Funky Play School and the big sell
by Marcus Browning Changes to the nation's premier children's television program Play School were secretly put in motion last year by ABC management and made public only this month. Even as the actors and production staff getting the boot from the show are left not knowing why, the meaning is plain enough to see: the show which has set the standard for children's television broadcasting is about to be lumbered with the big sell. The cloak-and-dagger stuff indicates that management understands they are moving into a sensitive area by making fundamental changes to what has been a member of the Australian family for 30 years. It's a fair guess that the changes are to be fundamental even though the grand plan has not yet been revealed: best to avoid opposition from the staff and the public. The new programs will go to air in May. Henrietta Clark, Play School's executive producer for the past ten years, and part of the show's team for nigh on 30 years, said she had known that changes were under way since March last year and wanted to be involved but was left out in the cold, excluded from casting meetings, budget planning and scripting. No explanation from management was forthcoming. Finally she was told her position was being scrapped altogether. She resigned late last year. To get an idea of just how fundamental the changes to Play School are to be it is necessary to consider the position of the ABC in terms of its budget, its funding and the political agenda being pushed by the Howard Government. In the broader sense it also has to be seen in the context of developments in children's television generally. Suffering from massive cuts to its budget made by the Howard Government since 1996, the ABC has shed staff and programs. Out of necessity, with some shoving and bullying from the Government and its appointees to the ABC board, the national broadcaster has also increasingly tied up production deals with the private sector. While this has not, as yet, resulted in its commercialisation (the ultimate aim of the Government) it has introduced certain bottom-line thinking — an imperative to produce programs that are marketable. Play School is untouched and untainted by the bottom-line imperative, so its quality has remained of the highest standard, giving it an important role in early childhood education, something the commercial broadcasters, shackled to advertisers, will never achieve. Because there has been no commercial pressure for it to become mainly a vehicle for product promotion, to become "cooler, funkier" — i.e. Americanised — the content of Play School has remained Australian. Its cultural values are quintessential Australian, including the promotion of Indigenous history and culture. The program's target pre-school age group remains steadily on course, there being no market demand to appeal to older children so as to up the sales ante. Internationally, market-driven programming for children is on a mass scale and growing. Figures from 1995 on consumer groups in the US — by far the biggest producer of programs targeting children — showed those aged between six and 13 purchased $9 billion worth of goods, television shows designed to market toys and other spin-off products being overwhelmingly the main point of sale. The globalisation of television undermines cultural values specific to individual nations as children the world over sit through hours of programming produced mainly in the US. In fact these programs are one long commercial for the dolls and figures and other paraphernalia based on characters in shows with paper-thin storylines and simplistic solutions. These are what Dr Patricia Edgar, Director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation, has called "bubblegum for the eyes", noting that the "diversity of programs for children is already decreasing with globalisation in the industry. There are more hours but fewer types of programs". In the global market place the wealthy countries with the dollars produce the majority of children's programs and package them for sale with their combined cultural message and merchandising mechanism. If you can make a product that sells and slots into the mono-culture of the global market place, you're on a nice little earner that'll make up for some of that lost funding. Remember, Bananas In Pyjamas and Blinky Bill made it into the US market based on their characters' merchandising possibilities. One can but speculate, at the moment, as to what changes may be wrought upon the children's program that has become part of the fabric of our childhood learning experience, but they will certainly be a pointer as to where the ABC is at now, where it's headed and at what speed.