How Bluey, the popular children’s show, built an empire

The Emmy-winning series celebrated its fifth year in October.

It’s won Logies, Emmys, BAFTAS and more. In 2023, it became the most watched series on Australian television, garnering over 11 million viewers. In America, it is Disney’s jewel in the crown. Not bad for an animated kids show about a family of Aussie Blue Heelers.

Libbie Doherty still remembers the buzz of excitement when the Bluey characters made their international debut. It was at the Asian Animation Summit in November 2016. As the commissioning editor in the ABC’s Children’s Department, she’d been the first to spot the potential in the show from Ludo Studio. She certainly wouldn’t be the last.

“We’d given them some seed funding to make a pilot teaser,” she tells The Weekly. “The Summit is a place where networks from all over the world come to and people present their ideas. The teaser was shared. And it was a moment where everyone in the room went, ‘Okay, I think this is something’.”

Bluey has become a worldwide phenomenon

‘Something’ is an understatement.

Bluey would spark a bidding war with international distributors. With Australia’s ABC already locked in, UK giant BBC came next, signing up for co-commissioning and distribution rights. In the US corner, several companies were making their play – Disney would eventually land the deal.

So what was it about a family of dogs living in a heritage Queenslander that sent the animation world into a frenzy?

“In pre-school [television], there are lots of shows that deal with parents, with sisters,” says Libbie, who today is Head of Children’s Content at the ABC. “But it had a real point of view from the get-go.”

Bluey characters being worked on by Ludo animators

Who made Bluey?

For those who may have missed the global phenomenon, here’s a brief explainer. Created by Aussie animator Joe Brumm and based on his own experiences as a parent, the series is set in Brisbane and focuses on the elaborate games that the Bluey characters – six-year-old Bluey, her little sister, Bingo, and their parents, Bandit and Chilli, play and the joy, little life lessons and adventures that ensue.

Bluey has spawned a massive merchandising range selling everything from books to backpacks. In addition, the show has seen kids across the globe adopt Australian lingo like “dunny”, “brekkie” and “tactical wee.” It’s broken US ratings records – in April 2023 it was the most streamed acquired series, watched for 737 million minutes in one week alone. Bluey’s famous fans include Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes, Billy Joel, Natalie Portman and many others.

Bingo and Bluey hugging

But more than that, it has never deviated from its initial promise: Good storytelling which espouses the importance of play as a formative tool and how that can translate to families no matter where they live or what their configuration may be.

“The kids in my life and around me are constantly providing plenty of ideas for Bluey episodes,” Joe tells The Weekly. “You’ve just got to know where to look.

Is Bluey Australian?

While Bluey and her family are undeniably Australian through and through, kids around the world all go through similar milestones.

Bluey episodes, at their core, usually have some little struggle that the kids go through as they develop and grow. And beyond the game, they are the things I’m always really interested in writing about. At that four-to six-year-old age, where kids are really socialising themselves, there are those little growth moments that they go through. And I’m always on the lookout for them.”

A Bluey sketch on a script from the Ludo team

Learning to share, separation anxiety, being a good team player and learning to listen. These are just a few things Bluey and Bingo and other Bluey characters discover through the games they play. And then there are the bigger issues; ones which also speak to parents and can open conversations at home. Miscarriage, infertility, neurodiversity, disability and even death are subjects that have been touched upon in the series.

Parenting, when it arrived for Joe and his wife, Suzy, was “like several smacks in the face,” he laughs. “You are so vulnerable once these kids come out. And it just didn’t seem right to tell stories about parenting and not touch on some of the more difficult aspects of it. Some of the heartbreaking aspects. Not in a negative or solutions type of way, just in a way that shows viewers, ‘Hey, somebody else is going through this as well.’

“Because ultimately that’s the only thing that ever gets me through those hard experiences. I’m not special, this isn’t just happening to me, it’s happened to humans since the dawn of time.”

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 24: Bluey by BBC balloon is seen during the 2022 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 24, 2022 in New York City.  (Photo by Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

How old is Bluey?

When Joe began making the series, he hired a talented team to help bring the Bluey characters to life. Key among those is animation director Beth Harvey. The pair first met when Joe was her university lecturer. Later sher decided to try her luck in the UK. Joe trained her in CelAction, an innovative animation program which Bluey uses today.

The second Joe made his pitch, Beth recalls, she was on the first plane back to Brisbane. And she’s not looked back since.

“The reason it has gone international is because there are families all over the world living the same life in their own countries. Even though they are not living this Australian representation of life, they are still having those exact same scenarios play out in their family.”

The Bluey characters with the iconic Ducky Cake from The Australian Women's Weekly Birthday Cake Cookbook

Recently, Bluey turned seven with dad Bandit making her the Ducky Cake from The Australian Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Cookbook. In Beth’s opinion the reason the show and the Bluey characters hit such a milestone lies in the fact that it appeals not only to kids but to adults as well . That’s parents, grandparents, and those without children too – young and old. “It’s relatable,” she says simply. “Whether you watch the show because you have kids that love the show. Whether you can relate to family life with your kids. Or it reminds you of your own childhood.”

Who wrote Bluey?

“The second reason is the writing and that’s all Joe. Because he writes from his experiences as a father, he is really writing from the heart. He is writing true stories that have obviously had an impact on him – if it’s funny, if it’s emotional or heartfelt,” Beth continues.

Joe is quick to declare Bluey a team effort. And it’s a team which includes Suzy, brother Dan and parents Bob and Chris. He’s also quick to add it is entertainment, not a parenting tool.

“I would really heavily discourage anyone from using Bluey as a diagnostic parenting tool,” he says.

Bandit, Bluey and Bingo in the family car

“You can look at Bandit and Chilli as a couple of parents on the journey with you and maybe feel a little less alone. There are odd little moments of tips and tricks. But for the most part I try to look at an issue from both sides of the story and never solve it like ‘This is how you should parent’. Because every kid is different.”

Which Bluey character has ADHD?

Inclusivity through Bluey characters is another thing the show has won praise for. The episode Turtleboy featured Dougie, a deaf Cavoodle who uses Auslan to communicate. Meanwhile Army introduced Jack, a Russell Terrier who clearly – although deliberately never spelt out – has ADHD.

These are Bluey characters Joe is proud of. But he’s quick to add they were not shoehorned in to tick a diversity box. When they authentically fit into an episode, Ludo and the ABC work with health industry bodies and experts to ensure they hit the mark.

“Our job is to entertain every Australian child and that’s no mean feat,” Libbie explains. “At the same time, we want it to be an inclusive environment. So we make sure we are representing the characters in a really great way. What is wonderful is the beautiful response we get from families who say, ‘Wow, my son or daughter had never seen themselves on TV and they felt completely seen and heard and valued.’

Animator from the Ludo team working on Bluey.

“We know that it has a direct relationship with how people feel about their selves and their identity in terms of worth.”

And that, in a nutshell, is why this little show from Brisbane continues to conquer the world, as well as transforming the future for kids’ TV.

“Mobiles, iPads, laptops, home screens, schools . Children are exposed to so much more content in many different ways. And they are more sophisticated content viewers than we were as children,” Libbie says of the Bluey effect. “Bluey is a great example of why storytelling has to be a bit deeper. It has to speak to and honour the fact that kids are really smart. They are really clever and sometimes as grown-ups we forget that.”

Join in the celebrations of ‘5 Years of Bluey’ on the ABC Kids website.

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