NZ Out of the Picture in Children’s Television
It is lonely representing New Zealand at a festival of international children’s television. Most other countries attending have a number of delegates; most delegates have programmes that are in competition. Bangladesh, Columbia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Denmark and the UK were all represented to name a few. Thanks to the Goethe-Institut I attended the Prix Jeunesse in Munich as Chair of the NZ Children’s Screen Trust to gain a first-hand understanding of what is the picture for kids worldwide on their television screens.
People that I met over cups of coffee or lunches were genuinely astonished that New Zealand has no public broadcasting channel for children and that programming can only be found on commercial networks or behind the pay-wall on Sky. While examples such as the Cbeebies in the UK and ABC3 and 4 children’s channels across the Tasman are hard to emulate given our relative size as a nation, there are plenty of other countries that support quality children’s television around the globe without the largesse. Argentina, for example, has the channel Paka Paka whose slogan is “la poder de la imaginacion” or “the power of the imagination” set up and operated by the Ministry of Education to deliver entertaining content also designed to educate and be culturally relevant.
My first conversation with fellow delegates is met with disbelief. “We thought New Zealand was a leader in kids’ TV”, said one. “Actually, I’m from Mexico and we do have public broadcasting now,” said another delegate when I talked about New Zealand and Mexico being the only countries in the OECD without a public broadcaster. Then I explain that in New Zealand, winning over the hearts and minds of the public who tend to equate television with “junk food” is one part of the problem. Over successive decades the incremental loss of public broadcasting has narrowed our imaginative horizons as to the power and effect of media.
So what makes great children’s television? This question is at the heart of the Prix Jeunesse International, a bi-annual television festival celebrating its 50-year anniversary this year. Pre-selected programmes from around the world are screened and voted on by programme-makers and other experts there to attend the intensive five days of screening and discussion on children’s television. Described by the awards host as the “Oscars” of children’s television, it is illuminating to see children’s media not as a sidebar, but as the centrepiece of a festival.
The festival’s power is in its cultural reach, where delegates can see programmes from around the world side by side. It is a snapshot of the world of children’s television, representing different cultural values but all with children central to the idea and the target audience of the programme. Programmes from Chile screen next to programmes from Denmark, the UK or in one instance, Pakistan.
Programmes are judged on how they fulfill four main criteria: how is it appropriate for the target audience – does it empower, take children seriously, is it culturally relevant, does it inform? The idea – is it interesting and fresh, does it make the viewer think, does it motivate the viewer? Is the script well developed and of high quality, and is it well-translated to television – the “realization”?
The 7–11 non-fiction category proved how powerful television can be in realizing issues and provoking both thought and emotion. My Father produced by VPRO Dutch Television was a stand-out for many. The series looks at the complex situations kids find themselves in because of their fathers and how they deal with their emotions. “Lots of adults have prejudices about certain subjects but what is it like for kids?” explains the producer. The story is filmed by the child and told from their point of view. In the 7-minute episode screened at the Prix Jeunesse, Marit, a 9-year-old whose father has Alzheimer’s, shares her story. Far from being morbid or difficult here was a child who loves an absent father in an unsentimental, honest portrayal that demystified Alzheimer’s for viewers of all ages. It not surprisingly had many in tears and won the ‘heart’ prize of the festival.
What struck me from hours of viewing and discussing content were the very obvious cultural differences that emerged. Are children treated as resourceful beings able to find their own solutions, or is it up to adults to negotiate them through issues and to save the day? The influence of super heroes in today’s mass media perpetuates the idea of how children are saved by outside forces and not from resources within. Our discussion group compared for example the PBS preschool show The Adventures of Napkin Man which helps preschoolers to deal with issues such as anger in a very educational and adult-led way; the simple animated Friends from Argentina where a boy and girl (and their imaginary friends) negotiate a friendship in the playground on their own terms; and the UK philosophy show for preschoolers What’s the Big Idea?” a journey of philosophical enquiry with Hugo, its central character.
Fiction is a key category in all age groups at the Prix Jeunesse. Worldwide examples showed many approaches and budgets can work. What struck me most is that in the Scandinavian countries there is a daily dose of drama for children in the lead-up to Christmas. In Denmark a daily children’s Christmas series is screened from Dec 1–24th during prime time.
For the Youth Juries around the world (including results from our own NZ Jury), the final top three finalists in the 12–15 category were all dramas. Nowhere Boys from Australia took the honours – a supernatural adventure story that starts in the Australian bush with four boys from different backgrounds who must learn to work together. Other notable dramas for this age group were the Mexican Pedro and Bianca following a set of twins, one white and one black exploring “sexuality, ethnic and emotional challenges, family issues, work, bullying, drugs…” and Wolfblood a UK supernatural series. Other stand outs in this category were Doorcode 1321 (Sweden) which explores friendship “at a time in life when one’s friends are everything” and covered bulimia, self-harm, mothers with mental illness and relationships in one gritty but engaging episode and the short, irreverent #LoveMilla that topped the list for the NZ Jury. These 5-minute episodes deal with “the various problems of teens’ life in the 21st century, i.e. peer pressure, sexuality, sexual harassment, alcohol, racism and so on.”
The Prix Jeunesse is a glimpse into a world of empowering and edgy television that New Zealand children don’t get to see. Imagine if New Zealand kids had access to documentaries about issues in their world such as how to cope with bullying or how to deal with divorce; that dramas other than Shortland Street were aired on a daily basis exploring issues relatable to their own age group from preschool to youth, such as Pedro and Bianca about the first day at high school or The Summer with Dad for 4–6 year olds inspiring and focusing on “the common notes of Nordic everyday life”. Imagine that we had children’s news such as Ultra News from Denmark, unpacking the major news stories and helping kids to understand and cope with traumatic events, or programmes that allow them to advocate for issues that concern them, such as I So Believe You the Columbian winner of the UNICEF special prize for highlighting children’s rights and empowering children through the medium of TV.
While television is much maligned and screen time benefits debated, the Prix Jeunesse was without doubt a reminder of the power of media to provoke debate, explore culture, validate emotions, reveal issues and to engage children as citizens not just as consumers. One observation from a Canadian colleague was that it was a pity Australia wasn’t a little bit closer to NZ, that if Australian content dominated our screens we might have more of a chance of arguing the necessity for NZ kids seeing more of themselves on screen. A vast swathe of American content doesn’t perturb us – but Australian?
Janette Howe (MA 1st Class Hons) is the Chair of the NZ Children’s Screen Trust, a registered charity (www.kidsonscreen.co.nz). Her flights to the Prix Jeunesse International were sponsored by the Goethe Institut NZ.