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
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.
I LOVE EVERY SHOW I MAKE. WE WATCH EPISODES, EMMA AND I, AND WE GO ‘THAT’S MY NEW FAVOURITE’
I KNOCKED ON THE DOOR OF TVNZ IN CHRISTCHURCH AND SAID ‘HEY, DO YOU WANT SOMEONE TO WORK FOR FREE?’
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.
THE ACCENT ON LOCAL
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 Jesse.com 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.
WE ALSO HOPE TO INSPIRE KIDS TO GO AWAY FROM THEIR DEVICES AND TELEVISION TO EXPLORE AND DISCOVER
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.