Jenny Buckland, CEO of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF), talks to TV Kids about how the foundation has grown over the past 40 years, what it is up to now and the value it provides to the Australian industry.
The Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) began operating in 1982 with the support of the Commonwealth Government to develop and produce quality programming for Australian kids. Now, 40 years strong, the ACTF continues to enrich children’s lives through expanded responsibilities, including investing in programs from independent producers across the country.
TV KIDS: What are some of the values or directives that you keep top of mind when choosing where to direct funding? How have they evolved since the ACTF was founded?
BUCKLAND: Things that we keep top of mind when we’re talking about shows are diversity and inclusion, sense of humor, having fun. Some people don’t consider that [last one] a value, but at the ACTF, we do. Also, programs that showcase perseverance and resilience, overcoming obstacles. We’re always looking for children to be the protagonists as opposed to shows that are about children. And a sense that we’re striving to be our best selves. We don’t shy away from doing difficult subject matter, but we want to do it in a way that is useful to the audience and in a way that brings hope. We hope that across our suite of shows, there’s something for everyone and that everyone can recognize themselves and see themselves on screen.
In terms of how that’s evolved over the years, it’s evolved the way our country and community has evolved. Back in the early days of the ACTF, I’m sure there was a sense that we cared about diversity and inclusion, but I think that in those days, that would’ve been done in a more token way. Clearly, that wasn’t an issue with a great show like Round the Twist, and nobody even thought about it as being an issue. Today, we are such a diverse community that it’s really essential that every show considers that angle. Also, when the ACTF was making shows itself, they were produced very close to where the ACTF actually is. Australia is a really big country. It followed a bit of a formula. Now that we work with such a broad array of producers and people, there’s a great breadth.
TV KIDS: What are you currently on the lookout for?
BUCKLAND: Because we’re in this position at the moment where we have significant additional funding, we’re kind of looking for everything. [We’re] really happy that we can be looking at shows from preschool content right through to YA content. But, we are always looking for the sweet spot for us, which is the 7- to 11-year-old age group. Particularly content for that age group that is funny, relatable, engaging. The most successful shows for the audience have been for that age group. They still enjoy television at that age, and they do like to laugh.
TV KIDS: You’ve been CEO of the foundation for 20 years. How has it grown since you joined, and where do you see it headed in the future?
BUCKLAND: When I started, we were still making most of our content ourselves as an in-house production house. Because we do receive support from the government, the ACTF developed itself as an in-house production house. There was this independent production sector producing children’s shows that had grown up all around us. We decided to transition—we called it “from ‘making it’ to ‘making it happen’”—to be able to support a wider array of shows. That’s the most significant evolution since I began. We work with people all around the country to do it. That has enabled us to do a more diverse array of programs, from big series in Western Australia—in the early days, Lockie Leonard—to just recently, a series that went out on Netflix that was [made] in the Northern Territory, MaveriX. We’ve been able to spread ourselves more broadly.
Sometimes it’s evolution going alongside the evolution that’s happening in the industry as well. The production standards and the quality just get better and better. Back when I started, if we were selling shows, broadcasters used to say, “Can I put that show’s episodes in any order?” They weren’t going to put them on in a random order, but they assumed people were going to dip in and out of shows. Now, it’s important that each episode has a compelling ending and is “sticky.” There’s a lot of thought that goes into that and keeping your audience. I think it’s [become], in many ways, more challenging, but they’re really exciting challenges. It’s been great to watch that evolution.
TV KIDS: The Commonwealth Government revealed additional funding of A$20 million ($13 million) over two years, beginning July 1, 2021. What have you achieved with this extra funding so far, and what is the goal for it within the next eight months?
BUCKLAND: We’ve supported about 14 shows. Around A$9 million ($5.9 million) has been spent. It has triggered just about A$90 million ($59 million) worth of production, and that’s production that’s taken place in Melbourne, in Sydney, in the Northern Territory. It includes animation. It’s been the whole gamut. It’s included shows for younger kids, the middle ages and right through to YA. We’ve been really pleased about that spread. In the next [eight] months, we’re hoping that perhaps there will be one or two children’s films in there, that we’ll be doing even more First Nations content. One of the shows we did is a live-action show shot in the top end of Australia: Barrumbi Kids. We’ve also supported another series, an animated show, Little J & Big Cuz. They’re both First Nations shows. They’re beautiful. We hope we’ll be doing more of that. We hope there will be some second seasons of shows we’ve supported coming through. So, a whole array of things.
TV KIDS: How does the ACTF’s work bolster both the Australian TV industry/economy and the kids’ industry at large?
BUCKLAND: Children’s television provides really great career opportunities. It’s often the genre where people are a bit willing to have a first-time director or production manager stepping into a line producer role—especially now that adult drama is a short number of episodes [and is] really about marquee names, and here in Australia, we’ve lost Neighbours, which was an amazing training ground. A lot of writers and directors got really great training on that show. In some ways, children’s television may become even more important in that sense in the future. It provides that insight, the opportunities, the jumping-off point. It also lets people be really creative, frankly. Children’s television is often a lot more imaginative in some ways. People sometimes come up with what seem like rather kooky things in kids’ television. I think it offers an awful lot for the industry, and, because we’re supporting shows all around Australia, the local economies and the towns where shows are being shot.
TV KIDS: What, above all, do you hope that the ACTF is accomplishing?
BUCKLAND: I hope we are accomplishing shows that touch children and enhance their experience, add to their lives. Because we’re turning 40 this year, through our own newsletter, we’ve been looking back at some of the great shows in the past. What’s really clear is people have very, very fond memories of these shows. They touched them, they inspired them. [Recently], we had two young writers who hadn’t done kids’ TV before come in. They saw these animation cells from a show called Li’l Elvis Jones and the Truckstoppers, which is from 1997. And they were just blown away by it. Other people talk about Round the Twist, or, more recently, people talk about Dance Academy or Little Lunch. People who watched Little Lunch when it first came out, they’re now in university. They have these memories, and often it’ll be [that] if one character was a little bit like them, then it really resonated. To have that, that’s it. Little J & Big Cuz is an animated show set in a typical First Nations community somewhere in regional Australia, and there was a beautiful photo of a little girl up in the Torres Strait Islands. She’d asked for a Little J & Big Cuz birthday cake, and they made that in a kiosk up there. For me, that’s mission accomplished. It’s about children having that response. And about us as a community. As you grow up, that becomes a shared cultural touchstone if you meet someone else who also loved that show when they were little.