The women who’ve made a ca­reer out of en­ter­tain­ing our kids

If your child has started say­ing ‘flash­light’ in­stead of ‘torch’ and ‘garbage can’ in­stead of ‘rub­bish bin’, you’ll be thank­ful that there are Ki­wis mak­ing kids’ TV shows that re­flect our ac­cents, and sto­ries. We meet two women who’ve made a ca­reer out of

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I wanted to be a news and cur­rent af­fairs pro­ducer and worked for TVNZ, and then got trans­ferred to a news and cur­rent af­fairs show for kids. In mak­ing that show, Spot On, and other kids’ cur­rent af­fairs shows, I started en­joy­ing mak­ing con­tent for kids. As two fe­male pro­duc­ers of chil­dren’s con­tent, you tend to start at the bot­tom. That’s how you learn a lot.

I found that ex­pe­ri­ence within TVNZ in­valu­able. Sel­wyn Too­good used to host a show, Beauty and the Beast, ev­ery week­day af­ter­noon. We never had pho­to­copiers at work, so I had to go down to a pho­to­copy­ing shop and blow up his words. It was my first big job and I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘I’ve got a good de­gree but here I am hold­ing up your cards.’ A hum­bling task but that’s good, it gives you an over­all pic­ture. My first ever pro­duc­ing job was to take the Span­ish out of Se­same Street and put Ma¯ori lan­guage in­serts in where the Span­ish had been.

Then I started cre­at­ing and pro­duc­ing my own con­cepts and con­tent for chil­dren’s pro­grammes. Prob­a­bly the first most well­known one was The Son of a Gunn Show with my now hus­band Ja­son Gunn. Then we made preschool show Bum­ble; that was when Jase and I left TVNZ and set up our own pro­duc­tion com­pany, White­bait Me­dia. That was 20 years ago this year. Step­ping out as your own com­pany, that was quite scary for Jase and I. Peo­ple go, ‘Is there any more toi­let pa­per?’ and we go, ‘Are we in charge of that?’ and we’d send peo­ple to the sta­tionery cup­board re­al­is­ing we are the sta­tionery cup­board. It’s a hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence when you’re the boss and provider.


Emma knocked on the door – at that time I was head of chil­dren’s TV for TVNZ – and I said, ‘Go away.’ She was there for three weeks’ work ex­pe­ri­ence. Ev­ery­body kept say­ing, ‘There’s this girl down­stairs; you’ve got to meet her; she pow­ers through her work and she’s so lively and bub­bly,’ and I was like, ‘Okay then.’

Chil­dren’s view­ing pat­terns have changed. When we were pro­duc­ing What Now and Son of a Gunn, those shows were very much ap­point­ment view­ing for chil­dren in the af­ter­noon or Sun­day or Satur­day morn­ings. Now with so many choices, you don’t just watch these favourite shows at this time. There is so much con­tent com­ing in glob­ally, which is great, but our life’s work has been fo­cused on pro­vid­ing

small win­dows of re­flect­ing back and giv­ing Kiwi kids voices to tell their sto­ries in their way. Hei­hei is that ex­cit­ing new de­vel­op­ment where kids can go and watch largely New Zealand-pro­duced en­ter­tain­ment, con­tent and sto­ries. Chil­dren like rhythm and rou­tine, be­ing able to turn on the telly on a Sun­day morn­ing and still know What Now is there. It’s free to air, which is won­der­ful too. Go­ing across to dig­i­tal there’ll be rhythm and rou­tine to that view­ing so kids will find niche shows gen­er­ated by and for young New Zealan­ders in a sched­ule they’ll be­come fa­mil­iar with.

With so much choice it’s some­times hard for kids to have their voice heard. The con­tent we make is all about pro­vid­ing them with the same va­ri­ety adults en­joy. They want an­i­ma­tion and to have a laugh but they also de­serve to have doc­u­men­taries and more se­ri­ous pieces. They want hands-on learn­ing and do­ing, and they want drama, they want game shows.

When kids are young, par­ents want con­tent that’s safe for them to watch. We’re all time-poor so kids are go­ing to have a de­vice. You want to have a con­ver­sa­tion or put a meal on, or the laun­dry. So it’s ‘Here have my phone’. We’ve seen preschoolers swipe the tum­mies of their par­ents be­cause they just want them to stop [do­ing some­thing]; they’re so dig­i­tal savvy, that’s how you move it on, right? This is cre­at­ing some­thing in New Zealand and we’re tak­ing a se­ri­ous view about it; we want to pro­vide an edu­tain­ing – ed­u­ca­tional, en­ter­tain­ing – in­ter­ac­tive space for kids we know is safe. So a mul­ti­plat­form en­vi­ron­ment which is ac­ces­si­ble on all de­vices at any time, that is mod­er­ated for our kids, is of real help to par­ents.

The shows White­bait makes – Dar­win and Newts, What Now, Fan­i­mals – and all the beau­ti­ful con­tent of the 25 pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies that have been brought un­der the Hei­hei um­brella, they’re all about

‘It’s some­times hard for kids to have their voices heard’

mak­ing you feel good. In to­day’s world, where young Ki­wis have so much choice but some­times don’t feel wor­thy, this is there to in­spire them.


You don’t know what your legacy is un­til you have peo­ple go­ing, ‘I came home and watched Son of a Gunn ev­ery day for five years’, and for Jase, par­tic­u­larly, and Thingee [Ja­son’s side­kick pup­pet], ‘You were my friend’. When they grow up, those kids are putting their kids in front of this show [What Now ] to have a laugh, to have some gunge, to tell sto­ries. The proud­est thing is when you hear back from your au­di­ence. We’ve had kids who’ve come in and stood in the au­di­ence and their eyes have lit up who are now cam­era op­er­a­tors. Or they are run­ning their own pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies; we’re a step­ping stone to so much tal­ent. We’ve had mums say, ‘I could have a shower when Bum­ble was on, I got 10 min­utes to get in there and get out. Thank you so much’. So it’s the au­di­ence you’ve cre­ated all these long last­ing mag­i­cal mem­o­ries for.

We have ‘the White­bait fam­ily’. The process is as im­por­tant as the prod­uct, so we some­times have to sleep at work, stay at work. We work hard and play hard. We see each other more than we see our part­ners, fam­i­lies and friends so the White­bait wha¯nau is re­ally im­por­tant to us. The whole process of mak­ing this has to be en­joy­able, we do a lot of de­brief­ing of each other, we make mis­takes, own it, move on… we’re re­ally into that. We have crazy mid­win­ter par­ties; we love themes, we dress up a lot, we have bak­ing com­pe­ti­tions. We have prize­giv­ings – we give out books for star per­form­ers be­cause we’re all like big kids.

There are many chal­lenges. Though we don’t say ‘chal­lenges’ at White­bait; I go ‘what’s the op­por­tu­nity?’

I love ev­ery show I make. We watch episodes, Emma and I, and we go, ‘That’s my new favourite episode’. We’ve al­ways got an­other show we want to be mak­ing. We ap­pre­ci­ate there’s only so much fund­ing or money avail­able so we just hold that thought. For our com­pany the chal­lenge is to step out into the global mar­ket with an­i­ma­tion; that’s been an ex­cit­ing new three-year ad­ven­ture for Emma and I. And after 37 years in the stu­dio with What Now, we’re tak­ing it on the road to deepen our en­gage­ment with our com­mu­nity.


Fan­i­mals is go­ing to be 200 episodes on week­days at 4pm. We did a lot of test­ing and com­mis­sioned a com­pany and could not find one child who didn’t love an­i­mals. One wee boy didn’t and when they asked him af­ter­wards, he said, ‘I just said that be­cause I like to be dif­fer­ent’, but in ac­tual fact his nana’s dog is his best friend, so it’s in­ter­est­ing. Even chil­dren who don’t have an­i­mals would love to be in a Fan­i­mals club. We’re talk­ing about cre­at­ing vir­tual an­i­mals and emoji an­i­mals, hav­ing pets in a dif­fer­ent way be­cause of apart­ment liv­ing or be­cause they can’t af­ford an an­i­mal or have ac­cess to them. But New Zealand is sec­ond to the States in pet own­er­ship, we love an­i­mals as a na­tion, so this is an ex­cit­ing new ven­ture.


My love for TV started when I was in high school. I as­sisted at sports games for TVNZ. I worked on a lit­tle show called In­fo­cus where high school stu­dents from around Auck­land team up to put to­gether items for this half-hour show. I was al­ways pas­sion­ate about get­ting into the in­dus­try and ab­so­lutely loved What Now as a kid grow­ing up, so I went along to film school in Christchurch. When I fin­ished that course I knocked on the door of TVNZ in Christchurch and said, ‘Hey, do you want some­one to work for free for a month?’ Luck­ily I ob­vi­ously worked hard enough that at the end they of­fered me a job.

I was able to work on What Now for quite a long time, start­ing right down as the pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant and open­ing all the mail, which to me was an amaz­ing job and I look back with fond mem­o­ries. We had so much mail; the av­er­age was about 3000 let­ters with all the com­pe­ti­tion en­tries, kids writ­ing in. We had a club which had four mag­a­zines ev­ery quar­ter that we’d send out to mem­bers. Be­tween the mail room and the club there were prob­a­bly four full-time peo­ple work­ing. We were get­ting all this great stuff from chil­dren, their draw­ings and en­tries. To­day’s world is so dif­fer­ent; we don’t get much mail with What Now be­cause of tech­nol­ogy, which I feel a lit­tle sad about. I stayed with What Now and moved up, learn­ing dif­fer­ent parts right un­til I started pro­duc­ing. As a pro­ducer I’ve man­aged some big teams – What Now, Erin Simp­son. You have teams that are all very dif­fer­ent peo­ple: graphic artists, pre­sen­ters, writ­ers, re­searchers, and di­rec­tors and they’re all slightly dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. I felt be­cause I’d been a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant, I’d done re­search, I’d done a bit of field di­rect­ing I was able to con­nect bet­ter with peo­ple.



It helped me, I feel, be a good pro­ducer.

As a par­ent of a two and a five-year-old, I’m ex­cited about Hei­hei be­cause my chil­dren can nav­i­gate Net­flix by them­selves now and Chrome­cast it to the TV; that’s what they’re us­ing daily. They’re very tech-savvy, more so than me.


We’re ex­cited that TVNZ and NZ on Air are mak­ing this be­cause one of the things that scared me was my daugh­ter was start­ing to talk in an Amer­i­can ac­cent! Peo­ple were say­ing, ‘Have you guys spent some time in Amer­ica?’ and I’m like ‘Oh my gosh, no’, but be­cause of all the Amer­i­can and British pro­gram­ming, the ac­cent thing is quite big. I went out to schools with Dar­win and Newts; we went to fo­cus groups late last year. At the end I went up to all the teach­ers and said, ‘What were your thoughts on the show?’ and a lot of them said, ‘We’re just so ex­cited it has Kiwi ac­cents and a lit­tle bit of Te Reo, be­cause these kids are com­ing to school say­ing flash­light in­stead of torch be­cause of the pro­grammes they’re watch­ing’.

We also hope to in­spire kids to go away from their de­vices and tele­vi­sions to ex­plore and dis­cover. It’s im­por­tant we have me­dia for them to view but also it’s a bal­ance; my par­ents didn’t have to deal with what I’m deal­ing with now, kids want­ing to be on de­vices for 24 hours. Hei­hei is putting up lots of lovely things, like how to draw. The Dar­win and Newts se­ries have dig­i­tal makes of science ex­per­i­ments and craft ideas as well. We’re hop­ing par­ents will col­lab­o­rate with their chil­dren, to watch things but put it down for a while and go and make and cre­ate and ex­plore and dis­cover as well.

The unique­ness of Hei­hei is they’re putting up not just pro­grammes but also tu­to­ri­als, be­hind the scenes – with real peo­ple. Shows like Fan­i­mals and What Now fea­ture real Kiwi pre­sen­ters do­ing fun stuff and in­volv­ing the kids’ lit­tle faces. Whereas what they cur­rently have on de­vices is a lot of an­i­ma­tion shows and sit­coms and you’re not see­ing that style of pro­gram­ming peo­ple are go­ing to get on Hei­hei.

Hav­ing worked with Ja­nine for the past 20 years I’ve been lucky be­cause she al­ready had a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence. She de­briefs hugely. Lots of peo­ple at work will be like, ‘oh no’ be­cause Ja­nine will have five pages of notes. I’ve also learned it’s im­por­tant to do that. You have to look at some­thing and the lit­tle changes can make a huge dif­fer­ence. Ja­nine will in­vest in send­ing her pro­duc­ers to Kid­screen, an amaz­ing con­fer­ence ev­ery year over­seas. You sit in the global world and hear where kids’ pro­gram­ming is at and you’re with all these amaz­ing peo­ple pro­duc­ing con­tent from around the world, which is so in­spir­ing. You come home and feed all that back into what you’re mak­ing.

We’re a small coun­try and we have a very small pool of money for mak­ing chil­dren’s pro­gram­ming. There’s a lot of com­pe­ti­tion among us in New Zealand to make all this great stuff; ev­ery year we have the chal­lenge to keep on task and make sure Ki­wis are lov­ing the other shows we make. We want to share these sto­ries with the world. That’s a new thing for White­bait; Ja­nine’s had suc­cess sell­ing Bum­ble to Ja­pan and to Dis­ney in Aus­tralia. With Dar­win and Newts we have a dis­trib­u­tor for the first time. We’ve had a sale into Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel in the Mid­dle East and North Africa, which is awe­some. But to get the eyes on that show in dif­fer­ent parts of the world is a chal­lenge.


Ja­nine, left, and Emma.

Emma, far left, and Ja­nine, left, are pas­sion­ate about cre­at­ing con­tent that firmly places New Zealand cul­ture at its cen­tre, that re­flects Kiwi kids’ own lives back to them. Be­low: The pair watch­ing Dar­win and Newts in the stu­dio.

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