Blue Water High: articles

Tween surf stories travel well over the foam

AUSTRALIA’S great cultural export—children’s television—is growing up. Move over B1 and B2, the sun-kissed teenager on a surfboard is the latest antipodean character to storm the international TV market.

The ABC’s new teen drama series Blue Water High was launched internationally at MIPTV, the TV marketplace in Cannes, this month and has already been snapped up by Belgium, South Africa, France, New Zealand and Germany. It is set in a surf academy where seven lucky teenagers have been selected for an 12-month surf and school program.

Australia sells more children’s TV than adult TV overseas. Part of the reason is that the budgets for children’s drama are quite high—some $600,000 an hour compared with $400,000 for adult drama—because there is often a lot more action.

“There is an enormous amount of [Australian] children’s drama playing around the world,” says Noel Price, executive producer of children’s TV for Southern Star. “We provide aspirational, sunny, optimistic, energetic expressions of life in an Australian environment.”

The success of Australian preschool entertainers such as Bananas in Pyjamas, the Wiggles and Hi-5 is well known, but children’s live action drama is another major success story. Locally produced shows such as Round the Twist, Spellbinder, The Girl from Tomorrow and Don’t Blame Me have sold in hundreds of countries.

But historically the shows have been aimed at the under-12s. One of the ABC’s biggest successes has been The Saddle Club, an Australian-Canadian co-production, which is aimed at six to 10-year-olds.

Young teenagers, so-called tweens, have been largely ignored by the ABC and the commercial broadcasters.

Enter Blue Water High, the only local drama made for 11 to 14-year-olds. Price identified the hole in the market and saw a great opportunity to exploit the beauty of our coastal landscape as a backdrop for exploring teenage lives. “It is a tricky area because in order to fit the C classification you do have to keep things fairly innocent, but you can still make it relevant, and I think we have with Blue Water High,” Price says.

“And you can still entertain and keep it fun. It explores relationships but it’s not heavy sexual relationships. It’s first love, first awakenings and at the same time we manage to make it fun and keep it emotionally real.”

Price, arguably the country’s leading producer of children’s TV, was prompted to make Blue Water High after the Australian Broadcasting Authority stretched the definition of C programming to include 11 to 14-year-olds. The old C drama classification no longer worked, Price says, because “kids are getting older younger”. “The ABA regulations have prohibited people from targeting tweens,” he says. “Everyone concedes once kids hit 15 they are into prime-time TV.”

Blue Water High will be healthy, tasty fare devoid of scandal, teenage pregnancies and drugs. It stars a bunch of fresh-faced actors, the best-known of whom is Tahyna Tozzi, a model. Kate Bell plays the lead, a “warrior of the waves” who comes from a big family of battlers. Older cast members include Nadine Garner, Liz Burch and Martin Lynes.

“This is not social realism but it is intelligent entertainment and the cast is real, believable,” Price says. “It is about a bunch of kids thrown together in a fairly idyllic situation. Who wouldn’t want to be on a beach in Australia in a surfing school for a year? They have problems, tensions, relationships, but compared to a kid growing up in Iraq or a bitterly cold city in Europe it’s paradise!”

As well as the ABC, Price got German broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk on board, and additional finance came from the Film Finance Corporation Australia and the NSW Film and Television Office. For their money, the Germans got the addition of a German cast member, Mara Scherzinger, a seasoned performer who is studying in New York and travelled to Australia for the shoot.

The involvement of regulatory and funding bodies such as the FFC and the ABA in children’s TV is the key to its success. The standards they set are very high and the ABA dictates that commercial broadcasters screen a set amount of first-run children’s TV each year, so the industry produces a great deal.

The ABC’s head of children’s television, Claire Henderson, is delighted the broadcaster is giving teenagers a program that reflects their own lives. There has been nothing for the age group since Heartbreak High 10 years ago, and even that appealed to older teens. (It was successful overseas too.)

Henderson says that given the amount of TV teens watch it is essential they see their own cultures reflected on the screens, instead of living on an adult diet of US shows such as The OC. “These kids are going to look and sound like them and the action is a lot more realistic than imported shows,” Henderson said after the Tuesday night launch of Blue Water High at Sydney’s Bondi Beach. “Surfing is a wonderful part of the show, but it is also about everyday issues that affect them.”

Says Price: “We live in a world where 10 and 11-year-olds are watching Sex and the City and 12 and 13-year-olds are soaking up a fair amount of prime-time television. So we do have to be relevant to an audience that has sophisticated viewing habits but at the same time not push the boundaries into exploitative territory.”

By Amanda Meade
April 28, 2005
The Australian