Jane Smith is one of the leading international names in children’s television program marketing. Her perspective on the industry encompasses more than a decade in sales and marketing in the United Kingdom and, most recently, North America. Smith was a founding member of London-based HIT Entertainment and for the past year she has been involved in marketing and new product development at New York-based Sunbow Entertainment as senior vice president of sales. Smith talked with KidScreen about some of the important changes she has seen over the past several years in the international children’s television market, particularly the relationship between the European and North American markets.
What do you see as the main changes in the international children’s market over the past few years?
‘I think the main change that we’ve seen over the past few years is a much greater demand for high-quality animation on a worldwide basis. This has led to a much greater collaboration between animation producers in terms of the programming. Previously what we saw was that the U.S. market would develop, finance, produce and then export the programming, which would satisfy the market to a large part.
‘Now what we are seeing is that there is a much greater collaboration between the American market and the international market both creatively and financially. Creatively, there is a much greater openness from writers in particular, to a collaborative approach to a project. Development no longer focuses solely on one market. You’re seeing global thinking coming to projects right at the early stages. At Sunbow, we have had great experiences in putting together creative teams involving both European and American writers from the earliest stage so that an international concept is developed from day one.
‘There is a recognition on both sides that everyone can bring something to the table that benefits the project. Companies are also setting their sights much wider in terms of the expectation of animation programming. By this I mean that a series is expected to sell to the vast majority of markets rather than just a handful.
‘A good illustration of how things have changed is the shift that has taken place at NATPE. I believe it is 100 percent more international now than it was three to four years ago. The companies participating in the market are much more international in outlook and the event is no longer dominated by the U.S. syndication market. Cable operators, the video cassette people and the network people are all there, as well as the international broadcasters looking to buy, as well as distributors with booths who are looking to sell. The focus of NATPE has certainly shifted completely, reflecting the shift in the marketplace.’
Why do you think these changes have occurred?
‘The most obvious reason for the change in the marketplace must be the greatly increased number of outlets-everywhere we are seeing children’s channels appear on the broadcasting landscape, adding to the existing terrestrial services. The financing of projects has become tougher as outlets in the U.S. have been cut back. This means that you have to look elsewhere to complete the financing of a project.
‘If the American market is bringing only 50 percent of the budget to the table, then you have to go and look to the international market to deficit finance. This means that you have to then make sure that the project has international appeal with a greater level of creative input than previously. A project becomes global out of necessity.
‘There has also been a shift away from the more traditional, action style of animation that came out of the U.S. market towards more different styles such as comedy and classic characters. I believe that European writers can certainly contribute with this sort of programming, working together with American writers, to ensure that the pace of the show works for the market. This inevitably enhances the global appeal of the program.
‘There is also the question of ownership of rights. The more a producer can bring to the table in terms of financing, the stronger his position is in terms of retaining rights. We work with producers to secure deals to deliver the U.S. broadcaster for a percentage of the budget, only ensuring that rights can be retained.
‘We are also seeing a much greater recognition by the major studios that animation programming represents a very lucrative business. The perception of major studios as to the value of the animation genre of programming is certainly increased by the potential earnings through exploitation of ancillary rights, such as licensing, merchandising, multi-media application and publishing programs. This is also seen in the branding of channels worldwide by broadcasters such as Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network.’
What do you see as the benefit of these changes?
‘One of the main benefits is that we are certainly seeing greater quality in children’s programming, particularly in the animation genre. The creative collaboration is producing much smarter shows. These creative opportunities also mean that you can push the boundaries, producing more cutting-edge animation. In any competitive market, the quality of the product is increased-in television in particular, dealing with such a fickle audience as children. It is extremely important to any broadcaster to be able to keep any audience watching.
‘This means that programming has to be appealing, but also on-screen promotion and branding of the channel have to build a loyal audience. It’s certainly a very challenging market now for the broadcasters. This increased collaboration is beneficial to the European animation producers. I think that there is a much greater chance of programming working in the U.S. market now that European producers are more comfortable working with American partners. Previously, the strategy was to produce for your market and then see if it would sell in America. This has now certainly changed.
‘From a distribution point of view, the benefits are clear- there are more places to sell programming. We just now have to be extremely careful with regards to the availability of rights given the extended footprints of many channels and also pay-cable windows. We are also seeing a much greater range in terms of the techniques used in animation. Movies, such as Toy Story, certainly opened the public’s mind as to what can be done with the medium.
‘The kids audience is very sophisticated now and extremely demanding in terms of what they see on the screen. Hopefully, this will encourage people to take more creative risks.’
Why do you think that animation in particular as a genre is becoming so global in appeal?
‘Animation appeals to all age groups. I certainly know of many parents who use children as an excuse to sit down and watch cartoons on a Saturday morning. We also know that The Tick, which we produce, has a very high cross-over audience in the 18- to 34-year-old age groups. This is a great advantage to broadcasters, being attractive to advertisers.
‘Animation, as opposed to live action, has a much broader cultural appeal. As long as an excellent dub is created, there is no reason why animation should not work in as many countries in the world as there are. However, it is extremely important to recognize cultural differences and to make allowances for these foreign language versions-the kind of voice that works for the American or the U.K. market d’es not work for the Spanish or the German.
‘I think there is also a much greater exposure now to animation on a worldwide level. In business, and in the home, there is a much greater distribution of computers and computer games with access to video, which means that everyone is being exposed to animation in one form or another.’
What d’es the future hold? How can you survive in this new environment?
‘The future is certainly very exciting. The creative direction that animation and children’s programming is now taking continues to push boundaries. I hope we see animation as a genre increasing in importance in broadcasters’ schedules. I think that with the quality of writing and new animation techniques that prime-time and adult slots will soon be opening up.
‘We all need to be flexible, and collaborative. At Sunbow, we certainly have this approach to doing business. Having just opened a studio on the West Coast, we are hoping that we will be able to work with a number of European animation co-producers developing and producing programming for the global market.
‘At the end of the day, however, the business still revolves around relationships. Armed with an in-depth knowledge of each market and a recognition of how other cultures do things, survival should be ensured.’