The Ellie Sparkles Show’s Commitment to Inclusion

Matthew Pepe and Chris Clarke, co-creators of The Ellie Sparkles Show, talk to TV Kids about how the series promotes diversity and inclusion.

Back in 2015, when Matthew Pepe’s daughter was nearly 2 years old, he realized that she was watching much of the same YouTube content that his then 5-year-old son had been watching at her age—and was now watching alongside her. “It piqued my interest,” said Pepe. “Back then, it was just simple toy-play videos, but you look at the numbers on them and they had millions, tens of millions of views. As a father, it inspired me to do something that my kids would enjoy. I could create stuff that I knew they would like.”

Together with his longtime friend Chris Clarke, he developed a concept that would feature Clarke’s wife Ellie, who had moved to the U.S. from Japan via China, front and center. “After Chris and I and Ellie did some research, a little bit of planning, we decided, let’s take a stab at this, let’s start making our own videos for YouTube with Ellie as the focus,” explains Pepe. “We thought it would be interesting and different to have a female Asian lead. It wasn’t anything we’d seen on YouTube or in the YouTube programming space or anywhere on the web.”

Prior to co-creating The Ellie Sparkles Show, neither Pepe nor Clarke had any experience in production, hailing from the construction and corporate finance industries, respectively. “We had no experience,” says Clarke. “We came about the concept to start with simple toy-play videos, unboxing videos, where you just see your hands. Ellie became the star of the channel—the voice, hands and personality of the channel and inspiration for the Ellie Sparkles character.”

It wasn’t long after launching their YouTube channel that it started to get the kinds of numbers Pepe had noticed on the videos his children were watching, leading Pepe and Clarke to shift their content into the next gear. “We made a decision to focus more heavily on production quality,” explains Pepe. “We also made a conscious decision to focus more on storytelling. We were probably one of the first children’s channels in the YouTube space to emphasize storytelling over toy unboxing.”

In 2017, Pepe and Clarke received an email from WildBrain Spark. “I saw the name and I was like, wow, this is one of the biggest premium kids’ and family AVOD networks in the world, and they’re contacting us,” recalls Pepe. “We responded to that email pretty quickly, and it turned out to be an exciting vision for the channel and we partnered. It turned what Chris said was just the voice and hands of Ellie Sparkles into a live-action character [and] a children’s brand. That’s basically what we’ve been doing with WildBrain Spark, focusing on producing the highest quality live-action content for kids on YouTube.”

The Ellie Sparkles Show promotes sharing, kindness and empathy. Its videos see Ellie engage kids with short stories and on-camera adventures, encouraging them to challenge themselves and learn new things. Among the main goals for the show’s creators are to promote inclusion and to ensure that Ellie is a positive role model for the audience. 

We want Ellie to be an inviting character,” says Clarke. “From the production process all the way through to post, we’re very aware of pushing this concept of inclusion forward. We also realized that Ellie Sparkles [is] a unique, underrepresented face in children’s media as an Asian American. We’re increasingly positioning her as a strong-willed, know-no-bounds type of character. So, if Ellie Sparkles can be a YouTube star, why can’t every little child watching be what they want to be?”

Starring as the titular Ellie in the live-action series is Sara Rahman, who studied acting at NYU’s Tisch. “We had high expectations for her acting ability, but she also understood the character from the start,” says Pepe. “She got the positivity aspect of the Ellie Sparkles character. She’s also done a great job of evolving the character as we’ve evolved as writers and directors and producers ourselves. She also takes pride that, as Ellie Sparkles, she has an opportunity to touch the lives of children, and she also has pride that she’s one of the few Asian American female leads in children’s entertainment.”

Clarke adds, “Even before the casting process began, we all placed an emphasis on Ellie Sparkles being a diverse character. Part of that was because the original Ellie was herself diverse. We knew we had this international presence, and we wanted children across the world to be able to look at Ellie and get a sense of familiarity with her. And just in America, unfortunately, not too many Asian American children could honestly say that they had a lot of children’s characters that related to them, both in looks and personality. We wanted to really set that forward.”

With kids’ TV taking on a bigger role in their education and development, Pepe and Clarke see how programs like The Ellie Sparkles Show can help young ones understand critical cultural and social issues that are at play in society today, in addition to tough personal topics like battling anxiety. “We think it’s kids’ shows like ours that have an even greater responsibility to address these issues and societal movements, now more than ever,” says Clarke. 

As an example, Pepe points to a video that shows Ellie struggling in school. “As a parent myself, it’s important that the kids watching see that Ellie is just like them; she’s not perfect,” he explains. “She has fears. She experiences anxiety in certain situations, she has food she doesn’t like, just like my kids and everyone else’s. If a 7-year-old can see that Ellie also struggles in school, she’s struggling in a school assignment but she finds a way to overcome it—sometimes by herself, sometimes with the help of a friend, sometimes with an adult—I think that can be very empowering for kids who are watching.”

In terms of diversity and inclusion on broadcast TV and platforms like YouTube, Clarke thinks that there has been progress over the last few years, and he’s happy to be a part of it. “We would be so honored, and Ellie herself especially is so honored, if Ellie Sparkles can help continue to move the needle in the children’s space, even if it’s just a little bit,” he says. “If we’re a part of that in the children’s space, making Asian females more prevalent on TV, more recognizable to kids, to lead the way over the next few years for Asian actresses.”

“When we talk about the evolution of Ellie Sparkles, we’re not talking about our scripts getting better and maybe we get better cameras and equipment; the evolution is really in the character and the message that we’re sending,” adds Pepe. “There’s always more that can be done, but the needle is moving, and it’s because of everything that is being done to push inclusion.”