MythBusters for music: log on and tune in to stay tuned

Forget Video Hits and Rage, today’s kids are programming their own music show. Georgina Pearson goes on set of the ABC3 series Stay Tuned and finds a small crew with a knack for multitasking and a passion for sharing music with the younger generation.

TV for tweens is a seriously hard sell. Pitching the who’s who of music to an audience of pre-pubescent Bieber wannabes is fraught with danger. So it’s just as well ABC3’s Stay Tuned has a different agenda, or as it happens, no agenda at all.

More than just a music show, Stay Tuned is part of an interactive multiplatform community changing the way the younger generation consume media.

Targeted towards a 10-to-15-year-old demographic, the Stay Tuned format is cleverer than it looks. It is 100 per cent audience driven as viewers upload videos of themselves asking questions to the Stay Tuned website.

Stay Tuned hosts Joel Phillips and Nicole Singh on set with 30 Seconds to Mars

The show’s hosts, Joel Phillips and Nicole Singh, then set out to answer a select few by interviewing local and international music artists and industry professionals. Each episode answers one question and is broken into two parts – 15 minutes of content, and 15 minutes of music.

Funded by the ABC, with an initial cash injection from Screen Australia, Stay Tuned is created by Sydney production company The Feds. After the launch of dedicated kids’ channel ABC3 in 2009, the channel controller identified a timeslot for a music-driven program. The Feds executive producer, Lisa Gray, knew it had to be something special. “Whatever I did, I didn’t want to create something really daggy for kids, so we thought a good way to connect to this generation would be to get them to send in questions they wanted answered. It’s kind of like MythBusters for music. If you can’t find the answer to something online, ask us, and we will find out for you,” says Gray.

During the development process, associate producer Noni Couell found the range of musical interests of today’s kids was diverse. “Because their access to music is vast, many kids have eclectic tastes far beyond what we had when we were young,” says Couell.

And the passion of some fans is astonishing. “We had a 13-year-old girl say, ‘if I buy 12 Justin Bieber singles, I will help make him number one’.”

The back-to-front concept sets Stay Tuned apart for it is rare to find a television series driven by online. But Gray says it was never about creating a one-dimensional show. “The ultimate goal was to form this online community for like-minded musical interests.” This was also taken into consideration when casting. “I was not looking for just your typical hosts. I wanted hosts that were generally interested in music and proactive in the online space. They also had to be great in front of the camera, because this is such a fast turnaround,” says Gray.

Casting

Finding the perfect duo to host the show proved difficult and took three rounds of extensive casting before Singh and Phillips were matched. Ultimately, Gray was looking for the ‘school captains’ of the Stay Tuned community. For Singh, auditioning was a tense moment. “It was definitely nerve-racking because I had no idea what they were looking for and unless you count my cameo on Backyard Science when I was six, I didn’t have any screen experience.” Yet this lack of experience was exactly what Gray sought. “We wanted people who could grow with the show and help us mould what the show was about.” More importantly, both Singh and Phillips had to slot into the ABC culture. “These guys had to not only fit into our show, but the remit of what ABC3 is about,” says Gray.

According to Gray, when producing content for ABC3, the sky is the limit in terms of creative freedom. “What has been really nice about this is I am allowed to get orchestras or one-man-bands, or anything I think would be great as opposed to strictly pop artists.” And it is perhaps this freedom that makes the show so inherently real as both Singh and Phillips add their views to the mix.

“They have been so great in letting us have our own voice in a lot of the elements of the show. What do you think about this question? How do you want to approach this?” says Singh.

Series producer Tim Thatcher agrees. “I have so much more freedom. We don’t have people saying ‘you can’t do this’. It is nice to have leeway to create your own ideas.”

Now in its second season, the Stay Tuned production crew works to a practised routine. Shot on a Sony EX350, over a period of six weeks, the 30 episodes in the series are filmed one per day, leaving little margin for error. But this tight-knit team of 14 takes it in their stride – they’re used to a fast pace and often learn the next day’s script between takes.

Each episode is shot on location with a single cameraman and one sound operator. Thatcher says director of photography Tim Hawkins knows exactly what he is doing. “Tim comes from a background of big shows like My Kitchen Rules and 60 Minutes. He has such a great eye.”

With such limited resources it would seem the scope for production is restricted. But the series has managed to draw big-name talent including Good Charlotte, Boy and Bear, Tinie Tempah, Ke$ha and Hot Chelle Rae.

Thatcher says collaboration is key to delivering with such a small crew. “You have to make sure you get people that are really good at what they do, that can multitask and work well together. Everyone on the crew will run and get coffees or help carry gear. We can all shoot and most of us can write scripts and direct. The difference with working on a small production is you really have to be able to pick up a camera and go and shoot someone, or do a voice over if need be.”

Of the three executive producers, Gray is responsible for overseeing the production and during the shoot her days are frenetic.

“Because it is such a small-budget show, I make a lot of the final decisions. The buck stops with me. I feel like I am putting every year of my 11-year career in television into this production. The hardest part is coordinating the production schedule, the artists’ schedule and the delivery schedule, all within the set timeframe.”

On set

Despite careful preparation things do go wrong. Gray relies on her previous experience to keep the momentum going. “All sorts of curve balls can be thrown our way during production. For example, bands we have based a whole episode on have pulled out the night before a shoot for reasons beyond anyone’s control. You can’t just cancel the next shoot.”

Indeed the day that Encore plans to visit the set, a last-minute call signals potential disaster – the scheduled act has cancelled with little notice. The shoot, planned for an inner city bar, is canned and the team moves on to prepare for the next day with Grammy award-winning boy band Hot Chelle Rae expected.

The biggest challenge is the tight turnaround of post production. “We will have written and shot 30 half hour shows in 30 days and we are editing them every two days. This is a really big job, because if we had the budget and the time we would shoot one episode over three or four days.”

Post production

Arguably the most important part of any television series is the editing process. Running Avid Media Composer in three edit suites simultaneously, Stay Tuned has three editors and one assistant working around the clock. Dan Mansour, editor/post producer, says: “We have literally two days to turn around an episode so it’s very quick. You have to be confident in your own decisions.” Once the raw footage is sorted, Mansour builds the story in the offline edit. “There is a lot of opportunity to post produce. We can use graphical elements and there is quite a bit of freedom to influence the shape of the story.” Once the base of the episode is built, grading and effects are added in the online edit. Sometimes the end result is unexpected.

“A lot of this show is built in post. Obviously there is the music and sound effects, but each episode, even after we have shot it, can go in a completely different direction in the edit. I have to keep an eye on all three of those edit suites thinking of ways to make it more quirky or make the jokes pop,” says Thatcher.

Thierry Bled, ABC’s deputy commissioning editor for children’s TV, says the unique format has served to boost ABC3’s market position not only in the children’s television arena but also online. “We think that Stay Tuned is the most original children’s show on TV and it connects directly with our audience. It gives us a distinctly entertaining, factual music show – the first of its kind. The website has been a huge success and we have even had a spin off online series called In Tune where The Feds create content exclusive to the web.”

Gray’s hopes extend beyond Australia. “I would love to make this show international. For years I was obsessed with ratings because they were the only way to judge if we were connecting with our audience, but now that we can actually talk to audiences online, we can really engage. Interactive viewing is the future of TV and that is just so exciting creatively.”

 

  •  This piece first appeared in Encore magazine. Subscribe to the print edition here or download the iPad edition here

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