Monster ambitions

Published in Collective Hub issue 27, November 2015.

For decades, kids around the globe have been asking, ‘Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?’ Indigenous entrepreneur Wayne Denning has found the directions.

For 90 seconds in the middle of episode 19, season 44 of the world’s longest running kids television show, Sesame Street, viewers were transported from the program’s iconic New York brownstone to the red desert of the Australian outback. The segment, 5 Kangaroos, starred much-loved singer (and former The Collective covergirl) Jessica Mauboy alongside several incredibly cute kids from Yipirinya State Primary School in Alice Springs, dancing away in traditional body paint while animated kangaroos bounce around the landscape.

Screened in 2014, 5 Kangaroos was the first piece of Australian-made content to feature on Sesame Street, and a major coup for Brisbane-based production company Carbon Media. Founded in 2006, Carbon Media is proudly Indigenous owned and operated with business leader and Birri Gubba man Wayne Denning at the helm.

“I wanted to put Indigenous kids first and foremost on the stage,” says Wayne Denning of 5 Kangaroos. Wayne’s passionate commitment to promoting positive images of Indigenous Australia has driven many of Carbon’s productions. His team created the first game show for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids, Letterbox, which aired on ABC and NITV in 2009, followed by Go Lingo!, another game show with a focus on Indigenous languages.

Currently in production is The Time Shifters, a teen comedy set in Cape York in Far North Queensland where six young misfits find the boundaries between reality and Aboriginal mythology melting away. Add to this a slew of short films, documentaries, and campaigns for corporate and government clients and you have quite an impressive showreel.

However Wayne had always wanted to take Carbon Media’s work to an international audience, and that’s where Sesame Street came in.

Sesame Street was a very deliberate strategy of ours,” says Wayne. “They do these yearly call-outs for content with producers they work with – they only work with people they know. We had to crack into that list.”

Fortunately Wayne had a contact who was able to help him land a meeting with senior producer Kim Wright. So what was it about the 5 Kangaroos pitch that got it over the line?

“The fact that I jumped on a plane and did it in person,” says Wayne. “And the bright colours. What I was trying to pitch was a sense of openness. This is New York in the winter, it’s freezing cold, it’s bleak. We wanted to show this sense of grand openness and space, unique animals, different- sounding and looking kids, and bright paint. They jumped on board.”

Yet even though Sesame Street is one of the biggest series names in television, Carbon Media didn’t turn a profit from 5 Kangaroos, which aired in more than 140 countries to more than 120 millions of viewers. Wayne sees it as a loss leader.

“The Sesame clip was only 90 seconds but it had far-reaching implications as far as where we’ve been positioned as a company,” he says. “It was about announcing ourselves and trying to get market positioning.”

When Cookie Monster toured Australia with Jessica Mauboy to promote the clip, it generated an estimated AU$3 million worth of brand exposure for Carbon. They’ve also gone on to produce another six films for Sesame Street and made connections at Nickelodeon, BBC, Disney and Warner Bros.

“The year-on-year work was critical to me,” says Wayne. “I don’t really look at Sesame as a revenue-spinner for us. It’s more of a fantastic relationship, a strategic partner to have in the long-term.”

Wayne grew up in the coal mining town of Blackwater, about 200km west of Rockhampton, with his English father and Aboriginal mother. His grandmother survived the Woorabinda mission camp and growing up at her feet inspired Wayne to be an agent of change for Indigenous Australians. The first phase of his career was spent in Canberra working as a public servant in Indigenous affairs, but after a decade he started wanting to explore issues in a more dynamic way.

“I can be frustrated by the pace of being inside that sort of machinery,” he says. “I thought there was a better way of influencing change and telling a story with positive messaging.” He enrolled in an MBA to study entrepreneurship and “reprogram my brain from working for bureaucratic systems”. Carbon Media grew out of an assignment where he had to design a business plan for a fictional company.

Wayne bristles at the passive and limited stories that are typically told about Indigenous Australia.

“It offends me, because the Aboriginal people have been entrepreneurial and innovative for many thousands of years, being a people of many firsts – the first maps, the first depiction of the human face, the first to track the stars,” he says. “I think we do a lot more than just sport, culture and art. The minute you mention Indigenous content, there’s a cringe around that in this country. Other countries like New Zealand deal with it in a far different way. There’s a challenge, and that’s what Carbon’s about. We’re about being the thought leader, the change reformers and doing it through celebration.”

High on Carbon’s agenda at the moment is a multi-million dollar campaign aimed at encouraging Indigenous kids to learn coding skills. Wayne delivered a keynote speech to the National Indigenous Engineering Summit earlier this year and was struck by the low numbers of Indigenous students graduating from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses. Some of the details are still under wraps, but Carbon Media is partnering with a high-profile technology company to increase the profile of STEM careers amongst Indigenous youth.

Meanwhile, now that Carbon is down with Big Bird’s crew, they’re poised to engineer even greater things, thanks to a newfound confidence.

“That little trip to Sesame Street certainly made a big difference,” Wayne says. “It wasn’t the biggest thing we’ve done, it didn’t have a big budget, but it’s a symbol of belief.”