ACTF’s Jenny Buckland

Jenny Buckland, the CEO of Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF), tells TV Kids about how the organization is supporting the production of distinctive Australian content that will resonate with kids at home and around the world.

Amid funding challenges and continued shifts in how viewers are consuming content, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation has stepped up its efforts to preserve the country’s long tradition of supplying high-end kids’ programming to broadcasters domestically and abroad. The ACTF, led by CEO Jenny Buckland, helps develop policy and invests in and distributes shows, among other activities.

TV KIDS: Tell us about the mission of ACTF.
BUCKLAND: Our mission is to support and encourage Australian shows for Australian kids. We want them to have something distinctively Australian about them so that they contribute to that shared experience of growing up in Australia. The kinds of shows that we want to be involved in are those high-quality, high-budget productions that wouldn’t be able to happen without us. We hope these shows will stick around for a long time. The best example of that is Round the Twist, which the ACTF did over 25 years ago now, and it’s still showing on Amazon in the U.K. and Netflix in Australia. That kind of high-quality, distinctive legacy programming is where we try to position ourselves.

TV KIDS: What are the greatest issues at stake for the Australian children’s media industry?
BUCKLAND: There are huge funding challenges. It has been a very vibrant sector, and a number of conditions have contributed to that. One of those has been the Australian content quota and the regulations requiring the commercial broadcasters to do minimum levels of children’s drama. Those quotas are looking shaky in the new environment where there are a lot of platforms and children are drifting away from the commercial free-to-air broadcasters. So we’re not sure how long they are going to stay in place in the way that they have been. Even more immediately, the public broadcaster ABC, which back in 2009 had a big injection of extra funds to establish ABC3 [now ABC ME], in recent years has suffered budget cuts, as a lot of public institutions have in Australia. They’ve allocated quite a lot of the money that was in the kids’ department into other areas. So the ABC appears to be spending a lot less on commissioning children’s drama. And then Screen Australia, which is a major investor in children’s programs, is asking whether or not the audiences for kids’ television are big enough to justify their investments. So in some ways, it feels that we’re in precarious times. One of the biggest challenges for the ACTF at the moment is to be an advocate, particularly arguing to the government that this sector is really important.

TV KIDS: How are those efforts progressing?
BUCKLAND: We’re in a complicated political cycle at the moment. You look at how many prime ministers we’ve had! So it is quite difficult to get traction. But we have to be persistent, and we’ve got a committed board, and a lot of other people in the industry are starting to realize this is a serious issue and are joining in this. So I’m optimistic that in the end, we’ll make progress.

TV KIDS: Given that budgets are tight and you have to be particularly discerning, what do you look for in projects when you’re making investment decisions?
BUCKLAND: We do have to be picky, and we’re going to have to be pickier because to resonate globally and last for a long time for children here, they have to be standout shows. More than ever they have to be strong, compelling stories with relatable characters. The stories in kids’ television, especially in live-action drama, are getting more compelling. You compel the viewer to want to come back to see what happens. They have to have that sticky element, whereas perhaps years ago, broadcasters would ask things like, Can I show the episodes in a different order? What they meant was, Can kids dip in and out of this? Now you have the binge-viewing phenomenon and there’s so much competition, it’s much more likely that you want to end on a cliffhanger and have everyone begging for more and wanting to use catch-up television if they missed an episode.

TV KIDS: Why do you think shows from Australia have been able to travel so widely?
BUCKLAND: The fact that we did have the commercial broadcasters required to do a minimum level of children’s drama created the market in the first place. Then the strong investment and support from Screen Australia, enabling producers to have comparatively high production budgets. And it’s a small industry, so producers are also working with very high-quality crews who, if they’re not doing a kids’ drama, might be working on a high-end feature film or adult dramas. They’ve got a very cinematic sensibility. We also do loads of location shooting. That’s partly what has resonated around the world. If you’re in Finland and it’s dark at 3:30 p.m., and you can watch some glorious mermaids on the beach in Queensland, what’s not to love about that? [Laughs] Also, the story lines and the characters are very strong and they are dealing with issues that children and young teens all around the world can identify with.

TV KIDS: What opportunities are digital platforms creating for you?
BUCKLAND: We’ve made quite a lot of sales on the back library to SVOD platforms. That is sometimes a great way to get into territories that are a bit of a barrier for us. The U.S. would be a classic example of that. It’s probably the hardest market for us to sell an Australian show into, because there’s so much content already and because broadcasters have been the gatekeepers. They told us American children wouldn’t understand our accents and had all sorts of reasons for why they thought our shows wouldn’t work. So we’re delighted with the response we’re getting for Little Lunch on Netflix in the U.S. We know from the responses that people are watching it and loving it. Dance Academy and other Australian shows that have been on Netflix have had the same sort of response.

TV KIDS: What are your priorities for the year ahead?
BUCKLAND: We’d love to find a 26-episode live-action drama for the younger end of the age group, the 7-to-12 end, because there’s been quite a bit of teen drama around. We would love to find something that is warm and funny and terrific in every way. Also, on the policy side, [we’re focused on] securing the Australian market and funding and ensuring that our politicians understand and value the content that’s coming from Australia. Internationally, we’ll be building on our SVOD relationships and finding those new opportunities for content.