Infant Industry: The Wiggles Industrial Complex
From band to brand, these Australians mean business. by Greg Allen
February 14, 2007
With their cheesy dance moves and insipid lyrics (“Fruit salad, yummy, yummy fruit salad / Yummy, yummy yummy, yummy, yummy, yummy, fruit salad”), the Wiggles’ success has always baffled me. Even with an earworm like “Hot Potato” ringing through my skull, I can tell that my two-year-old daughter loves them, just as my then-three-year-old niece loved them in 2002. But as I look from the ridiculously low production values to the obscenely high numbers (seventeen million CDs sold last year!), I can’t help but wonder: are the Wiggles a giant racket?
The band’s official story is one of talent, hard work and magic. Four ex-musicians met while studying to become preschool teachers and formed the group, in which each color-coded character is defined by what he likes best (food, sleep, magic, music). They now perform more than 200 live shows a year with the same wholesome costumed characters they first introduced years ago in Sydney daycare centers: Captain Feathersword, Dorothy the Dinosaur, Wags the Dog and Henry the Octopus. Paul Field, the group’s manager (and blue Wiggle Anthony’s brother) told an Australian paper that The Wiggles really took off in America right after September 11th, when the group decided not to cancel their New York concert dates.
The reality is a little more complex – and far more corporate. The Wiggles were already on their way by 2001, thanks to the distribution deal they signed in 1998 when they were in Texas performing at Six Flags. That’s where they were spotted by executives of Lyrick Studios, the creators of that annoying kiddie enterprise of an earlier generation, Barney. Within three years, the Wiggles were opening for Barney’s live show. Lyrick included a Wiggles preview on millions of Barney tapes and DVDs. When Lyrick (which then also controlled Veggie Tales) was acquired by the UK studio/distributor HIT Entertainment (which owned Bob the Builder and half a dozen other properties), the company became the third largest distributor of children’s entertainment after Disney and Nickelodeon. The Wiggles made preschool primetime when The Disney Channel added them to the morning lineup in 2002.
And it wasn’t the Wiggles’ first rodeo. They’ve had a TV show since the early days, when they appeared on ABC, the Australian public network. Websites like Daddy Otter have documented the group’s changes from season to season. And the transformation has been far more substantial than the graying of Anthony’s hair. The first two seasons, shot in 1998 and 1999, were full of long skits featuring relatively complex narratives and characters. The Wiggles themselves were on camera almost the whole time. The script was full of jokes clearly meant to go over kids’ heads, punctuated by Australianisms like, “Beauty, mate!”
By Season Two, the Wiggles were becoming more generic, thanks in part to computer animation. Season Three, shot in 2002, when Disney started airing the series, was completely different. Called “Lights, Camera, Action!”, it was framed by a self-referential, Larry Sanders-like set. There were songs about mixing boards and control rooms, and a pretend stage crew of children. The long skits were gone, replaced by a quick series of songs and bits that emphasized each character’s bullet point (“Wake up, Jeff!”).
By Season Four, shot in 2005, ancillary characters like the Little Wiggles had moved to the fore. Unless it was a concert video, there were hardly any actual Wiggles singing songs at all. (The real Wiggles were on tour. As most bands with distribution deals come to realize, touring is the best way to make money – and to keep most of the money you make.)