While watching television remains Australia’s number-one pastime, according to a 2014 Deloitte media consumption survey, using the internet as a preferred source of entertainment ran a very close second for the first time, suggesting a digital tipping point is imminent in the country.
As the shift toward on-demand and cross-platform viewing in today’s changing digital world continues to impinge upon kidcasters’ linear schedules, staying agile in a market more competitive than ever remains one of the biggest challenges for traditional broadcasters.
For ABC Australia, adapting is particularly significant in 2014, given that Netflix Australia is rumored to be launching in 2015, and that budget cuts are expected to hit the pubcaster at the end of this year.
While it’s still unknown how any impending cuts would affect ABC Children’s ABC4Kids and ABC3 channels, ABC MD Mark Scott reported in August that the network is headed for a major restructure after the federal government’s next round of cuts.
The good news, according to Scott, is children’s programming remains a priority for ABC to drive audience engagement, and the broadcaster has already been working hard to evolve its kids services now that Australia’s digital switchover is complete.
In February, ABC moved all children’s programming from main terrestrial channel ABC1 to its dedicated digital channels ABC4Kids and ABC3, with ABC4Kids taking preschool programming and ABC3 playing home to content for school-age kids.
Then in July, it shifted its kids educational lineup from ABC1 to a new two-hour block, ABC TV Education, on ABC3. This migration of content has freed up ABC1 to schedule more adult-skewing content.
“We’ve extended the broadcast hours across both [ABC4Kids and ABC3] and aligned the content to match available audiences, focusing on priority timeslots and messaging to drive growth,” says Deirdre Brennan, ABC TV head of children’s television.
Despite the flurry of changes, ratings have so far been positive across linear and non-linear platforms. Brennan says programs now screened from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on ABC4Kids, like Shaun the Sheep and Guess How Much I Love You, provide more targeted entertainment for the available audience. “Weekday programming at 6:30 p.m. has seen a 27% increase in 2014 for that timeslot average for an audience of zero to 12 years,” she adds.
New ABC3 programming block 3House, which launched in July specifically for the five-to-eight set, airs weekdays from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. And its mainstay series including Arthur, Jamie’s got tentacles! and Masha and the Bear are also resonating with viewers. “Parents are responding well to the new zone as a safe and fun place for ‘inbetweens’ as they move from preschool into after-school entertainment,” says Brennan.
As for VOD results, Brennan notes that in July 2014 there were 8.5 million plays of ABC4Kids programs and 4.5 million plays of ABC3 programs via ABC iview, Australia’s leading VOD service, where kids shows account for more than 50% of total plays.
With more kids in Australia making mobile their platform of choice for interactive experiences, ABC has pinpointed a major digital project as one of its key opportunities for the next year. “By 2015, we will create a highly engaging, integrated and scalable eco-system serving digital content across a range of mobile touch points, including mobile web versions of existing ABC4Kids and ABC3 online gateways, branded children’s flagship apps and more integration with ABC iview,” says Brennan.
“It is vital that we create the infrastructure that can support a platform-agnostic approach and manage all of our content accordingly. In future, this will include programming or gaming that lives away from the linear channel.”
Beyond digital, the broadcaster’s additional opportunities for the year ahead include: strengthening global and local broadcast and production partnerships; improving long-term content planning and scheduling; innovating production formats and models, and building parental trust through the migration of five- to seven-year-olds to ABC3.
Looking forward, Brennan says the pubcaster will consider all formats and types of programming suitable for its target kid audiences, but its preschool opportunities are currently limited. She will not be acquiring new preschool series for ABC’s schedule until early 2016. “Our acquisition priorities for 2015/2016 relate to older children’s and family content, proven program brands and innovative scripted formats such as telemovies, mini-series and events,” she says.
Factual formats that engage local audiences are also on Brennan’s radar. “As the children’s industry moves increasingly towards animated comedy, we need to ensure that distinct, live-action storytelling remains part of our content mix,” contends Brennan. “We are also keen to explore innovative production models and new formats (short-form, miniseries, features) that push beyond the prescriptive nature of current kids output.”
New original animated titles on the 2015 slates for ABC4Kids and ABC3 include Bubble Bath Bay, Guess How Much I Love You season two and The Kazoops, while older kids can expect new shows such as Little Lunch, Winston Steinburger & Dudley Dingdong and Prisoner Zero.
Despite an uncertain future, Brennan says the network remains the market leader in children’s content, but is very focused on improving and evolving its services to maintain its competitive position. “Our priority must be to deliver more Australian conversation and stories on all screens, in order to differentiate ABC TV in an increasingly cluttered market,” she says. “It is a challenging time as we anticipate further funding cuts from the federal government. However, this provides a rare opportunity for transformational change, as we examine what we do and how we can do it better.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Kidscreen.