Remembering ‘Ocean Girl’ And The Aussie Kids TV Boom Of The ’90s

'90s Australian kids series Ocean Girl, Neri patting her whale, Charlie.

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Since I was a kid, I’ve had two major dreams: to breathe underwater and write my own TV show. The source of both distant dreams is cult Sci-Fi Australian kids series, Ocean Girl. While I have managed to become a published Sci-Fi author (one step closer to the dream!) unfortunately, recent research shows a significant downturn in production of original Australian kids shows, leaving current and future generations of Aussie kids without the kind of inspiration I experienced growing up.

Ocean Girl aired on Channel 10 between 1994-1997. Set in the not-too-distant future, the series was about a humanoid alien called Neri with superhuman swimming abilities who befriends two brothers living in an underwater research station called ORCA (Oceanic Research Centre of Australia). Over four seasons, the gang uncovered the mystery of Neri’s presence on Earth, and a government conspiracy to prevent her from achieving her secret mission.

I was a baby during the series’ original run, but in the early ’00s I would run home to watch the re-runs. I taught myself how to pre-set recording VHS tapes so I wouldn’t miss an episode. Ocean Girl really was my earliest introduction to the Australian science fiction and speculative fiction genres. Twenty years later, I am a published author of Australian speculative fiction (check out This All Come Back Now). Growing up watching distinctly Australian science fiction series like Ocean Girl, Silversun and Parallax not only inspired a love of the genre, but empowered me to imagine strange new Australian futures. Sadly though, it seems mine may be the last generation to grow up with such stories.

According to a new report by the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF), Aussie kids TV is in crisis, with production of original Australian kids content on free-to-air TV dropping 84% between 2019-2022. In 2020, the government lifted regulations requiring free-to-air networks to produce quotas of homegrown kids content. The result? Next to no new shows for kids.

With the exception of Play School and Bluey, the report found the most-loved kids series were shows from the ’90s and early ’00s; like Round the Twist, Blinky Bell, and The Genie from Down Under. Channel 10 originally aired homegrown kids hits such as Cybergirl, H20: Just Add Water, Animalia, Mirror Mirror, Totally Wild, and of course, my beloved Ocean Girl. But since 2021, it has commissioned only one original Australian kids’ show: Rock Island Mysteries. The ’90s-’00s kids TV golden age, spawned by the pre-internet tween advertising boom is now a glimmering speck in Australia’s cultural rear-view mirror.

Kids, tweens and teens are not entirely without TV. Nickelodeon became a free-to-air station in 2021, and most major streaming services have designated kids programming. However, Australian kids are growing up with less media that is homegrown, and by extension, less media that reflects their own cultures. There are exceptions like Rock Island Mysteries, Little J and Big Cuz, and Bluey – but these kinds of productions are growing fewer and fewer.

It darkens my heart that kids growing up now have far fewer weird and wonderful shows. I wonder, will they still grow up dreaming of fantastic futures with aliens and underwater science labs? Aussie kids deserve stories made for them about their own backyards. Not just because of how important it is for kids to see media about themselves, but because Australian stories inspire the next generation of storytellers. The Australian entertainment industry will survive without stories for kids, but it will be a bit less bright.

Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian author, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out their podcast, GayV Club where they yarn about LGBTIQ media. Either way, they hope you ate something nice today.

Image credit: Ocean Girl, Channel 10