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MIPCOM 2014: our kids' system from an international helicopter

László Kriston

Australian children's TV - under pressure here, a jewel to external eyes.
MIPCOM 2014: our kids' system from an international helicopter
Image: Even Nicole Kidman is an ACTF veteran. She once starred in ACTF's telemovie Room to Move (1987).

To an observer from outside, it is obvious that Australia is pushing internationally above its weight in kids' programming. Every year at MIP, there are several dozen new Aussie shows debuting (within the MIPJunior league that encompasses about 1,000 titles).

A root cause, according to Jenny Buckland, CEO of ACTF is the regulation which requires commercial broadcasters to 'screen minimum levels of new Australian children's drama, 32 hours a year.' It can be animation, too. Then, of course, Screen Australia supports the productions of these shows, and there's the tax offset as well.

The language also helps. Aussie children drama traditionally traveled well. A multitude of buyers, like Germany's ZDF and ARD, Sweden's SWT, pubcasters in Norway, Finland, Denmark, Spain, Latin America as well as the BBC 'found our drama 20 years ago and saw it as quite a nice alternative to American programming and they stayed very loyal,' said Buckland at the ACTF booth in the Palais' basement.

Only in France and Italy did the sales 'soften' recently. The U.S. market has been hard one to crack, although The Dance Academy, distributed by Fremantle, is strong on Netflix. Some of the factual offerings (Bushwacked, My Place, My Town) penetrated the Middle East. (Naturally, bikinis are off-limit.) Africa also acquires titles, but they pay very small license fees.

Stili, the strength of any competitive advantages is being eroded these days by the confluence of a number of factors.

Outdated license fees

First off, 'in Australia the license fees the broadcasters are offering producers for original production, certainly the commercial broadcasters, they are what they were 25 years ago,' lamented Buckland. What figures are we talking about? 'A$75,000 an episode. That's what Channel Seven paid around 1989-90! But the production budgets are high[er now].' The cost of high-quality live action drama now ranges between A$5.5 million and A$7 million for a 13-part series. (Depending on the needs of the show, factual content costs a third of it.) 'It's tough to get that money together. It gets tougher,' said Buckland.

ABC's Head of Children's Television Deirdre Brennan is an 'amazing exponent of Australian stories,' Chris Oliver-Taylor enthused at MIPJunior, 'she would do anything for Australian stories. Amazing person. But her hands are tied. She has a AU$4 million budget cut coming in a couple of years. It means she will just do less.' Of course, this isn't the kind of thing that gets talked about on the podium of MIPJunior where Ms. Brennan spoke as a panelist on the subject 'What Do Buyers Want?' She stressed the importance of scripted drama as a genre that kids would really need as opposed to reality television, but made no mention of budget cuts. She also cited a recent study - which she had the chance to read on the plane en route to Cannes - that showed that most kids in Australia still watch their share of kids programming on a traditional TV set, not on small portable gadgets.

SVOD doesn't help yet to make funding easier. 'You've got all these different platforms that you can sell programs to now,' said Buckland, 'but they don't pay too much. Whereas 15-20 years ago, you might have only had fewer, selling a programme in Germany or in the U.K., but if you managed to make a sale, it would be a significant amount of money.'

In the States a lot of new VOD-services sprang up, 'and they all pay hardly any money, according to Buckland. 'They want revenue-share deals.'

The goods news is that the content being sold on iTunes in Australia 'is definitely growing,' Buckland found. (She recently look at an itemized report.) 'It's becoming quite comparable, even overtaking DVD revenues.'

ACTF is doing 'little sales' - even packages - to players like Hulu and Dish in America. 'Asia used to be very hard.' That has changed. 'Factual is doing really well in Asia,' added Bernadette O'Mahony, ACTF's Head of Development, who came from a production background, freelancing as a line producer for 20 years.

Seed money

In spite of all the challenges, ACTF remains as generous with its development budget as only a non-profit organization can. 'If we invest in a project or put up a distribution advance and if it does well, we then reinvest the proceeds' in 5 to 10 projects a year, explained Buckland. Given that it's very hard for any Aussie producer to score a pre-sale deal overseas, ACTF's development coins are badly needed.

What makes ACTF tick is that 'distinctly Australian element,' said O'Mahony. The foundation tends to stay away from the more obvious formats that most companies do. 'It's kind of cultural,' reckoned Buckland. 'It's to ensure that Australian kids have access to content that are made especially for them. Concepts that wouldn't be made otherwise.'

The seed money game for ACTF is 'driven by what broadcasters in Australia are commissioning at the time,' added Buckland.

But ACTF has a creative input, too, they aren't just silent partners. Most of the time they come on board 'very early and work with the producers to develop the project,' said O'Mahony. 'Often there is more than one round of development funding for the shows,' said O'Mahony.

They regularly bet on horses that never get to run the races. As Buckland said, 'more often the project that we're helping to develop don't get up. Australian producers have to develop a wide range of projects for a wide range of tastes. We know that they all aren't going to go into production' because at the end of the day 'there aren't enough slots' to fit those projects into. In Buckland's estimation, 'At least half' of these projects will never reach the screens.

There are no typical years in terms of sales revenue. Because license fees differ so much from country to country, and the cyclical nature of production makes the slate of debuting shows narrow in one year, and wide-ranging in another, ACTF's annual gross value sales range from A$400,000 to somewhere around A$2-3 million.

Mermaids and swans

Occasionally they get involved in co-productions, like on Mortified or The Dance Academy. The latter 'came to us very early on, the ABC and the ACTF provided development funding to Joanna Werner,' recalled O'Mahony. 'It was her first shows as an independent producer. When it came to financing she had a relationship with ZDF and they were keen on retaining distribution rights,' which normally ACTF gets for certain territories in exchange for the distribution advance. 'We still invested in the show, but on a smaller level.' O'Mahony received executive producer billing.

ZDF Enterprises is rather unique in that it built strong ties with Australian producers. They took a risk on The Dance Academy and Jonathan M. Shiff's project, H20: Just Add Water (2006). Now they're doing Mako Mermaids (2013-), which is a huge success internationally.

'It's a little bit boring being a lawyer and working with people who have the same skillset,' opined Buckland who originally was a lawyer at ABC. In the kids content business, one collaborates with all sorts of 'people who all do something different. And the content is so lovely. We feel good about what we are making.' O'Mahony seconded that feeling: 'The feedback you get from the audience, kids, friends' kids, or our Facebook page when they write in to the cast, we don't get that on adult television.' As per Buckland, 'when people see that logo and you say that's where you work, it's great.'

About the author

László is a film critic and journalist, originally from Budapest, who is very active on the international festival scene.