On January 23, the US version of Sesame Street included a brand-new mixed-media 1:45-minute film as part of its numbers segment and 44th season. The educational music video, Five Kangaroos from Brisbane, Australia-based prodco Carbon Media, is short, but its impact may be long-lasting. Its acquisition by Sesame Workshop marks the first time indigenous Australian content has been included on the iconic children’s television show.
For Carbon Media’s Wayne Denning—owner and executive producer of the Aboriginal-owned-and-operated studio—securing global, mainstream exposure for the vibrant Five Kangaroos is particularly meaningful. So many perceptions around indigenous communities are often related to disadvantages and negative social and economic issues, but this short should engender the exact opposite reaction.
“A lot of Aboriginal people feel disengaged because of [these perceptions], so we’re all about portraying positive images and storylines based on our oral and cultural traditions,” says Denning. “We are incredibly excited to be promoting indigenous children on one of the world’s most successful children’s programs, where they can see themselves, their art and traditions, and feel proud and included.”
When the project, which is set to air in March in Australia, was first pitched to Sesame last February, the nonprofit was particularly taken by the kids in the live-action/animated short. And the art, music and featured singing talents of successful Australian pop star and actress Jessica Mauboy (The Sapphires), who happens to be Aboriginal, were a definite bonus.
“Five Kangaroos was something different and unique,” says Sesame Street producer Kim Wright. “Seeing a group of beautiful kids that other kids around the world might not have been exposed to was a strong selling point.”
While Carbon’s content has attracted broadcasters like Australia’s National Indigenous Television (NITV) and global indigenous networks, Denning hopes the company’s breakthrough with Sesame Street, and additional series sales to ABC Australia (kids game shows Letterbox and Go Lingo!, interstitial series Handball Heroes) will help lead to more mainstream international deals.
“Yes, the company is proudly Aboriginal, and there is an element of us making content for indigenous broadcasters in Australia and around the world, but to me the greatest impact is getting on a show like Sesame Street or on a channel like Disney,” says Denning. “A strong push for Carbon, which also creates documentaries, TV commercials and digital content for adults, is to make more Aboriginal-themed content styled to a global audience.”
To help on the funding front, Carbon was one of four companies selected for Screen Australia’s 2013 Enterprise Program that doled out US$2.2 million in support to Australian producers. The three-year funding term, earmarked for development, is a first for Carbon, which launched in 2006.
Another indigenous kids content producer with production expansion and mainstream broadcast deals on his mind is Charles “Chuck” Clément, owner of Media RendezVous. The Aboriginal-owned, multi-platform content producer is based in Winnipeg, Canada.
Since launching in 2007 under the direction of Clément and his brothers Patrick and André, Media RendezVous has produced programs in English, French and Aboriginal languages across a number of genres including children’s, music, factual, sports and variety. The third season of its environmental adventure-comedy series Planet Echo, for kids eight to 12, premiered on Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) in January. (A a fourth season will be completed by the end of this year bringing the series’ total to 52 eps.) The co-production with Toronto’s Positive Productions is financed in part by Canada’s Bell Fund, the province of Manitoba and APTN. It was also acquired by Canadian educational networks Knowledge Kids (seasons one and two) and French-language SCN (seasons one and three).
On the digital side, Media RendezVous partnered with a local app developer, IDFusion, in 2012 to create a free science-themed iPad app. Dr. Greenie’s Mad Lab (Dr. Greenie is one of the characters from Planet Echo) features a stand-alone appisode, games and activities. And a second app, Dr. Greenie’s Magnotronic, launched last month with brand-new exclusive content.
“Hopefully kids who discover us on their iPads will Google us or find us on APTN, its website, or anywhere else Planet Echo is found,” says Clément, who’s also an executive producer, writer, director, host and actor with Métis and French-Canadian roots.
He says the company’s multi-platform investment and growing TV experience has helped gain the attention of non-indigenous networks.
“APTN remains a terrific partner, but certainly having more experience, and more awareness being drawn to some of our productions, has allowed us to now work with other broadcasters,” says Clément.
While his company has found success, Clément notes that the Canadian landscape is beginning to get crowded as more Aboriginal writers, producers and storytellers enter the scene.
“One of the biggest challenges for indigenous kids programming is that APTN is the only Aboriginal-focused broadcaster in Canada. Even though they have a great mandate and a stellar legacy, it is still only one broadcaster with finite resources,” he contends.
“APTN is also the greatest opportunity because they want to hear our stories. We hope that other broadcasters, including public broadcasters like the CBC, will start to shoulder some of the responsibility alongside APTN and pay more attention to this really important community that is the fastest-growing population in Canada.” According to Statistics Canada, 1.4 million people reported having an Aboriginal identity in 2011, a 20% rise from 2006, versus a 5.2% uptick in the non-Aboriginal population.
However, APTN’s director of programming Monika Ille says people should not expect any big changes in the landscape just yet. “Would other broadcasters be interested in kids shows with Aboriginal content? Not really. Producers often approach them with shows and they send them to us,” she says.
While it’s obvious a sea change isn’t in the cards just this minute, Clément and Denning say producers need to maintain strong relationships with their respective countries’ government-funded screen agencies that support international co-pro opportunities to better compete on a global scale.
“Forming relationships with global partners and broadcasters around the world is something we wouldn’t be able to do without the support of our government agencies like Screen Australia and Screen Queensland,” says Denning. He also stresses the importance of attending leading markets like MIPCOM and Kidscreen Summit to learn the broader requirements of success.
The nurturing of up-and-coming indigenous talent through more training programs, according to Screen Queensland COO Jennie Hughes, is also key for the future of indigenous programming. “The challenge is making sure you have enough people going into the sector and then nurturing the talent,” Hughes says.
Looking to boost their respective lineups, both Carbon and RendezVous have a number of new projects in the works. Clement says his team has two new series in development with APTN and the Canada Media Fund—a multi-cam teen sitcom (working title Rebels) with Toronto partner Heroic TV that would be APTN’s first-ever sitcom, and Canot Cocasse (Crazy Canoe), a French-language live-action/animated preschool series. For its part, Carbon currently has three kids projects in development, including animated preschool series Too Many Cheeky Dogs and The Puggles.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2014 issue of Kidscreen