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Spotlight on kids’ TV

Australian children’s TV continues to shine under pressure, whether that’s winning Emmys, selling internationally or launching careers.

Splice of stills from Dive Club, Bluey and Robbie HoodDive Club, Bluey, Robbie Hood

Hemsworth, Blanchett and … Bluey?

Australia’s biggest international exports are typically so famous you need only say one of their names. In 2021, that includes an animated blue heeler from Brisbane and self-titled star of Bluey, who has become a household name since the ABC/BBC series first launched in late 2018. Created by showrunner Joe Brumm and Ludo Studio co-founders Charlie Aspinwall and Daley Pearson, there have now been two series of Bluey totalling 105 episodes, multiple one-off specials, and a highly-anticipated third season premiering on 22 November on ABC Kids. There’s also a merchandising line which includes Bluey books, clothes and toys, and a popularity that extends far beyond Australia, since the series was picked up globally by Disney+ in 2019.

Bluey is the latest in a long line of success stories for Australian kids TV and for Ludo’s Daley Pearson, it’s time to stop thinking about children’s TV as an obligation and start recognising it for the juggernaut that it is – critically, commercially and culturally.

“You do get the impression that kids’ TV sometimes is… not looked on as 'proper' or 'for real',” he says. “There’s the idea that we're doing a little bit of a favour to make kids’ TV… that it’s something we have to do [just] so our kids have something to watch. Whereas in our heads at Ludo, that's not where it's at.”

Pearson says Ludo never set out to make children’s content. It was simply that the ideas that resonated were often for family or younger audiences.

“The first reason we started doing kids' TV was for a job: one of the ideas we came up with was Doodles and it got a commission from the ABC during the really early days of Ludo,” he says.

The idea was to animate drawings sent in by audience members, and “it just fit in kids’ TV.”

“We loved the idea and then we followed it to where its audience was on the market, but there was no plan,” he says, when asked about Ludo’s work in the space which aside from Bluey also includes The Strange Chores and Robbie Hood. “In fact, everyone warned us away from kids’ TV, to be honest, because they said it's a saturated market.”

But that market is competitive, rather than oversaturated according to Canadian-Australian director, producer and showrunner Steve Jaggi – whose latest project is the teen series Dive Club for Netflix and Network Ten.

“It is a subsector of the business where the competition is fierce,” he says, but unlike adult TV drama, where you’re competing with studio content, you can find cut-through in the kids’ space.

“It can be very difficult when you're setting up a company to find a sweet spot where you can practise your craft and develop good stories, good characters and make content that will speak to audiences that won't be overshadowed by studio content. [But] when you look at Australian content, the content for under 18s really punches through…

“Look at Dive Club: the level of risk we were able to take in terms of storytelling, casting, the way we shot it. If we'd made a either a movie or a series for adults, we would never have been given the level of creative freedom to do what we did. And because we were given a substantial amount of creative freedom, it allowed us to create a show that is competitive with content from overseas that costs three or four times as much.”

Producer Joanna Werner of Werner Film Productions, who created Dance Academy as well as adult TV dramas like The Newsreader, says Australian kids’ content gets noticed because of how it’s made.

Producer Joanna Werner with director Cherie Nolan on the set of Dance Academy series 1Producer Joanna Werner with director Cherie Nolan on the set of Dance Academy series 1

“We take it really seriously,” says Werner, who’s stepping back into children’s TV with the recent announcement of new ABC ME horror comedy series Crazy Fun Park.

“We employ the same talented people that you would on a on a prime-time drama on our kids’ TV. We treat our audiences like they're intelligent and they deserve really smart, nuanced characters, we have really high production values, and because we're good at it, we're also really competitive against each other. We all push each other to be better.”

But this isn’t just anecdotal. As they say, the proof is in the pudding.

To understand the widespread success of Australian kids’ TV, first look critically.

Of the 17 International Emmy Awards won by Australians to date, seven have been for children’s TV – the oldest for 1988 ACTF series Captain Johnno and the most recent in 2021 for ABC series First Day, which also won a Rose d’Or in 2020. Five of those International Emmys were won between the six-year period of 2015 and 2021. Only one Australian adult TV drama – Safe Harbour – has won in the same time frame.

Shift that lens commercially.

An analysis of international TV sales data from 2017 showed that out of all Screen Australia television drama titles, the one that delivered the most net revenue to investors that calendar year was a children’s TV series: series 1 of Mako Mermaids: Island of Secrets, a spin-off of Jonathan M Shiff Productions’ H2O: Just Add Water. It bested not just the other 34 children’s dramas in the data set, but the 103 adult TV dramas as well.

Mako MermaidsMako Mermaids

The television landscape has changed dramatically even in these last four years, but a glance at the 2016-2021 post-financing sales for Screen Australia-funded children’s television projects (equity investments only) places Mako Mermaids series 1 within the top 10 performing recoupment projects that received sales, along with the second and third series, H20: Just Add Water Series 1-3, Bureau of Magical Things, Dance Academy Series 2, as well as older titles such as 1994 series Spellbinder I, and Spellbinder II: The Land of the Dragon Lord from 1996.

They aren’t the oldest titles still recouping funds either. Of the 66 projects in the 2016-2021 analysis is Girl From Tomorrow. It was contracted to receive funding in 1989, saw its first return of gross receipts in 1990/91 and 27 years later is still receiving a return to investors and producers.

Looking at the value rather than the quantity of those sales paints a slightly different picture, but still with Mako Mermaids leading the pack:

According to an interview with Jonathon M Shiff, the success of H20 on Netflix led to a 2013 deal whereby Mako Mermaids became the first live-action series to be simultaneously and exclusively released internationally by Netflix, who also committed to a second series.

With those international sales comes huge audiences, particularly on the streamers, with series such as Dive Club and the upcoming MaveriX on Netflix, or for projects like the Alice-Miranda: Friends Forever telemovie, which was commissioned for Nine, but premiered on Stan. Nine-owned Stan has partnered with Australian Children’s Television Foundation for a new initiative to find original live-action feature ideas, with Stan also announcing a strategy to fund 30 Stan Originals a year by 2025. However, generally discussions around content quotas remain in the air for streamers – particularly since the minimum requirement for local children's content was removed for the commercial broadcasters.

For a series like Dive Club, Jaggi says airing on Netflix has opened it up to a staggering audience.

“For a very tiny Australian teen show on a very humble budget to have gone out and… we actually broke through in over a dozen territories into the adult carousel Top 10 and it was on the kids carousel in over 50 territories. So, the number of eyeballs is obviously in the many, many millions,” he says.

Commercially, the argument for children’s TV also lies in what it can do for the next generation of Australian storytellers finding their way into the industry.

Director Dylan River’s first foray into long-form drama was with the SBS series Robbie Hood. Corrie Chen, who directed the four-part SBS series New Gold Mountain got her big break in episodic TV directing on teen ABC series Mustangs FC. Yolanda Ramke is the creator and co-director on upcoming ABC series Troppo and also directed on Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor, but landed her first job in the industry as a costume attachment on H20: Just Add Water – a series that starred Phoebe Tonkin in her first on-screen role, and was also produced by a then pre-Dance Academy Joanna Werner. Werner would next work on another kids’ series by Shiff called The Elephant Princess, where she would meet future Dance Academy writer Samantha Strauss, as well as work with a couple of soon-to-be famous faces.

“Sam Strauss I first met when she was a casting director and so she cast The Elephant Princess and cast Margot Robbie and I do think it was her first ever role,” Werner says of the series, which starred Liam Hemsworth. “And Liam was just delightful. Then you look at things like Dance Academy and there’s actors like Jordan Rodrigues, who got nominated for a daytime Emmy for his work in the States (on TV series Light as a Feather), and Keiynan Lonsdale (The Flash; Love, Simon) has gone on to be mega-brilliant and famous.

“So many people that we've worked with have gone to such great things. It's just a testament to how great kids’ television in Australia is. You find these wonderful talents and foster them and give them such great skills and work ethic. It's not surprising that so many of them go on to great success.”

In Bluey’s case, it’s led to the development of the careers of dozens of animators in Brisbane.

“It was half the studio's first job during the first season,” Pearson says. “More than half of them had just come out of uni or it was their first animation job and we trained them up over a couple of months. I really think is important to say is how much craft, talent, discipline [it’s taken].

“We also had massive support from Screen Queensland and Screen Australia. It seems like sometimes maybe Bluey just happened, but there was so much faith put in us and then we worked hard to not let down that base.”

Safe to say, they didn’t.

Charlie Aspinwall and Daley Pearson headshot.Charlie Aspinwall and Daley Pearson

Bluey is the most-watched series in ABC iview history, the #1 children’s program in Australia and the highest rated program ever on ABC Kids. The latest series achieved a complete audience of 7.2 million, across all broadcasts and on ABC iview1 and Bluey’s ‘Christmas Swim’ is the highest rated ABC television episode across all broadcast content, since 20072. Disney also reported that Bluey had reached 16 million US viewers in the last quarter of 2019 following its launch on Disney Junior in October 2019. And when Bluey went out in the US, it was with the Australian accents intact, something that Pearson says Disney+ very much supported.

“BBC Studios is our partner with ABC and after it aired in Australia we took it to the markets - MIPCOM, Kidscreen, MIPTV – we went through all of them to try to sell the show and we had really lovely interest from massive people,” he says.

They were overwhelmed at the responses, but keeping the Australian accent became a sticking point.

“When we first started hearing feedback saying we might need to change voices, we were pretty sure with our partners that we were not going to compromise on that and we really thought we'd shot ourselves in the foot,” he says.

“But Disney and Disney+ were one of the ones who supported it, which was why we were really attracted to go with them… They really supported the show's DNA.”

He says it’s not just because it would have been strange to hear US accents from the characters, but also because it wouldn’t do justice to the 50-60 animators who have crafted Bluey and the local voice cast behind it.

“The animation is tailored so much to these characters and this cast that it would have been a bit of a betrayal to all the work and art they put into making these characters sing,” he says, adding that the US audiences love it, with reports even that American kids are talking in Aussie accents.

“They love the idiosyncrasies. They love hearing Australian terminology. They really seem to be celebrating the Australianness of it, which is great.”

It’s a cultural side to the argument that’s harder to weigh up in dollar amounts: the impact for Australian kids to see and hear themselves reflected on screens.

“I think because of COVID, we rarely get out of town and we've sort of been chained to the studio, but it's completely overwhelming to see kids talk about it or come up to you and talk about it once they learn you're a part of it,” Pearson says.

For an animation like the SBS/NITV series Little J & Big Cuz, whose third season is in production, it’s a story that’s resonated in remote Indigenous communities throughout the country, with 11 different language versions already created.

Still from Little J and Big CuzLittle J & Big Cuz

For audiences watching Bluey, Little J & Big Cuz, or live action like Dive Club, Dance Academy, Mustangs FC, and First Day, it’s seeing a representation of Australia that is diverse and authentic.

Jaggi believes the audience demands that.

“A lot of older Australians have a very definitive view of this: what it means to be Australian,” he says. “For younger adults, it is a very complex tapestry, and there isn't actually a unique Australian identity. It is a complex identity that feeds into a lot of different strands, and it creates a richer environment, both in terms of storytelling and in characters. And those younger audiences and looking for complex stories with complex characters who come from a very broad diversity of backgrounds.”

It’s part of why these creatives believe so strongly in local stories being created for local audiences. But as Pearson says, it didn’t happen overnight.

“We've been working on Bluey now - Charlie, Joe and I – for six years, maybe more. I'm sure Joe had fragments of it in his head for years before that. And it is wonderful that it's gone global, [but it also] has been hard work…

“Maybe we need to be a bit loud about the amount of work, the artists, the craft, just the time it takes for people to get good. That's something I'd love to communicate to the powers that be, stuff doesn't happen tomorrow, but it will happen.

“I didn't want to believe it, but it's totally true that that policy leads to culture. People need that bit of support.”
He says Ludo Studio received Enterprise funding from Screen Australia, but it was funding that specifically enabled them to grow their business.

“We didn't spend it on ourselves. You're not allowed to spend it on shoes or rent. You have to spend it on upskilling and development.”

And then who knows? You might just have the next Bluey on your hands.

Comprising 506k metro + regional AVE AUD first-run premieres, 3.9m metro + regional AVE AUD all encore & repeat broadcasts, 2.8m VPM. Source: OzTAM & Regional TAM 2020 full-year data, OzTAM VPM data. Bluey Series 2 complete audience includes first-run episodes, repeats/encore broadcasts + ABC iview.

Source: OzTAM & Regional TAM 2020 full-year data, OzTAM VPM data. Bluey Series 2 complete audience includes first-run episodes, repeats/encore broadcasts + ABC iview.