more federal oversight.
ABC executives turned their attention to creating a citizenship-building children’s session, able to unite children from regional and urban areas. 3LO children’s presenter Nina Murdoch created the concept of an Argonauts Club, whose members were allocated to ships to engage with ancient Greek hero, Jason, in his quest to find the Golden Fleece. Argonauts, known only by their number in the crew of their ship, gained rewards for contributing writing, art and music, demonstrating the long provenance of audience participation. 3LO’s The Argonauts Club launched in 1933, with nearly 3000 children enrolled within a year. Although the program closed in 1934, the concept was revived in 1941 as the cornerstone of a reinvigorated national Children’s Session. It offered children a late-afternoon entertainment session comprising elements of the programming mix offered to adults in the evening: music, drama, educational talks, variety and serialised fiction. By the 1950s, there were over 50,000 members of the Argonauts’ Club. It became one of the ABC’s most popular programs, running six days a week until 1969. Like its successful television successor in the years to come, Play School, the children’s sessions were structured to include educational segments on different days of the week—often incorporating children’s contributions.
Just as early variety, popular music and talk formats were able to make the transition from stage to radio, studio-hosted children’s sessions made the transition to television, introduced first in Sydney and Melbourne in 1956. Realising that The Argonauts Club would not make the crossing, the ABC’s Children’s Department created new programs to compete both with commercial offerings and their own successful radio Children’s Hour. These made use of elements suited to the new media, including puppetry, photography and film appreciation. From the outset, programmers demarcated different audience demographics, with the youngest children well served by the ABC’s long-running puppetry, drawing and live-action program, Mr Squiggle (1959–99), created and performed by Norman Hetherington, and hosted from 1960 by Patricia Lovell (‘Miss Pat’). Preschool programming included Kindergarten Playtime (1957–66), replaced in 1966 by a format acquired from the BBC, Play School, which remains the ABC’s main in-house preschool production. Younger adolescents were recognised as a cross-over audience with light entertainment, popular music programs and, modelled on the BBC’s success with Dr Who, science fiction series such as The Stranger (1964–65), Andra (1976) and two co-productions with ATN7 in Sydney: The Interpretaris (1966) and Vega 4 (1968).
As a national broadcaster, the ABC took advantage of being able to centrally pre-record programs, such as its Children’s TV Club, for other city markets. By the 1960s, the club was replaced by a range of programs, with what would become a typical mix of filmed and live segments, mostly produced in Sydney and rebroadcast in other places from telerecordings. On the other hand, commercial television offerings—such as GTV9’s children’s session, the Tarax Show, or TVW7’s Children’s Channel Seven—were local, with appearances by children as performers or audiences, featuring sponsorship by local advertisers. These programs mixed variety, comedy sketches and exhibitions of ‘young talent’.
In addition to cheaper, locally produced children’s shows, commercial licensees had the advantage of a ready-made stock of high-quality imported programming, largely from the US market. The Walt Disney company had proved that children could become a valuable demographic for advertisers, consumers of spin-off merchandising generated by its highly successful Mickey Mouse Club. Having recouped their production costs at home, this program and others could effectively be dumped into small media markets like Australia at a fraction of the cost to broadcasters of Australian content. Many cartoons and other high-quality filmed dramas that originally had been produced for US network family viewing—Westerns (Rin Tin Tin) and sit-coms (Gomer Pyle USMC, McHale’s Navy, Bewitched) —became staples of after-school schedules on commercial television from the 1960s to the 1980s. However, innovative programming for younger children was also a feature of commercial broadcasting, particularly at Channel 0 (later 10). The Magic Circle Club, produced by Godfrey Philip for ATV0, combined elements of pantomime, fairytale, music and much-loved characters. It won a Logie for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Television in 1966. When it ceased production, the ABC recruited the team for its own Adventure Island.
Regulation to ensure Australian content has been a major driver of children’s cultural production across a range of media. The 1953 Royal Commission on Television addressed submissions from parents and teachers concerned with the predicted dominance of American programs on Australian television, and the effects on children of violence and commercialism. In 1956 the Australian Broadcasting Control Board established the Children’s Advisory Committee. Advocacy for appropriate cultural content for children gained momentum with the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972.
The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal’s 1978 inquiry into self-regulation introduced a ‘C’ classification for children’s programs, as well as the establishment of a Children’s Program Committee (CPC), with a brief to formulate standards relating to children’s television productions. The Children’s Television Standards (CTS), first codified in 1984, introduced reforms to increase the amount of dedicated, Australian-produced children’s programs screened on free-to-air commercial television. The C program category was defined as one that ‘contributes to the social, emotional or intellectual development of children’ and ‘is appropriate for Australian children, not assuming too much of the culture, dialect or environment of some other country’. The CTS required commercial television licensees to broadcast a quota of special P (preschool) and C programs (for children up to 14 years) during times of day nominated by the broadcaster within set C and P ‘bands’. In addition, the CTS mandated scripted Australian drama of high production value.
The 1984 CTS were not restricted to issues of programming. Criteria delimiting the screening of advertisements during C time were also set. More than a decade later, responding to the rising rates of child obesity, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) launched a review of the CTS.
Attempts to extend existing broadcast regulation to online media resulted in two major reviews that issued final reports in 2012: the Department of Broadband, Communication and the Digital Economy’s Convergence Review and the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Content Regulation and Convergent Media Review. The former recommended maintenance of Australian children’s content regulation across platforms and production subsidies for converged media. With the defeat of the Labor government in 2013, however, most of the Convergence Review’s recommendations were shelved.
The CTS remain in force and are currently monitored and reviewed in a co-regulatory relationship with the industry. Their quotas for new drama production and production quality guidelines facilitated the development of a national production industry that has become a significant international player in children’s screen media markets.
A key early player in children’s media production and advocacy was the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF), initially conceived as a broker to, and supporter of, the independent production industry, with a brief to facilitate the involvement of Australian writers, directors and producers in children’s projects, and to provide information to governments, industry stakeholders and the public. It is also a lobbyist for new production and distribution opportunities in children’s programming. The ACTF’s production credits include the early anthology series Winners (1986) and Touch the Sun (1988). More recently, ACTF series such as Round the Twist (1989–2001) have sold strongly internationally. The ACTF increasingly has become involved in developing or co-financing Australian–international co-productions such as The Genie from Down Under (1996–98) and Dance Academy (2010–13). Other independent producers, such as Jonathan M. Shiff, have enjoyed international sales.
Child advocacy groups also play an ongoing role in monitoring the quality and social impact of children’s content. The Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM) is a not-for-profit community organisation focused on issues of child well-being associated with media. First established in 1993 as Young Media Australia, it became the ACCM in 2009. It also sponsors and circulates research and provides guidance to parents on issues such as violence, advertising and sexual content in the media.
Pay television broadcasting from 1995 introduced multi-channel services, including packaged children’s channels from global media corporations such as Disney, Nickelodeon and, later, CBeebies (the BBC’s preschool brand). At the same time, media deregulation worldwide and the advent of the internet fragmented markets. Commercial terrestrial broadcasters responded by scheduling adult programs in the late afternoon. The children’s channels became subscription drivers. Digital terrestrial television commenced in 2001; however, only the national broadcasters were permitted to multi-channel until 2009. The ABC operated a combined children’s and youth digital channel, ABC Kids/ Fly TV, from 2001 until 2004, with a largely imported schedule but significant online synergies. From 2004, ABC2 scheduled a substantial daytime preschool block. In 2009, following concerted lobbying—particularly from the ACTF—the federal government allocated new funding for a dedicated school-age children’s channel (ABC3), facilitating new content commissions and in-house production for the first time in decades. Networks Nine and Ten also introduced youth-focused free-to-air digital channels (Go! and Eleven) in 2010–11.
Digitisation of media companies worldwide and the dramatic rise in internet use has seen cross-platform deployment of content by most Australian broadcasters. ABC Online was an early pioneer of television–web synergies, with youth-focused music, science and news sites. A 2007 restructure created a new division, ABC Multiplatform. Much preschool and youth drama—for example, dirtgirlworld—is now commissioned or acquired together with rich multimedia applications, or associated web- sites with games or social media tools. ABC3’s Studio 3 is an example of a fully integrated multiplatform concept, mobilising content from television, online and the ABC’s Triple J youth radio network. Catch-up television applications and program-based apps have developed as broadcasters focus on the lucrative online and mobile device market. The ABC’s iView led the way in 2008, developing dedicated embedded players for streamed children’s video on its ABC3 and ABC4Kids websites.
REFs: S. Cunningham and E. Jacka, ‘Production Companies II: Children’s Television Producers’, in Australian Television and International Mediascapes (1996); K.S. Inglis, This is the ABC (1983); V. Lindesay, The Way We Were (1983).