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a composite image of Bakana Bilby (a person in a full-size Bilby suit) in a bed with hands over his eyes, with images of Big Dog, Fat Cat and Doopa Dog positioned around the bed like ghosts or sleep paralysis demons.

Bakana Bilby (GTS/BKN), Big Dog (NBN), Fat Cat (Seven Perth) and Doopa Dog (GWN7). Digital Image: Kill Your Darlings

Bakana Bilby jumps out from behind a palm tree in the middle of the median strip. He charges toward the camera, chucks us a thumbs up.

Bakana Bilby balances on one leg, his feet in soft pink clown shoes, down on the Port Pirie foreshore. His arms stretch out like wings on a harpy; lead smelters stoic in the background.

Bakana Bilby slumps in a double bed. It seems to hang in space, stitched into the fabric of time itself, in the centre of a sound stage, infinite black. His posture is dreadful. A human woman leaves his side, and he rolls over to get some shut-eye. Only, his black plastic peepers remain forever open. Behind them, if you dare to look, lies a cache of bizarre Australiana.

If you didn’t come of age in regional Australia, you may be surprised to learn that, up until quite recently, in the heyday of linear television, grown adults in animal costumes made nightly appearances on primetime TV, telling children to go to bed.

Part public service announcement, part nightmare fuel nightcap, these tacky ad-break staples—with their plinky-plonky glockenspiel soundtracks and treacly voiceovers—ran for several decades and played a crucial role in this country’s regularly scheduled programming.

At 7.30pm each night, as Bakana hunkered down in country South Australia (plus Broken Hill in New South Wales), his diurnal kin followed suit across the continent. If you grew up in Western Australia, you may recall green-hatted Fat Cat—also seen on Adelaidean screens—who bid kiddies goodnight on Seven Perth. His contemporary Doopa Dog, a suspicious Pluto-lookalike, did the same on GWN7. In the eastern states, Prime Possum and Big Dog performed bedtime rites on Seven and Nine’s regional affiliates respectively, while Imparja Television’s Yamba the Honeyant tucked in young’uns across some of the most remote parts of the country.


These anthropomorphic characters often inhabited a kind of no-human’s land of utility, trotted out for odd jobs too low-rent, too local for actual network personalities. They weren’t celebrity hand-puppets like Agro, nor were they community spokesfigures like Healthy Harold (a straight-edge giraffe who warned preteens about the dangers of illicit substances) or Maurie Mole (a mineshaft awareness mammal that warned NSW viewers about the dangers of implicit subsidence). Some became, in effect, station mascots—though that possibly oversells the credibility of such a Beetlejuice-via-Lincraft demon as Bakana—showing up at carols by candlelight nights and handing out stickers at the local agricultural show. But, for the most part, their common purpose was to herald the watershed.


In this country, as in many, the programs shown on free-to-air television are subject to a Code of Practice. This means that adult themes and images can’t be broadcast during the hours in which children are likely to be watching the box. At 7.30pm comes the watershed—a vibe shift away from family fare toward more graphic violence, sex, nudity, swearing and other cool stuff. Content rated M or higher can only be shown after this gear switch, which is foreshadowed by the arrival of a bedtime weird guy. When Big Dog covers his unblinking gaze with that furry forearm (why weren’t these costumes designed with functioning eyelids?), adults know they have an hour to get the little tackers tucked in before Cop Shop starts.

When Big Dog covers his unblinking gaze with that furry forearm, adults know they have an hour to get the little tackers tucked in before Cop Shop starts.

The watershed principle (named after the geological ridge that separates drainage basins) is widely exercised around the globe, with each territory adopting a start time determined, at least in part, by its own set of cultural mores. Racy content kicks off at 8pm in the Netherlands, 8.30pm in New Zealand, 9pm in Canada and Mexico, 10pm in the Czech Republic, 11pm in Venezuela, and midnight in Finland. Although Australia imported the term from the UK (in the US, it’s called ‘safe harbor’, and starts at 10pm), the shift happens much earlier here than in Britain, where viewers don’t get the good stuff until 9pm or later. In fact, Australia has the earliest watershed in the world, which speaks not only to the nation’s necessity for besuited timekeepers as a distinct community service, but why—as far as I have been able to find—they are only found in any significant numbers on this continent.


At the dawn of TV broadcasting here in the 1950s, most programs, along with broader on-air quirks and proclivities, were shipped in from the ‘cultural superpowers’ of the Global North. Though the burgeoning commercial networks emulated an American business model reliant on advertising, they initially had neither the resources nor inclination to create their own shows. As such, local production didn’t hit its stride here until the mid-sixties, with a particular focus on preschool fodder, reifying TV’s role as ‘the electronic babysitter’ that supports family routines (the fact that children are easy to market to, and generally unfussed about production values, also helped). Titles like Big Dog’s breakout hit Romper Room (originally a Baltimore franchise with multiple versions licensed across Australian cities and networks from 1963 until its Newcastle version finally croaked in the late 90s) and Fat Cat and Friends (1972–91) leveraged the tried and tested formula of cheap and cheerful US kids’ shows. Unlike their American precedents, however, their characters’ side-gigs as bedtime heralds spawned a small-screen genus endemic to the land down under.

All gendered as ostensibly male, and usually accompanied by a femme-presenting (usually human) companion, these costumed critters are vectors through which to consider the national appetite for paternalism. Through their involvement in sending children to bed—a task typically seen to by a parent—you could, if you really wanted, apply a Freudian reading as stand-in daddies, catalysing the nightly lights-out routine at an hour so early (by international watershed standards) as to arguably be considered a punishment. But what initially whiffs of nanny-state conservatism is, in practice, surprisingly progressive.

Local TV production didn’t hit its stride here until the mid-sixties, with a particular focus on preschool fodder—children are easy to market to, and generally unfussed about production values.

While the 7.30pm watershed surely cramps the style of primary schoolers hooked on scripted drama, it does mean that mature themes and content can start earlier and run for longer here than in many other territories. This cultural latitude greased the wheels for radical series like Number 96 (1972–77) and Prisoner (1979–86), which depicted feminism, queerness, sex work, Satanic rituals, abortion and other topics deemed too outré by television execs overseas. Though the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) did initially sanction Network Ten (then called the 0-10 Network) for transmitting unprecedented risqué business in Number 96, the show became so beloved that the ABCB eventually just gave up, leaning into that laid-back, she’ll be right ethos that many folks (rightly or wrongly) consider quintessentially Australian.

By the early 90s, the ABCB had become the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal: a body that mandated commercial networks air at least 130 hours of quality preschool programming annually. Consequently, Seven’s Fat Cat and Friends got the axe, as the Tribunal saw it insufficient in artistic and educational riches. There was also concern that his gender was ill-defined, and the ambiguity could confuse impressionable viewers. In light of Seven’s loss, the folks at rival Channel Nine, having what’s known in the biz as ‘a normal one’, got Fat Cat’s frenemy Humphrey B. Bear to stage a mock funeral, observing what many devotees at the time considered the death of good, old fashioned, Australian children’s telly. For others, a golden age was just beginning.


For some time prior, political and cultural tastemakers had already been working to retrofit a sense of fair dinkum Aussie pride into the domestic conscience. From the perverse patriotism of the 1988 Bicentennial ‘celebrations’ to the 1994 release of then Prime Minister Paul Keating’s ‘Creative Nation’ cultural policy, this era saw a spike in parochial Australiana—think John Williamson, Don Spencer, Mem Fox, Fern Gully and Kangaroo Creek Gang (whose Kenny Kidna moonlighted as an animated night-night guy in Perth). Hitherto, children’s characters had largely been modelled on European ideas of animals with kiddie appeal. By the mid-nineties, as regional broadcasters sought to hit local content quotas, they started to mimic native fauna, with the debut of Yamba the Honeyant and Prime Possum in 1995, and Bakana Bilby in 1997.

Leveraging a cutesy Australiana aesthetic, with roots in Blinky Bill and May Gibbs’ gumnut babies, this new generation of goodnight guys was part of a broader (and enduring) cultural trend that repackaged native fauna and flora for the purposes of national mythmaking. Also present in the zeitgeist was the historic 1992 Mabo decision that reversed the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ and introduced the concept of Indigenous sovereignty to many who’d never considered it. But just as the Howard Government rebranded the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to the sugar-coated ‘Harmony Day’, so too do Possum, Bakana et al strategically soften the ongoing reality of colonialism on this continent. That’s not to say they’re born of perfidious intent, necessarily, but with the same misguided sincerity/cultural amnesia that’s seen Donald Horne’s 1964 rejoinder, ‘Australia is a lucky country,’ decontextualised into a compliment. Yamba, at least, was created by Aboriginal producers at an Indigenous-owned station broadcasting primarily for First Nations audiences​. And Bakana, for his part, premiered in step with a national movement to protect the vulnerable greater bilby, impacted by habitat loss and population decline care of invasive predatory species. But with such complicated ties to our national identity, you could argue that these fun-police furries are, in some unconscious way, avatars for white Australia’s displaced shame, guilt, and petulant illiteracy in the horror of colonisation. Why else would they look so undeniably terrifying?


The inherent (if accidental) creep-factor here is surely one of the reasons why bedtime weird guys have fallen out of contemporary favour. That their popularity peaked in step with the late 20th-century moral panic around ‘stranger danger’—and yet they made regular public appearances to forcibly hug youngsters at shopping centres and Christmas pageants—is one of the many contradictions embodied by these parochial oddities. Then again, maybe their uncanny qualities made them ideal vehicles for saying, ‘Heads up, parents, The X-Files is on tonight.’ Of course, that community service is no longer essential, as terrestrial television takes its last gasps across much of the country.

Leveraging a cutesy Australiana aesthetic, this new generation of goodnight guys was part of a broader repackaging of native fauna and flora for national mythmaking.

Beyond a pawful of reality shows, primetime commercial TV doesn’t offer the tantalising appointment viewing of yore. What’s more, thanks to the Federal Government’s 2020 decision to repeal the long-standing children’s content quotas, this programming dearth affects kids watching commercial free-to-air, too. As audiences of all ages have migrated to streaming services, advertisers have redistributed their budgets accordingly, and this revenue cut has hit regional stations where it hurts. That pain has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, as local businesses tighten their purse strings and spend less on advertising; the same crisis that decimated regional newspapers in recent years is leading to smaller broadcasters getting gobbled up by major metropolitan networks, along with a proposed plan to merge regional stations WIN, Prime Media and Southern Cross Austereo.

The long twilight of bedtime mascots in regional areas, along with smaller capital cities like Adelaide and Perth (where Fat Cat, I’m assured, is still an institution), begs a question of city possum/country possum social mores. Do these tacky characters, hampered by questionable production value, elicit in today’s viewers a fond nostalgia, or a dangerous dose of cultural cringe? Is that why one of the most recent examples is the human (ostensibly) ‘Workers’ of Southern Cross Ten? This confounding bunch of Stepford spouses could be promoting either pro-union rhetoric for preschoolers or jobs jobs jobs capitalist propaganda, and what could better illustrate the shifting sands of so-called ‘Australian’ culture than sending the rugrats off to bed to dream sweet dreams of labour?

Lust and disgust are the bedfellows that foment a potent nostalgia for 20th-century Australian kitsch. Yet the modern preference for CGI and animation over practical effects—plus a reticence to subject children to frightening images, and concerns about their screen time overall—will soon see the Antipodean oddity of bedtime weird guys go gentle into that goodnight, boys and girls. Backlit by the dying glow of linear television itself, Bakana will come to you in a dream and ask, ‘Do you want to adjust your set?’ It’s time to step into the light.