Fraggle Rock and the enduring love of Canadian children's programming

With the Fraggle Rock revival freshly out, industry insiders say its clear that nostalgia-heavy Canadian content is seeing a wave of renewed interest. Old programs are inspiring reboots and revivals — and showing that Canadian young-adult and children’s programming has always punched above its weight.

Back to the Rock signals renewed interest in Canadian kids' content, say insiders

From left, puppets Red, Gobo, Boober, Mokey and Wembley appear in this image from Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock. The revival premiered on Friday, signalling a renewed interest in Canadian children's programming. (Apple TV+)

It's been more than three decades, but Fraggle Rock is still singing the same song.

And for nostalgic 1980s kids looking to get their fix, you need look no further than Apple TV+, where the show was rebooted one year after a series of pandemic-set shorts helped build interest in the children's TV-mainstay. Now, fans can once again see the multi-coloured singing puppets on their screens with the debut on Friday of 13 brand new episodes of Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock.

It came alongside a Dave Grohl-penned cover of the original theme song, while the revival itself has song credits from Patti LaBelle, Cynthia Erivo, Daveed Diggs and more. And though the pilot has the characters singing a new track, subsequent episodes launch into a re-recorded version of the original opening theme — staying true to a show first launched by puppeteering legend Jim Henson in 1983, right in Toronto.

Back to the Rock follows in the footsteps of the original there as well, filming entirely in Canada — this time inside the Calgary Film Centre.

Kira Hall, a longtime puppeteer working on the show, says the scale of the production is like nothing she's ever seen. 

WATCH | Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock trailer:

"We're talking, like — and you can see it in the show — multilevel sets where you're going up and puppeteering on a second level, live water features puppeteering underneath a big tank of water.... [It's] so much bigger than it was before," Hall said.

But even with that effort and star power this decades-old cartoon was able to pull in, it seems to just be part of a larger trend. Canadian content is seeing a wave of renewed interest, inspiring reboots and revivals — especially young-adult and children's programming. Industry insiders say that renewed interest just demonstrates that Canada has always punched above its weight when it comes to shows for kids.

"We, I think, are a little less constrained by the idea of how children should be spoken to," Amil Niazi, a culture writer and showrunner for the CBC podcast Pop Chat, said when explaining why Canadian shows for children and teenagers seemed to perform so well — and why there's so much desire to look back.

She says shows like Degrassi — which has existed on the airwaves almost constantly in one form or another since 1979 — didn't talk down to young people. Instead, they depicted the world in an honest way — and honestly dealt with the issues young people face.

"Certainly there is a lot of programming out there for people that age, but I think it can often be either sugarcoated or condescending," Niazi said. "And in Canada, I think we're not afraid to be honest and be real."

Wave of reboots

Because of that particular way of engaging young people, there's been a lasting interest in long-cancelled Canadian programming, as well as demands from now-grown Canadians to bring those shows back.

Aside from an undying interest in 1990s Canadian commercials aimed at children — the cataloguing of which has spawned a veritable cottage industry — Degrassi is receiving another reboot, set to air on HBO Max in the spring of 2023. Elsewhere, the long-running Total Drama cartoon series will also receive two new seasons on HBO Max and Cartoon Network next year, largely because it has developed a cult following in Canada and abroad.

The Teletoon/MTV co-production Clone High aired for only one season before being cancelled. But its fan base never diminished, and so it received a two-season order early last year — also from HBO Max.

And more than 20 years after its original run, Undergrads (similarly produced by Teletoon and MTV) may soon be receiving a Kickstarter-funded movie sequel, which creator Peter Williams largely credited to Canadians' love of the show.

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When Kevin Gillis, creator of Canadian animated show The Raccoons, learned it was having something of a revival, he wasn't entirely surprised.

"It's 40 years later, and we've seen this very fortunate resurgence," Gillis said in an interview with CBC. "It just started to bubble about a year and a half ago, and it's starting to take over."

The original cartoon, which debuted in the 1980s, had a strong environmental message — a seemingly heavy topic that the show trusted its young viewers to handle. It was popular enough to air in 180 countries and reached two million viewers a week in Canada during its prime.

Gillis says the renewed interest in The Raccoons has him and his team restoring and remastering the series from 35mm into 4k and 8k format, as well as remastering the show's music — with the possibility of releasing new shorts in the future. At the same time, he says they're currently courting two major distributors who are interesting in acquiring streaming rights for the show.

A still from the animated series The Raccoons. The cartoon aired on CBC in the 1980s after an initial run of successful specials starting in 1980. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

But even as these programs see renewed interest and revivals, Gillis says there's a problem. As with every show mentioned (aside from Undergrads, which has never received a firm renewal offer despite its popularity), these Canadian revivals are being made by American companies, not Canadian.

Aside from a very few distributors, Gillis says Canadian broadcasters aren't putting money into animation anymore, and mainstay kids' channels such as YTV and Teletoon have stopped feeding the once-thriving animation industry in this country.

"We own nothing, nada," Gillis said. "A lot of our Canadian production companies have done fabulous animation, but it's becoming less and less Canadian owned — and actually Canadian created. It's somebody else's work."

Kevin Gillis, left, creator and director of the Canadian animated series The Raccoons, is shown with animation director Paul Schibli in this 1986 photo. (Run With Us Productions)

For Canadian animators, Gillis says, it's already nearly impossible to move forward with a series without partnering directly with an American company — the "big guys" of the animation world. And that threatens the uniquely successful tone that Canadian content has fostered up until now.

"[There's] nothing wrong with the big guys. But most of the big shows that came out of Canada were not created by the big guys," Gillis said. "They were created by individuals living in Regina, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Newfoundland."

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As for a way forward though, Gillis says it's as simple as going back to the way things once were. Requiring streaming services that operate in the country to support and showcase Canadian animation as various channels did in the past, and fostering the uniquely honest — and uniquely odd — flavour of kids' and young-adult content that's seeing a revival now. 

"You just have to have a little bit of support for the creativity that we have in this country," Gillis said, "because we are blessed with it."


Jackson Weaver is a senior writer for CBC Entertainment News. You can reach him at jackson.weaver@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver

With files from Eli Glasner and Teghan Beaudette