Kids’ TV could be better

Originally published February 27, 2013 in Capital Times.

How much, when, and what to watch on the tele have been in parent-child negotiations since before Spot On hit the airwaves. The experts still say less is more, but the sheer ubiquity of televisions, computers, smart phones, tablets, game players, etc. and so on in the lounge, office, bedroom, classroom, back of the ute, and palm of one’s hand means, like it or not, your kid is getting more than you may be able to control.

Should Junior be snacking on a bag of crisps or a crispy native Braeburn? That’s the basic question posed by a group of New Zealanders who want to change what’s on the channel and are inviting the public to debate on children’s television.

The New Zealand Children’s Screen Trust officially launched this week and, in conjunction with Goethe Institut, celebrates Children’s Day with a seminar and forum entitled What Do Kids Want From TV? Dr Maya Götz, head of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television, has been flown in from Germany to lecture and debate with New Zealand media luminaries, producer Yvonne Mackay of Production Shed and writer Martin Baynton of Pukeko Pictures.

“Content is really central,” Götz says, when asked if there’s such a thing as healthy television for children. She recommends no more than 30 minutes to an hour per day. “For all ages it should be a variety of fiction and nonfiction, of things that tell stories about the social and factual world, but also something that is based in their own culture, helping them to understand the concrete world around them.”

That’s precisely what’s lacking in New Zealand television, says Mackay, one of the founding members of the Children’s Screen Trust, which includes other producers, former children’s commissioners, and media researchers.  “About 15 to 20 years ago New Zealand TV was really famous for high quality family dramas. We made a lot of them and they were programmes that had an eight year old and an 80 year old together viewing them and discussing them. We’ve stopped making those programs.”

Mackay points to the success of Production Shed’s Kaitangata Twitch, a 13-episode family drama based on a Margaret Mahy book. It won several awards, rated higher than the news on Māori Television, and currently airs at a prime Saturday night spot.

“Once we made that programme we started to look around to make more like it,” recounts Mackay. “The main funder, NZ On Air, was not able to offer any more than $1million for any more high quality children’s dramas. You can’t make Kaitangata Twitch for $1million. It cost $6.2million.”

Götz says the lack of public broadcasting is a big issue. “For most countries this is the only way to ensure that someone seriously takes care of children’s media concerns,” she says. “Now you have to find other ways to make sure that New Zealand children can see themselves on television. You need programmes made in your country.” She lauds the founding of the Trust, but says more money should be devoted to creating programmes. In other countries launching a children’s channel not devoted to advertising was a “turning point for high quality children’s TV.”

As for specific recommendations to parents, she says kids start paying attention to screens at six months of age and clear rules need to be made early. Diverse programming and communicating about what kids are seeing are key. Furthermore, media studies should be part of the curriculum at an early stage, beginning with diaries of daily media use and “reflection on what is healthy and feels good and what does not.”




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