From children’s TV to transmedia: dirtgirlworld

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From children's TV to transmedia: dirtgirlworldToday’s TV programs reach far beyond the screen with a presence online, in social media, in merchandise and more. Locally, mememe productions has experienced this transmedia explosion firsthand, with its Emmy Award-winning children’s hit dirtgirlworld. Business Lounge spoke to mememe’s Cate McQuillen.

When many children’s TV channels banned all or most advertising in the mid-2000s, it put production companies and broadcasters under pressure to find new revenue sources to fund programs. Nowadays, the global TV brand licensing industry is worth more than US$191 billion, and it provides myriad ways for viewers to interact with their favourite shows and characters.

mememe productions, in regional New South Wales, has embraced the many new channels and opportunities, with its quirky hit dirtgirlworld. Awarded the 2013 International Digital Emmy, children can experience dirtgirlworld online, download the free app, follow dirtgirl on Facebook, meet characters at live events or purchase music, T-shirts, seed kits and other eco-friendly merchandise. Cate McQuillen explains how a simple concept has become a huge transmedia hit.

1. Why did you start mememe productions?

In the early nineties, Hewey [Eustace] and I moved from Melbourne to a country town in New South Wales, to live a more sustainable lifestyle. We don’t have kids but we met a lot of families with happy children who spent a lot of time outdoors and knew lots about nature.

We started mememe productions in 2006 because we wanted to create content for kids and families that had meaning – we wanted to talk about the doing of sustainability and the doing of music, because that’s what we felt we knew something about and could share.

The result was dirtgirlworld, which is now in 128 countries around the world.

2. How did you come up with dirtgirl?

When we started developing dirtgirlworld, we didn’t know that the majority of preschool TV characters are boys. I sing the songs, so it seemed natural to have a girl as the main character. Initially, there was a fear that it would skew the audience, but we have a 50–50 girl–boy viewership split. There’s such a need for a girl who’s not a princess.

3. What kind of feedback have you received?

It’s all positive: I get letters, photos of kids in the garden with crooked carrots and gap-toothed smiles, Facebook messages, comments … it’s a full-on part of my day!

4. Tell us a bit about your target viewership.

dirtgirlworld is targeted at 4–7 year olds, but we rate well with 0–12 year olds, plus parents and grandparents! Grandparents are a very strong part of our audience because they have time to head outdoors with their grandchildren. They like dirtgirlworld because it doesn’t make gardening and being outdoors seem old-fashioned.

5. The songs are a key component of dirtgirlworld. Why do you think music is so important?

Music and storytelling are part of our history; nursery rhymes are passed from generation to generation because they are easy to remember and easy to share. We loved the idea of creating a new set of nursery rhymes and we hope that when these children grow up, they might sing these songs to their kids, because they will be part of their musical heritage.

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6. TV programs go far beyond the screen nowadays – involving websites, live performances, merchandise
and more. What are the reasons for this?

When I was a child, you could watch a TV program on the ABC, then read the comic book or there might be a colouring book. People have always wanted to connect to narrative, but with new platforms, the access is much bigger.

The transmedia explosion isn’t about replication; it should extend and enhance the narrative in ways you can’t with TV.

Our viewers are digital natives. They understand that there are many ways to connect to the story. For instance, we have a free app where
a 3D dirtgirl can talk to the child and help them plant their plant outside – it’s all about connecting to the story.

If the transmedia extensions are all about making money, we’ve missed the point. We don’t want to exploit children. However, I also don’t want a corporation sponsoring the website, so production companies have to be clever about monetising their projects. After all, without income we can’t produce content. We’re great sharers of content, so we have to balance the model where we can.

7. What kind of online interaction have you experienced?

We see a five per cent visitor-to-sales conversion rate online, so we’re doing well.

Facebook has also been great for us – we have a weekly reach of 4 million. While Facebook targets parents, they tell us that they can have their kids sitting on their laps, enjoying dirtgirl’s Facebook page.

We have thousands of club members, too. It really is an online community. The actress who plays dirtgirl – Maree Lowes – records new messages, blogs once a week and is also active on the site, so when you’re talking to dirtgirl, you’re really talking to dirtgirl!

8. With dirtgirlworld’s sustainability message, you must have chosen your merchandise very carefully. What are your best sellers?

Music downloads are still the winner, which is great because they are such an eco-friendly product.

It would have been easy to do the traditional model – to make as much as you can as cheaply as you can. However, we didn’t make dirtgirlworld to make landfill. All our products are linked to the story: for example, we sell organic seeds in recycled packaging.

We’ve made a retail deal with Big W and they’ve really embraced what we do. They know that some of their customers are families who have recognised that there needs to be some change, and they are asking themselves some questions about products and what they can do to make a difference.

9. What aspects have you found the most challenging?

We’re a small team with a big dream that’s come true. A lot of people think we’re owned by the ABC or by a Canadian company because they helped out. However, there are just two full-time staff and two part-timers in regional Australia.

10. What are your goals for dirtgirlworld and mememe productions?

We recently worked on a waste management program with the Clarence Valley, including branding bins and rubbish trucks with dirtgirl and scrapboy. Kids wave as the rubbish trucks empty their bins, and they’ve increased the amount of rubbish being kept out of landfill to 68 per cent. We’re talking to other councils about extending this program.

Online, we’re launching sustainably produced garden tools and gloves in time for spring and we’re working on new apps and games.

The ABC has been so supportive as a broadcast partner. dirtgirlworld is here for the long haul. You have to be on air for a certain time to become part of pop culture; I think we’re there and ready for more growth. We’ve also got a new project in development with the ABC, based on forests.

11. Do you have any advice for other Australian entrepreneurs?

Values and passion are great drivers and people are resonating with real, meaningful things. You have to be aware of the physical and financial staminas required to see a project through, though.

It’s important to celebrate the positives with as much energy as you problem-solve the challenges. We party at the drop of a hat!

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and the interviewees, and not of Australia Post.

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