BLE 19: “A very special type of magic that I don’t think I’ve seen before on TV”

Rikesh Desai, Licensing Director at BBC Studios, on what makes new pre-school series Bluey special and how to make commercial sustainable

Written by Rhys Thomas

Posted 02.10.2019 | Pre-School

BLE 19: “A very special type of magic that I don’t think I’ve seen before on TV” thumbnail

Rikesh, let’s go back to the beginning. How did you first get involved in Bluey?

It was about three years ago that creator Joe Brumm took the idea to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), really early on. He wanted to write a show based on his own experience of being a busy father of two girls living in Australia.

Both ABC and us, BBC Studios, loved the concept so we agreed on a co-commission and worked closely with Ludo Studio on the project. ABC is a great partner of ours down under and take a lot of our shows already including Hey Duggee. They share our values and so it was an easy partnership to agree to.

When you visit Ludo Studio in Brisbane and wander around the local area, there’s so much that looks very familiar from the show. Bluey’s home looks exactly like the family houses in Brisbane and the colours somehow capture the atmosphere of the city and the lighting, too – it’s a very special type of magic that I don’t think I’ve seen before on TV.

It’s a very Australian show. There’s this seamless movement between the indoors and outdoors, and that’s a very Aussie way of living: open doors, barbecues, sunshine. British shows, on the other hand, have this divide between the cosy indoor world and the outdoors, where you need raincoats and wellies.

Pre-school is notoriously competitive. It’s high risk, high reward, but only the best cut through. Why is Bluey one of those that you think will make it big?

We know pre-school is super competitive, and that experience comes not just from our own productions or other big studios like ours. Lots of talented creatives are putting out great content online and they’re all coming together in this relatively small pre-school space.

What Bluey does to stand on its own is ditch the formulaic dynamics of most pre-school shows – although these are popular and successful for a reason – and create a show which feels more like a sitcom. Sit down and watch a seven-minute episode of Bluey and you’ll notice all those common moments from the best sitcoms. There’s the relatable setup, the funny bit, the compassionate moment of reflection and all the other elements that come together and make the format so popular.

Kids probably won’t think about that, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’ll love it. And of course, as with the best kids’ shows coming through now, these sitcom elements make Bluey genuinely appealing for parents. Bluey is more than a simple distraction for little ones.

Co-viewership in pre-school shows seems high on the agenda for the BBC. Why is it so important?  

Shows like Hey Duggee are particularly successful because of their ability to speak to both parents and kids. Doing so creates a point of engagement that marketing just can’t, not without continual spend, and even then a bottomless marketing budget will only buy you so much.

We also know that brand owners may outspend us at retail, but we can engage directly with both parents and kids in their home, and that’s invaluable, particularly for licensing.

Our digital platforms are flooded with engagement from parents, lots of it tongue-in-cheek, but all of it genuine. I can’t count the amount of times we’ve been asked on social media by a mum or dad whether we have a new set of Hey Duggee pyjamas, for example, in their size. And so we created these mini-me ranges with the designs in both kids’ and adult sizes so the whole family can be part of it. The kids love to see their parents getting involved, and it goes without saying that parents get a real kick out of that, particularly at those younger ages.

What was the thinking behind bringing Bluey to Disney, as opposed to a known quantity like Netflix?

When the show took off in Australia, we had a lot of interest from potential partners. The swell of popularity and love for the show was self-evident, and so we knew we would be able to work with the very best licensees around the world. That gives you flexibility and takes the pressure off somewhat.

So while we looked for broadcast and streaming partner that would best benefit the business, we chose Disney because the team there shared the same ambitions and passions as we did. They instantly got what was special about the show and are were the perfect fit for the brand.

And look, working with Disney is going to be amazing. They have fantastic linear channels globally and an exciting digital strategy which we’re thrilled Bluey will be a part of with the launch of Disney Plus later this year. With Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox you have to remember that audiences are coming for the National Geographic series, the Marvel movies, Star Wars, not to mention its ability to reach preschoolers, young adults, grandparents - it has it all.

Moose Toys is your toy partner – a key component in any pre-school brand and potentially the biggest deal in the licensing programme. What was the decision process for that?

The timeline for selecting and bringing on a toy partner was nothing short of lightning. We had early talks at New York Toy Fair earlier this year, and with three or four months of Australian broadcast data, we could confidently go to the major toy companies. I was just going in and saying: ‘This is Bluey. Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t, but it’s an amazing show airing in Australia and it’s killing it.’

Paul at Moose Toys, being Australian, spoke with his friends and family to get a sense check, and when they came back with some ideas we were blown away. Moose Toys is, in my opinion, the up and coming company to watch in toys. They have a unique ability to take brands, often homegrown, and make them global, competing with the biggest players in toys. They’re famous for design, quality and manufacturing, and so that deal was a no-brainer, just like Disney.

Looking at your other pre-school hero Hey Duggee, you recently signed a major agreement to take the brand to China. How important is that territory for your growth?

We’ve always been there, with offices in Hong Kong, Singapore and other regions, because, while it’s so important to be on the ground in any territory, in China this is particularly true. China is hugely important for us as a business, and I’m sure everyone would say that, but the BBC is iconically British and they love that in mainland China.

Doctor Who and our natural history programming is massive there and that’s what we’ll be doing more of. We don’t want to take a brand out there and put it in multiple baskets. It’s clear the right approach is to find a safe pair of hands, let them take the property and make it their own.

We have a number of new content and brand development partnerships in the pipeline for China. It’s too early to talk about right now, but you will see us pick up the pace on that for certain.

BBC Studios partnered with sustainable fashion house People Tree

Tell us about BBC Studios and the developments internally since bringing all the threads together.

Combining BBC Worldwide and BBC Studios has given us the ability to think about everything through from the very start – everything from production to marketing, licensing, products, distribution, globalisation. All the talented departments and people here are in the loop at every stage.

Three to five years ago, we struggled to get our hands on stuff until post-production; now we’re there at the beginning. It allows us to stay engaged: we’re feeding in insight from a market perspective, what other people are doing in the space, how the show or brand can manifest itself in other mediums, what opportunities there are for interactive storytelling. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason a licensing executive shouldn’t be in the writing room to see what’s going on in VR or mobile – and no reason the creatives there shouldn’t sit in with us to see how our expertise can help shape their projects.

Finally let’s touch on sustainability, a conversation that was sparked in the mainstream by your Attenborough documentary. With the BBC as a flagbearer, how do you wrestle with supporting that message without cynically exploiting it? 

Historically, what we typically did in consumer products around BBC Earth and David Attenborough was fairly run-of-the-mill paper products, greetings cards, calendars and the like – albeit with gorgeous imagery. But Blue Planet II lit the torch and it became a standard bearer for the plastics conversation.

The evening that first episode aired, social media engagement soared through the roof. Naturally we sat down and thought long and hard about what we could offer from a licensing perspective. The BBC as an organisation is there to educate and entertain, but the licensing division has its own role to play in that mix. Yes, we’re a commercial arm, but we realised that we could also have a positive contribution to this important movement.

Fashion is the third biggest polluter behind oil and plastic. To boil it down, we wanted to give consumers a choice. Teemill were an obvious partner for us on this. All their clothes and accessories are made from organic cotton, they recycle the product, and even reuse the water within factories from the manufacturing process.

A five-quid t-shirt from a fast-fashion retailer might cost less, and when you’re done you take it to the local charity shop, but that’s one of the worst things environmentally you can do. Often they’re shipped off around the world. The footprint can be huge. But with our Teemill range, once consumers are done with the item, they can even return it for reprocessing and get a little cash off another purchase. It’s a closed loop and a model for how manufacturing must move towards in the future.

You’re never going to change 100 per cent of minds, but you can offer alternative options – there’s huge demand out there for it.

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