Profile piece: Libbie Doherty, Head of Children’s Content at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)
4 Nov 2021
As the Head of Children’s Content at the ABC, Libbie Doherty is one of the most influential figures in Australian kids’ television. Encompassing the ABC’s two dedicated children’s channels, ABC Kids and ABC Me, ABC Children’s is the number one children’s network in Australia. It has set the gold standard for children’s content among Australian broadcasters and streaming platforms with its broad and diverse range of high-quality programs.
In her role, Libbie is responsible for driving the direction of ABC Children’s, ensuring that content is fresh, innovative and in line with the ABC’s charter to inform, educate and entertain while reflecting the cultural diversity of the Australian community. She manages an in-house production unit and a commissioning team, overseeing all internally produced and commissioned content, providing editorial support to writers, directors and producers, as well as continuing to manage a handful of projects herself.
We sat down with Libbie to find out more about her incredible role, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on viewing habits and programming decisions, her goals for the future of ABC Children’s, and tips for creators on how to successfully pitch their show to the ABC.
As head of children’s content at the ABC, what’s your main mission?
Our mission very much is to inform, educate and entertain the 4.6 million, I think it is now, children in Australia. We don’t discriminate, we include everybody, so our brief is very broad and inclusive. It’s really important that we are a platform for not only kids to see themselves reflected on screen and to be connecting with content that helps them explore their identity and their place in the world, but that we also are a platform where children can be involved in content: content making as performers, actors. We are so thrilled when we look back on how many careers we’ve launched, and we take great pride in being that place for Australian talent to explore and innovate and be part of the ecosystem as well. So we sort of have that dual purpose: there’s the audience at home that sit back and enjoy and absorb and are entertained, and then also as an amazing talent escalator, sending people off into the industry in the right way so that they have really fantastic experiences on an ABC children’s production, and starting blocks as they then kick off their careers. It’s a wonderful, wonderful job – I have an incredible team here at ABC Children’s.
Has the pandemic affected your programming decisions and long-term plans?
The pandemic has had a very big impact on us all. I guess the cupboard of programming, like every broadcaster around the world, is running a little bit low and a little bit dry at the moment. We’re privileged to have worked with some of the external productions that have managed to navigate these very challenging times and continued to produce live action, which has been very difficult. I think the area that has managed to pivot very well is the animation sector… it’s been so impressive watching 200, 300-plus people work from home, create animation and deliver it pretty much to schedule – it’s really been quite phenomenal. So we’ve got some content in the pipeline that we really still feel we will deliver in time, but it’s a tricky time.
I think we will be resuming hopefully in 2022 and 2023 into a little bit more like what we used to do in terms of scale, but I think only time will tell. We all had hopes that 2021 was going to be like that, so we’re being very cautious: ambitious in our planning, but also a bit realistic in the background, thinking, “okay, well in a perfect world that’ll all get going and be wonderful.”
We see a lot of stats around the mental health impacts of this pandemic on children in particular –75% I think of kids have expressed the fact that their mental health is worse since the pandemic, so we believe we have a really important role in helping kids [by being] that entertainment platform for them, and for families of course looking for an ad-free environment to take their kids.
We really see coming out of this that we really want some big laughs. We want a lot of fun. We know our job, and we can do that really well: we just want to have a slate that really just lets kids forget all their troubles. We have some targeted programs that do deal with mental health and do deal with more serious topics, but we know that the next couple of years people are really going to want to spread their wings outside of this terrible situation we’ve all been in and kids in particular. We want to help them navigate their way through, and their families.
Has there been a difference in viewing habits during the pandemic with people wanting to access more light-hearted content?
What’s been great about the pandemic is people co-viewing together. I think five or six years ago there was a lot of talk about people in their bedrooms on tablets, on phones, watching in isolation, and I think really what the pandemic has done is brought people back around that smart TV environment… so we are definitely seeing the benefits of that co-viewing, and I think grownups having a bit more time to actually watch a kids’ show that probably they mightn’t have when their life was a bit busier. So that’s been a really joyful outcome of the pandemic, to see those co-viewing numbers increase on certain projects. Also, we definitely feel like there’s been some comfort viewing – people watching things that they know are going to make them feel good. So I think that’s a really beautiful, heart-warming result of the pandemic.
With that increase in co-viewing with parents and their kids, will that impact your commissioning decisions going forward?
I think it’s always a happy result to have the two audiences working together, but I think when we design programs or when we’re creating programs, we always want them to be from the child’s point of view. I think that’s not really going to change. And what’s great about that is our children’s content is now so much more sophisticated… [the programs] have a lot more to them. There’s got to be a lot more complexity in the story, and the humour’s got to be another level up, because I think this generation are really skilled and really discerning about content, and they really want to curate their own experience, so it’s really important that the content we’re making really hits all of those marks. So I think that’s more what’s changing: because the quality is getting better, I think adults want to watch it, or are more open to watching it. But I think it’s still very important that at the children’s department our goal is that primary audience, and we really want to elevate children into the conversation and not talk down to them and not patronise them in any way.
I think iView gives us a really fantastic environment where we can surface children’s content in a different way. The multi-channel universe that we ended up in for the last 30 years where people were sort of in their own channel lanes kind of created a bit of separation between adult and children audiences and what’s been really fantastic from my point of view is the streaming universe has brought everyone back together under a mother brand… that is the gift that streaming giants have given us.
What’s the point of different between iView and the linear channels?
We now have this wonderful offering – the two linear channels still, but the ABC is the number one BVOD platform in Australia and has been for quite some time this year, so I think it’s very clear to us that that viewing paradigm is shifting and changing radically, and will continue to radically disrupt over the next two years at least. Having that offering is really important, [but] I think it’s important to remember, and something we talk about a lot, is that there’s still 18.7% of families who live under the poverty line in Australia that don’t have smart TVs. They don’t have multiple devices in the home, so our linear channels are still an important part of the ecosystem to capture those families and kids and bring them that high quality, amazing, entertaining, interesting content and make sure that they have the same form of equity as everyone else. That’s really important, because that is the challenge with streaming platforms, from my point of view: having the children’s content behind a paywall. Philosophically, I think it’s really important that children have full access.
There are quite a lot of a ACTF supported shows coming up with the ABC or on air at the moment, Crazy Fun Park being one of them. Which ones are you excited about?
I’m excited about all the projects we do with the ACTF. The ACTF are a fantastic partner to the ABC. Crazy Fun Park in particular is a project that I’ve been working on and I’m really excited about. We had a great conversation with the creator Nick Verso very early on… we were really excited that he was going to take the lead and really author this project, so it’s been a wonderful development with him in supporting him to realise his vision for the project and what we want to say to kids about the really challenging topic of managing bereavement and grief. It’s a big topic, and sometimes I think “oh my gosh, we’ve really set ourselves a really big challenge here by merging that with a horror comedy”, but actually in many ways it’s the perfect vehicle because horror comedy deals with death all the time.
So it’s been a really fascinating process to go through that… helping kids understand how to process grief and what that might look like, and also for adults I think watching this show is sort of understanding. I think Nick’s really captured how the characters do really behave a lot like teenagers where we might project onto them as adults, “wow, they’re not really managing that grief”, but actually it’s very authentic to the way kids manage grief. They process it differently to us – they might hear some news but then say, “do you want to look at a TikTok video?”, and then two hours later they’ll be crying in their bedroom.
I think it’s a very special project, this one.
We hear from a lot of producers wondering what sort of content the ABC and other broadcasters are looking for. What sort of content don’t you have yet which you would like to have?
We need content that spans the cradle to the braces, really – it’s everything in between. We always have a very big slate of comedy dramas and animation – they’re sort of the core tenets of both channels, but particularly the ABC ME channel. In recent times, we’ve been commissioning a little bit more on the ABC Kids universe, which has been really exciting. In that space, the things that we know work well are really amazing animation. Another Bluey would be amazing – if someone could pitch that to us, that would be wonderful! And preschool live action is also hugely important.
We get a lot of pitches that are, “when I was a kid, I loved this show”. There’s already been a lot of reboots and I think what we’re really looking to do is reflect contemporary Australia – what contemporary children want to watch, and what their experiences are, so it’s really about finding those shows that do that in a meaningful way.
How would a creator go about pitching an idea to the ABC?
I was a producer before joining the ABC, so I know how frustrating it is to feel like sometimes there are these big monolithic organisations you can’t get into… so I’m very committed to us having a very open-door policy, trying to connect with as many people as we can. Our development team have recently launched Chat with [ABC] Children’s, and that is absolutely a targeted meeting offer to people in the emerging sector. It is a one-on-one meeting, like a small team meeting, for people to ask anything, like, “what do you think about when you’re deciding what you’re going to commission?”, or “how do I pitch? What needs to go into a pitch bible?” It is literally those very initial conversations, because as we know, this is a networked industry, and unless you start building those relationships with the commissioners and the people who are in networks, how do you get your start?
All reports back to me is everyone’s really enjoying those conversations from both… we’re hoping that in the longer term it’s more fruitful – it gives people an incentive, an idea… and then they can go and think about it and come back. It might take a year or two years to bubble up an idea, but it’s those initial conversations that are super important.
You can pitch your idea to the ABC here.