How Sinking Ship’s Annedroids broke the mould

The unique female-led STEM series, and Playback's Kids Show of the Year, achieved global reach in 2017.

Now four seasons in, Annedroids from Toronto’s Sinking Ship, is fast, funny and imaginative. And thanks to a September 2017 worldwide pick up from SVOD Amazon, the series is now available in every territory across the globe, often on multiple platforms.

Director, writer and Sinking Ship partner J.J. Johnson broke the mould, creating a concept that defied the conventions of TV children’s shows. Despite being rejected by every American broadcaster, in some cases explicitly, because he insisted on casting a girl as the show’s genius scientist, Johnson sold Annedroids to enough Canadian and European markets to get the series off the ground, casting Addison Holley (who has since been twice nominated for a Daytime Emmy) in the lead.

With 17 Emmy nominations in two years (and five pending for 2017), including twice for outstanding children’s series, not to mention Parent’s Choice Gold Honour in 2017 and the YMA 2015 award of excellence for best TV program, Annedroids‘ success must be making those who previously rejected the series kick themselves for passing up the opportunity.

Johnson’s idea for a girl lead in a science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) show was inspired by a report from the Prix Jeunesee Foundation in 2008, which promotes quality in television for the young.

“The report looked at programming throughout the world and noted that only one out of every four characters in animation was a girl and one out of every three in live action was a girl,” recalls Johnson. “At the time, all the shows I created had male leads. When you’re creating something [for kids], you’re often writing to your younger self. When I saw that report I was beginning to work on Annedroids. It was really the first time that I was confronted with those facts and numbers. I thought ‘this will be easy, we’ll just change this to a girl and we’ll start to change a trend.’”

While pitching the series in 2012, Johnson attracted enthusiastic Canadian interest from the Knowledge Network, TVOKids and SRC, but the reaction in the United States was decidedly different. “We got rejected by every major U.S. network, with two of them saying specifically it was because our lead was a girl and that they would’ve taken it or would still take it if we changed it to a boy. We were lucky that we were able to pull the financing together internationally to go ahead.”

Besides Canadian financing, Ki.Ka in Germany and SVT in Sweden had invested in the show. Then, two weeks before the launch of its Prime video service, Amazon came aboard, looking for something a little different.

“Because Annedroids had a girl lead, it was interesting to them. It literally took the creation of a new network for Annedroids to find a home in the U.S. in 2013.”

Sinking Ship gradually sold the series to Australia’s ABC, Discovery in Asia and South America and Disney Channels in Europe, Africa and the Middle East between 2013 and 2017. This year, Amazon, which already had the U.S. and U.K., acquired global rights.

“That closed what little gaps we had,” says Johnson. “In actual fact it’s not only that we air in every country but we’re also airing in some cases on two or three different platforms.”

And while the SVOD holds its audience numbers close, Annedroids is the longest running series on Amazon Kids.

It’s clear to Johnson that the international success of Annedroids is due to the risk he took to feature strong young women in the key roles in the show. Although some powerful girls do feature in YA programs, none had been the lead in a STEM show before Annedroids.

Annedroids is enlivened by a series of bold decisions by Johnson and his team. Single parents are raising inventor Anne and her young black friend Nick (Jadiel Dowlin, nominated for a 2016 Emmy for outstanding performance), while Shania (Adrianna Di Liello, nominated this year for an Emmy) is a foster child. Anne’s quirky dad has found a big junkyard where experiments can be done on what appears to be a blue-collar area of town. None of the families appear wealthy or even middle-class.

“We push really hard for diversity in our cast. It’s important for kids to see themselves accurately reflected on TV,” says Johnson. “We want to show as many different family situations as kids experience in their real lives. We spend a lot of time talking about diversity, whether it’s gender or ethnic, but we don’t spend a lot of time talking about economic diversity. I think it’s hugely important.

“I would hope,” he adds, “that we were an early example of how successful STEM shows with empowered girls can be. Hopefully, that rubbed off on others.”

This story originally appeared in Playback‘s Winter 2017 issue