The contentious issue of obligatory quotas for commercial children's television is now under review and has polarised the industry. The commercial networks say the quotas are no longer valid as children aren't watching and they can no longer afford them, and the production industry argues that without these programs children will be denied stories that are essential to their cultural development. But, does available research show that Australian children still want to watch the programs made specifically for them under the regulations that have been in force since the 1980's? It does not seem so.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is charged with regulating television content to ensure children 'have access to quality TV programming' and are 'protected from the possible harmful effects of television'. One could therefore expect that ACMA's Report on Children's television viewing and multi-screen behaviour released in August 2017 would assist the review that's underway. That review aims to evaluate the efficacy of current regulations in achieving their stated cultural objectives but the ACMA report fails abysmally to properly inform that inquiry.
The report offers no analysis of quality or harm, and only an indirect assessment of children's TV quotas (for P and C classified programs including Australian C drama). The study does show clearly that kids now spend more time online than they do watching television, but the research is so poorly designed and reported that it is misleading. It claims at the outset – a claim producers have seized upon - that 'broadcast TV viewing remains an important part of the way Australian children and families access children's programming'; that the decline in viewing is 'slow' and 'they (children) are still watching programs specifically made for them' as 'a regular part of daily life'.
A lay person could therefore assume ACMA's regulations are achieving their aim. But dig into the data and a different, confused picture, emerges.
The studies were conducted by OmniPoll, a ratings agency using people meters in TV households restricted to the five major cities. The first misleading feature of this report is that the conclusions are drawn from data that lumps together children aged 0-14 into one group. There are in fact three groups that fall within that category, with very different viewing behaviour and media usage patterns. Pre-schoolers' viewing is under the control of their parents, so it is to be expected they will be watching more scheduled television. They form the major viewing group in the 0-14 category. But simply separating pre-schoolers 0-4 from 5-12 year olds still gives a misleading pattern. There is a stage around 8-9 years where viewing tastes change – the 5-7's will trend toward the viewing favoured by pre-schoolers but the 8/9-12 year olds go searching for more stimulating fare and they become more mobile. The report shows no understanding of this difference and thus it fails to offer any meaningful data on trends away from scheduled free-to-air viewing overall. 12-14 year olds are different again, as they have entered puberty, their friends have become their focus, and they have moved to mobile devices and spend time online on social media.
The second major problem in the Report is that the category 'children's programming' is defined as 'any screen content' including all TV programs, movies, videos, games or DVDs (on any devices) and there is no attempt to differentiate Australian television quota programs from programming in different formats viewed on multiple devices. 'Children's programs' viewed on any device are not quota or Australian programs and data inconsistently differentiated into relevant age groups is of little help to decide future policy.
Thirdly, the key findings from the parallel survey of parents, carers and guardians about their children's viewing habits, is clearly unreliable. The online survey sample is made up of unrepresentative 'opt-in' participants, which is acknowledged right at the back of the report (Appendix B, p. 43) as 'not without its limitations', such as 'recall bias and socially desirable answers'. In fact, the adult sample is biased towards the tertiary-educated, higher-income groups most likely to have access to the internet and to have thought about the issues of potential concern raised. So it is not possible to draw conclusions about the general population from the data.
This research would not make the grade in an undergraduate class on survey research.
Overall, this latest ACMA report merely confirms - but states less clearly - what it had found in 2007 - and what OfCom in the UK had found in 2007, as well as the Kaiser Foundation in the USA had found in three separate Reports in 1999, 2004 and 2009. That is, that children, increasingly, as they move out of the pre-school years, have turned away from free-to-air television viewing and use the internet and mobile devices not just to watch television but to play games, view video clips (especially YouTube) make their own video content and interact on social media , preferring 'programs' which they can control on-demand when and where they wish.
When they are watching television the top five Australian programs of choice, viewed by children aged 0-14, are reality TV and Light Entertainment shows such as Masterchef, The Voice, I'm a Celebrity, The Block and My Kitchen Rules. The top ten children's programs viewed by the 0-14 group were Play School Celebrity Covers, The Wiggles Meet the Orchestra, 7 programs from the UK and two from the USA, all designed for the youngest children in the 0-14 age group.
Most viewing in the 0-14 age group is done by pre- schoolers and of shows not specifically made for children. These are the findings most relevant to any inquiry about children's TV standards and quota requirements, but ACMA has chosen to highlight the notion that 'Broadcast TV viewing remains an important part of the way Australian children and families access children's programming.' (Overview, p. 1) The report does not spell out the fact that quota programs don't feature highly in children's viewing, unless they are oversees programs made for the younger audience, usually in the UK. So the main finding of the report is, to say the least, misleading.
ACMA states, 'the TV set is the most frequently used device to view children's programs', but live broadcast TV is used daily by just 19% of 'all children', a definition that includes pre-schoolers as well as teenagers, and most data tables in the report fail to differentiate between younger and older C standards-level (5-12) children. No table offers a breakdown by children's socio-economic status or access to the internet. An average of 2.9 platforms is used by the sample, with 45% of children using four or more platforms and they are 'multi-tasking' as the television is on, even doing homework. Can this be called 'viewing'?