Suzy Cato on the state of children’s programming in New Zealand

Children’s programming in New Zealand in the 1990s was full of Kiwi voices in New Zealand-made shows – think Play School, What NowThe Son of a Gunn Show, and Squirt. And who could forget Suzy Cato of You and Me, 3pm and Suzy’s World fame?

Cato has been part of New Zealanders’ lives since beginning her career in 1990 as presenter of the Kiwi version of kid’s television series The Early Bird Show.

Having being part of the media landscape for over 25 years Cato is still a popular figure: people in their 30s remember the words to songs from the popular pre-schooler series You and Me, her colourful sweaters are etched into collective memory, and several colleagues in the Tangible office professed their love for the presenter and her friendly manner. 

While What Now continues and others such as The Moe Show are home-made, Kiwi kids are also clamouring to American and British programmes like Charlie and Lola, Peppa Pig and Dora the Explorer. 

In June last year, Radio New Zealand reported on the shrinking options for children, in light of youth-focused free-to-air channel Four disappearing, meaning there was no advertising-free programming for kids on free-to-air TV. However, change is on the way. 

In October, StopPress talked to TVNZ’s director of content Cate Slater about its new season launch.

As part of its commitment to local programming, came the announcement of an ad-free, safe online environment to host children’s multi-media content supported with funding from New Zealand On Air. This is to fill a gap in the media landscape caused by the lack of local children’s programming, said Slater. 

The project is on track to launch in the first half of next year and is currently in the digital design development and build planning phase.

Cato was involved in the project, says Amie Mills, TVNZ’s digital and children’s commissioner. 

“We knew from the outset that for this project to succeed, TVNZ and NZ On Air would need to bring together a nationwide community of local makers and creators to collaborate. One of the first things we did was run a full day workshop with over 70 producers, writers, game developers and children’s media practitioners. Suzy was one of those storytellers we knew would bring wisdom and insight to the table. She was instrumental in helping us shape the vision for the project,” says Mills. 

Cato says she has really been impressed by the kind of content TVNZ and NZ on Air are looking for.

“The examples that they’ve given us are good quality stuff, stuff that encourages kids to be active, and a part of the community and the environment.”

She says is also excited by the new government’s plans for RNZ+. The Minister for Broadcasting Clare Curran recently said she wanted it to be a full TV channel run by RNZ on Freeview offering more news and current affairs, drama – and crucially for Cato, children’s content.

“It’s good to have options. The thing that gets me is that we’re good at providing content for pre-schoolers, but it’s really valuable to have a free, babysitting tool aimed at that age group (5- to 9-year-olds), and then for tweens we want content the kids can grow into, instead of turning to overseas and American content,” Cato says.

Cato says New Zealand has always had overseas content and says it is expensive to create local content.

“When a producer is purchasing, they purchase it in a package – they are obliged to play what is contained, they are obliged to go with those shows and free up their budget.”

There’s also an element of risk when it comes to producing kids’ shows in that there’s no formula to guarantee success. 

Having been at the helm of two popular Kiwi television shows – You and Me and the scientific Suzy’s World – and executive producer of Byran and Bobby – Cato says there tends to be a few elements consistent across successful kids’ shows. 

“What we enjoyed as kids are what kids are looking for now, I think it’s the feel-good factor. It feeds your soul as well as your mind. It’s also the fun factor – that’s what Suzy’s World was all about –  you were included. It’s about allowing kids to be kids for as long as possible.”

She says kids these days are exposed to so much more than they used to be, through technology and the internet, so “it’s all about empowering kids to choose what they watch.”

When asked how she thinks shows can stay relevant in such a fast-moving environment, she says stay true to what you’re offering.

“While not every kid will like what you do, it doesn’t matter. It’s just one of those things, you just have to make sure there are options. It’s opening eyes to new things. We talked about You and Me like a veggie burger – you got something from it without realizing, a sense of learning by osmosis.”

Discussing advertising to children, Cato says while there is none around pre-school programming on TVNZ On Demand, broadcasters do rely on the income from advertising.

“Those who want to advertise around children are the fast food and the like because they’re going to catch the kid’s eye. Being a producer now, instead of just purely a presenter and looking for funding dollars myself, how do you get a good blend of the two? There are ways of doing it but it is something in the industry that needs to be looked at. From a parental perspective, the less pressure we get from our kids, the better to fit in with budgets.”

While she may not be presenting on our television screens these days, Cato is still performing. 

Her Suzy & Friends radio show, supported by funding from NZ on Air, was started around nine years ago and can be found on 21 stations throughout the country.

Cato says it was created based on what she herself grew up listening to.

“Kids’ stories, creativity, we’re still playing the old classics like Bad Jelly the Witch. It’s the theatre of the mind, all the imagination gets going.”

The show travels around the country – from New Plymouth to Wanaka – with one family chosen to help co-host each episode, with kids eager to take part. 

To increase the presence of Suzy & Friends, there is also a Youtube channel with 140-odd videos showcasing arts and crafts, and live appearances.  

“We wanted to do something to get kids involved, be active participants – we have a ‘star’ each week, an activity on air. Content for kids means Kiwi voices,” Cato says. 

Cato is also a founding member and chairperson of Kiwi Kids Music, an organization of over 60 Kiwi musicians including singer Anika Moa, created to support each other, and to advance the potential of all children to live healthy fulfilling lives.

There have been performances at the Auckland Museum, Auckland Council’s Music in Parks and soon Cato will head to Christchurch to do three performances for the Christchurch Christmas Festival. 

It’s busy times for Cato – and what looks like a positive future for children’s programming in New Zealand.

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