Odd Squad is about to cross the pond.
The hit live-action children’s series has been translated into dozens of languages and broadcast around the world, but a new co-production deal has taken its international appeal to a new level.
A 12-episode run that will serve as the show’s fourth season on PBS Kids has just finished filming in Manchester, England. There’s still time to decide whether the series will air in the states as Odd Squad UK or just Odd Squad. The new season is slated for release in late 2024.
The co-production between Sinking Ship Entertainment and BBC Studios Kids & Family — a relatively new entity that spun off from its parent network in April 2021 — came together through partnerships with CBBC (Children’s BBC), PBS Kids and Canadian broadcasters TVO Kids and Société Radio-Canada. Fred Rogers Productions holds U.S. distribution rights and licensed them exclusively to PBS, according to Matt Shiels, VP of business and legal affairs.
With three seasons comprising more than 100 episodes already in circulation, Odd Squad has performed well with British audiences, delivering ratings that place the series among the top five shows on CBBC at any given time. Those numbers led Toronto-based Sinking Ship and the show’s creators, Tim McKeon and Adam Peltzman, to pursue shooting a special episode of the show in England, similar to the season three episode produced in Australia, “End Of The Road.”
The BBC agreed to the idea in February 2020 — just before the COVID pandemic hit. When pre-production started in May 2020, Sinking Ship realized that the logistics of sending the cast and crew over to Britain to shoot the episode would be too complicated and too expensive.
“That’s when we said, ‘What if we do a series instead?’” says Blair Powers, co-founder of Sinking Ship. “The show had been doing so well there that we realized it would just be easier to film the whole season in the U.K. rather than just a single episode.” Over several months of talks with the BBC, a deal came together in early 2023. BBC Studios Kids & Family was hired to helm the production, which was ultimately filmed in and around Manchester.
“We often hear people from CBBC talk about comedy and what’s making their audience laugh, and they often use Odd Squad as an example,” says Tali Walters, creative director of BBC Studios Kids & Family. “It’s got so many elements that U.K. kids seem to love.” The series has generated about 25 million requests on the BBC’s iPlayer, she said, “which is huge.”
The BBC’s commitment to helping fund production was part of the appeal of expanding the Squad to the U.K. “In public media, funding is always a question, so we’re exploring a new approach,” says Ellen Doherty, chief creative officer for Fred Rogers Productions, which counts Odd Squad among the seven original educational children’s titles it distributes.
“This is a moment in the media industry writ large — but especially in the kids industry — where we’ve seen so much retraction,” says Tommy Gillespie, senior director of content production for PBS Kids. “It’s a challenging time for creatives, for production companies and for broadcasters, so this is a great moment where we can really have an opportunity to share resources and put together a really incredible production that’s going to be for the benefit of kids and audiences around the world.”
“Around the building here at PBS and within public media in general, there’s so much shared DNA [with the BBC],” Gillespie continues. “There’s also so much affinity from public media audiences for British content. This is a cool opportunity for us to dip our toe in the water on the kids side and to say, ‘It’s not just what we’re doing with dramas.’”
Creating the new Squad
For Odd Squad’s expansion to succeed, the show’s producers knew it would have to maintain the same wit, tone and general look of the original series, albeit with some U.K. twists. “We wanted to have Odd Squad UK be a fresh take on the series and feel distinctive from the other episodes while still being part of the same series,” says Powers.
Part of the lore of Odd Squad is that there are branches all over the world, making the move to Britain feel pretty natural. The show’s writers, directors and production designers were able to reference previous episodes when crafting storylines, sets and shots. They could also consult McKeon and Peltzman, as well as Mark DeAngelis, an Odd Squad showrunner who penned the pilot for Odd Squad UK and is a creative consultant to the production.
“It was a full collaboration,” says Powers. “We brought some of our expertise, but we also learned different ways to tackle problems from our friends in the U.K. We sent over some wardrobe and props and Converse shoes. The BBC Studios team “had great fun mixing and matching that stuff, while also adding to it to enhance the series.”
“From the first pitch that I saw, everything felt entirely true to the series,” says Doherty. “It’s just an expansion to a new territory. There are still tubes, and agents whose names begin with ‘O,’ but they’ve managed to keep it fresh while staying true to the original.”
“It’s something that kids will really recognize and be excited about, but that will put a new flavor on it,” Doherty adds.
Part of that flavor will come from the cast, which was put together quite intentionally to reflect the diversity of the U.K. “Diversity is really important in everything we do, but I think we’re been particularly successful with Odd Squad …,” says Walters. “We always want to show kids from lots of different ethnic backgrounds and geographic regions, but we also want socioeconomic diversity. Our casting directors went above and beyond to … find kids who’ve never done anything on television before. They’ve all come together on Odd Squad, and they have been the most fantastic cast.”
To maintain continuity with the original series’ Canadian cast, one of the new leads is a Canadian who was living in the U.K. when she was cast for the role. In the new season’s story, she’s called over from her home in Niagara Falls (“a very odd place itself,” Doherty says) in response to a spike in oddness in the U.K. That character, Powers says, acts as “the eyes and ears for the American audience questioning what’s odd and what’s just something you come to Britain for.”
The story also plays with the idea of its traditional transport tubes, tipping a hat to the London Underground’s nickname and setting its main U.K. HQ in an abandoned “Tube” station.
Odd math challenges
Part of the challenge of crafting Odd Squad UK came in meeting educational guidelines for a new territory. Though the show has always focused on math, what kids in the U.K. learn in “maths” class might be different from kids of the same age in the U.S.
“Sinking Ship and FRP were really intentional about looking at standards in different territories and finding our way to places where there’s a real alignment,” says Gillespie. “Landing on a curriculum that’s going to work is always a key conversation as part of the show’s pre-production process, as is making sure we’re serving the needs of kids in that territory.” The partners will produce PBS LearningMedia content, two PBS Kids games and other outreach materials for the new season.
It’s also important for kids to be able to see versions of themselves on the screen. “Odd Squad is one of the few places for this age group where you see kids who are 10 or 11 playing characters that are very happy about the awesomeness of being 10 or 11,” says Doherty. “These are not 10-year-olds who are acting like 14-year-olds. They’re just 10, and that vibe really matters to kids, who find it to be really relatable.”
“There’s nothing like seeing real kids on screen,” says Gillespie. “You really don’t need to look much further than a lot of the content that kids are consuming right now to see that,” he said, pointing to the popularity of kid-created content on platforms like YouTube.
Odd Squad has long managed to successfully bridge terrestrial and digital media. Its strong streaming numbers on YouTube and the PBS Kids app get boosts from digital-only features like the vlog series OddTube or the audio-only Odd Squadcast.
With this new season, Gillespie says PBS Kids is “continuing to think about ways to engage and expand the world of the show in short form,” beyond the two online games.
While Odd Squad UK won’t premiere until late 2024, its creators are already thinking about where the series could go next. “I would absolutely love to make more Odd Squad UK,” says Walters, “but we’ll have to see what happens.” It’ll be some time before the partners will see how the audience reacts to “the U.K. oddness.”
“We’re really confident people are going to love it,” she adds.
If there is to be a second season of Odd Squad UK, Powers would love to do more than 12 episodes and a few longer-form specials, he says. He’s not ruling out more collaborations with the BBC or broadcasters in other countries where the show is popular.
Those decisions rest with Sinking Ship Entertainment and FRP, Gillespie says. “They’d … manage any relationships with folks” who want to bring the show to their region. “I can certainly see it happening, though, because the show resonates so well.”
“Our audience has been born into a really global world where there are opportunities to make all sorts of cross-border connections,” Gillespie continues. “… It’s exciting that we continue to bring a really diverse range of content to kids. Odd Squad UK is just one more opportunity to do that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Matt Shiels. He is VP of business and legal affairs for Fred Rogers Productions, not PBS.