The Age from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on May 21, 2000 · Page 104
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The Age from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia · Page 104

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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Issue Date:
Sunday, May 21, 2000
Page:
Page 104
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i local schools, joined by competition winners, crew families and the children of Channel Nine staff. Hi-5 are in Studio One, filming their body-popping robot moves. The dance steps are easy enough for children to approximate but the gang must look perfect. They strike the pose over and over again. Hi-5 don't look like the other presenters on Australia's pre-school shows. Unless your name is Brooklyn Beckham, they certainly don't look like mum and dad. Some of the women on Play School (ABC) and The Book Place (Channel 7) and In The Box (Channel 10) wear brightly coloured earrings but the presenters stick to a unisex uniform of jeans and brightly coloured shirts and jumpers. Only on Hi-5 do the boys look so laddish and the girls so "girlie", says Graeme-Evans bluntly. "Real parents recognised that if you've got a girlie girl, that's the way they are. Other shows are very politically correct." The three girls in the band - Kath, Kellie and Charli -had a make-up call at 6.30am. The two boys - Tim and Nathan - also wear a bit of slap but it takes an hour to create Hi-5 girls. Their faces are lacquered with glitter, spotted with decals and sugar-coated with high-gloss pastels. Their hair is twisted and pinned with diamantes and feathers, teased into punkish nests, braided into cornrows, streaked pink and blue, crimped, curled, teased The playgroup and the tube All the studies on the television-viewing habits of young children point out how the tube Is used by parents as an electronic babysitter. But they talk about this as If it was a bad thing. "Let's face it, we all use It to get a break," says Briony Cimo, the mother of daughters aged two and a half and 10 months. "I don't think any parent could say that they don't." The other two mothers in this week's playgroup murmur their agreement. Maureen McCunnle dislikes the Teletubbies but lets her two-year-old son Jared watch it because it gives her uninterrupted time each morning to tend to her 1 0-week-old baby boy, Sheldon. The speech on Tubbles is shocking and I don't think there's an " educational component to It at all. But I don't think it harms him. The rest of the day we try to keep out of the room with the TV and do something else." She sighs. "We do let him watch more television than we said we would before we had kids." "It's hard to know how much television is too much," says Mary lliadis, mother of two-and-a-half-year-old Victoria. "The Wiggles mesmerise her. She's always asking for them. I have to try and keep the TV out of sight. I work four days a week so I want to spend the other day being with her." Jared, Isabella and Victoria, all the same age, respond to completely different shows. Victoria loves The Wiggles. Jared used to hate them until he went to a concert, now he likes them, but not as much as Teletubbies and the ABC's animated shorts such as Malsy and Spot, Briony's Isabella Is a restless girl who runs around all day - except for Hi-5. "She can't tell time yet but 9 o'clock on the dot she comes Inside for Hi-5," says Briony. "I don't like It but I don't see anything wrong with the music and dancing." There's no way she'd let Isabella wear Hi-5 clothes, however. "I don't like little girls dressing like teenage girls," she says. "I think It's tacky." Mary laughs. "I like the trendy stuff," she says. "I'd buy It for Victoria." The mothers like shows that entertain their children responsibly but seem less anxious that the shows are educational. "I can see that being important In families that aren't well-educated," says Briony, "but we do that ourselves." The shows these mothers forbid Include the news, adult shows with violence and the cartoons on commercial channels. "They look really nasty, with dark colours and harsh lines," says Maureen. "I think little children pick up on those sort of intricacies, like facial expressions, more than stories." and bunched into ponytails or threaded with tinsel. They wear high teen fashions: flared capri pants, sp'arkly minis, brightly patterned tops, chunky shoes. The producers make sure the girls don't look too sexy in their disco gear: crop tops are worn over longer shirts, bare shoulders covered in vests, trousers worn under minis. Charli, the curviest Hi-5, often wears bodices over her T-shirts to flatten her breasts. "It's inappropriate to show flesh," says Harris. "We don't want the wrong sort of people watching." With their ribbons and glitter and feathers, they look like little girls let loose with the decorations at the kindergarten fete. It doesn't take much to ruffle Big Bird's feathers in the highly regulated but emotive world of toddler television. Parents become fiercely partisan about their children's shows. Hi-5's girly sparkles and MTV production values have delighted some parents and horrified others. "It's the only show energetic enough for my kids," says Aileen Ryan, the mother of three little girls under four. "I love to see them dancing and getting into it. The other Meanwhile, on Hi-5's Adventure Week, the boys play djembe drums, Kellie talks to a puppet and Kath tries to cure her hiccups by counting to five. At least in Australia there are regulations in place to ensure the little ones get some local, educational, commercial-free programming. The Australian Broadcasting Authority compels the three commercial stations to produce 30 minutes of Australian "P" programming each weekday. The ABC is not bound to the ABA's P and C regulations ("C" ratings cover shows for older children) but instead have their own editorial charter, which affirms the expected values about quality and education. P-rated shows on the commercial channels have to satisfy several key criteria, including entertainment value, educational value and appropriateness for Australian children. These criteria are assessed for the ABA by a panel of early childhood educators. The stations aren't free to label The Jetsons or 101 Dalmatians educational like they do in the US, where new federal regulations oblige shows are too slow and passive." "Hi-5 is a victory of style over substance," huffed one angry father in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald. "It is a victory of short-term gratification over long-term child development." The very idea of aiming shows at "media-literate" children sticks in the craw of some critics, like The Age's Simon Hughes, who suggested in a vitriolic column that Hi-5 was training kids to dumb down. "Parents like shows that reflect what childhood means to them," says Wendy Keys, a Griffiths University academic currently researching the Australian children's television industry. "They want shows that reflect their value system." Hi-5 was unfairly blamed for the Play School purge late last year, when executive producer Henrietta Collins and three presenters were sacked, including the longest-serving and well-loved Benita. An unnamed source in an Age article this February said the ABC's children's television department had been "spooked" by Hi-5's ratings. The ABC's commissioning editor of children's programs, Claire Henderson, insists the Play School revamp amounts to a couple of new toys and a few new sets, not Jemima in crop tops and rock'n'roll bears. The shows are on at different times: Hi-5 is on at 9am weekdays and Play School screens at 9.30am and 3pm. Play School is still the highest-rating show for children under five. And for all the jiving on Channel Nine, the shows are not radically different. All the current Australian preschool shows are studio-based half-hour programs with presenters who sing songs, tell stories and play games. Some wear dungarees, some wear Dangerfield but other differences, frankly, are minor. The results of the Play School revamp haven't appeared onscreen yet. The set's the same, Benita is still there in the repeats and they have no qualms using grainy 1970s footage from an Ansell rubber glove factory. Over on Channel Seven's quiet little show, The Book Place, they're reading books about bears. A guest appearance by the vibrant Mem Fox, a theatrical reader of her own stories, brightens a solemn library showcase. In The Box on Channel Ten looks like a low-budget Play School but they invite a couple of little kids along each day to hop and jump with them. broadcasters to provide a pathetic three weekly hours of educational TV for all viewers under 16. In Australia, there must be no commercial breaks during P-rated shows and no prizes or giveaways. Shows can't demean someone's ethnicity, ability or gender, can't show unsafe products or actions and can't be "unduly frightening or unduly distressing". On Hi-5's Robot Week, the presenters never wear helmets because masks are too scary for little children. Australian television producers are much more careful to consult research and experts when producing preschool programming than they are with shows for older children, says academic Wendy Keys. In her industry surveys, she found them more interested in the little ones' developmental issues and more focused on "telling a good story" for older children. Getting advice can be confusing when early childhood research is such a fractious and contradictory field. Hi-5 has an in-house early childhood adviser, Helen Martin, who worked on Play School for years but Graeme-Evans and Harris also use focus groups and outside experts to inform their work - and also the gut feel of a crew who almost all have children in the right age group. "People tell us we've overestimated the audience but we've proved them wrong," says Graeme-Evans proudly. "Helen Martin says she had thrown out her old rule book since she came on Hi-5 and saw what was possible." The Australian Children's Television Foundation - the country's major producer of children's educational TV -has no plans to make pre-school programming. The commercial stations have already filled their P-rating quotas with one cheap studio-based show each. "It was meant to be a minimum requirement but it's become the maximum," says Patricia Edgar, ACTF's director. The last junior show she produced was the ambitious Lift-Off series, a $10 million project originally aimed at the commercials but eventually screened on the ABC. While it was praised, prized and sold into overseas markets, it never took off the way Bananas did and is no longer in production. Last December, Here's Humphrey producer Wilson Main told the Productivity Commission into Broadcasting Standards that "budgets have dropped to such a ridiculous extent that the ability to make exportable programs is 10 SundayLife!

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