MIP-TV Special report: International producers: Strangers in a strange land

The foreigners are here, and they're causing a culture shift. It started last year when the vogue for British animators hit fever pitch and U.S. studios turned up in London. 'Stealing our talent,' said the little U.K. production companies, as more...
April 1, 1996

The foreigners are here, and they’re causing a culture shift. It started last year when the vogue for British animators hit fever pitch and U.S. studios turned up in London. ‘Stealing our talent,’ said the little U.K. production companies, as more underpaid artists took the Disney dollar and the house with a pool in L.A.

Now, the Americans, the Aussies and even some Canadians are commissioning and producing British children’s programs, adapting tried and tested formulae and forcing a rethinking of the way kids programming is attacked.

They’re even forcing the English to say ‘kids.’ Now, it’s more likely to be ‘g’day’ on Nickelodeon and ‘see ya’ with TCC.

A leading light in British children’s programming production, James Baker has been head of programming and creative affairs at Nickelodeon International for three years. A track record that includes a.m. TV’s Wide Awake Club and setting up Channel 4′s Big Breakfast. These led to his first break from breakfast to ‘a day job’ at Nickelodeon in June 1993, three months before its start-up in the U.K. as a cable and satellite channel.

His unique perspective is that of a British producer who had to adopt the persona of a U.S. giant and make it work in the U.K. Now, he’s responsible for all programming and creative issues for Nickelodeon’s business outside the U.S. and is currently working on the launch of Nickelodeon in Germany and Australia.

But, the U.K. came first. ‘Nick U.K. was the first Nickelodeon channel outside the U.S. and it came after we’d had a few very strong years in the U.S. as the number one kids brand, so I think there was a slight feeling that it would be very easy to set up and repeat that success in the U.K.’

Don’t change a winning formula, that’s what they say. Indeed, that’s exactly what they did. ‘We stuck very closely to the U.S. Nick formula. It was all part of a learning curve.’ And Baker learned that ‘British kids are keen to have a service that reflects what they want-and the aim of Nickelodeon is to be a full-service channel, not just to show cartoons.

‘At the start-off, we didn’t really connect enough with the audience. The most important change was to localize the environment. We built a studio (at London’s Trocadero Centre) to broadcast live output and gave kids a chance to take part in the channel.’

A breakthrough success for Nick U.K. has been Watch Your Own Wednesday (WYOW), a weekly segment in which, by voting for their favorites, the audience schedules the channel. ‘We took it to the extent where, if they didn’t like a program on air or in research, then we’d take it off.’

WYOW was exclusive to the U.K. Baker’s idea was to give his audience a new chance: to take part instead of being passive.

‘The thing is that the British scene is genuinely unique. In no other country in the world are kids so well served by programming-you’ve got the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 all doing specific kids programming. What we needed was something that made us feel different and more special.’

And Nickelodeon’s success is not even down to its individual programs-although hits such as Clarissa and the Rugrats have caught on. In true Viacom style, though, Nickelodeon (like MTV) is not shy about sharing its hit programming with the terrestrial channels. Clarissa, Explains It All and Rugrats feature on BBC1′s Saturday morning hit magazine show Live and Kicking, which runs like a two-hour version of Nick itself. D’esn’t that confuse viewer loyalty?

‘It’s like an early version of digital broadcasting-there’s multiple choice about when you want to watch,’ says Baker. ‘Kids come to us for relaxation, and we’ve been very strong in developing comedy, which is undeveloped for kids. They tend to watch adult sitcoms at the moment.’

Baker is a great believer in making the people in the country find out what the native kids want. ‘For example, in Germany, there’s a very different feeling. But, as long as we keep the key ethos of Nickelodeon in there, we can adapt for the country.’ Most vital is to ‘find an area where you can say, ‘this is where we are different, and this is why.’ It’s better to innovate and learn from mistakes than to imitate an established service.’

Baker isn’t sitting still. The British children’s audience is sophisticated and somewhat spoiled. The two main broadcasters, BBC1 and ITV, have dedicated children’s areas-mini-channels within the schedules called CBBC and CITV-and the viewers are used to programs like Blue Peter coming out to them with road trips, projects, competitions and exhibitions since time immemorial.

Nick U.K. has also opened a studio at Bradford’s National Film and Television museum in the north of England and there is also a Nickelodeon TV Lab at the country’s largest theme park, Alton Towers in the Midlands. ‘It’s a chance to come and play with us,’ says Baker.

‘We have to be seen not just as a TV channel, hence our magazine and on-line services. We’re a lifestyle, not just a channel.’

Nickelodeon is also borrowing Blue Peter’s worthy ‘involved in the community stance,’ only hipper.

‘We’ve started a community service initiative in the States, about giving kids a feeling of responsibility and donating time, not money, to the community. And we’re looking to develop it in the U.K. But if we just carbon-copy it, it’s not going to work. We have to find out what the kids care about.

‘German kids, for example, are a very concerned group of people-they care deeply about the environment and racism. There’s a similar environment thing in the U.K. They’d like more of a say in what’s going on. It’s dangerous to think we can give them power, but we can give them a say through Nickelodeon without being preachy.’

Nickelodeon has pretty much won through the tricky period-the fact that its shows are screened on Children’s BBC says a lot. Viacom has tapped into something. Through-the-line programming is new (the British are not accustomed to seeing Blue Peter spin-off toys or ‘come and play with Jackanory’) and a full-service children’s producer is forcing others to pull their socks up.

A native New Zealander, Adrian Workman, senior vice president of BMG Video International, created BMG’s video division six years ago. Its growth into an animation production force is largely due to his plans of diversification into new product genres.

Based in London, BMG harnesses British animation skills and markets them into submission by taking a project such as Wind in the Willows and exploiting every possible ancillary right.

Wind in the Willows, which BMG commissioned from Martin Gates Productions, was broadcast on Channel 4 in the U.K. and is currently the subject of a massive worldwide marketing push to make it work globally. Workman’s plan is to make BMG ‘a mini-Disney’ out of the U.K., and his theory (similar to Nick U.K.’s realization that the way to get and hold British children is to offer them something extra) is that if you offer enough around your show, the extra package will swing the audience.

For example, Wind in the Willows, which has spawned books, toys, audio tapes, music soundtrack tapes, bed linen, lunch boxes and, of course, BMG’s core market, sell-through video. The first step is to develop the original one-off into a series, pull in all the simultaneous licensing ends and bingo, it’s a worldwide package that can be adapted for each territory.

It means that Martin Gates is working on a global product as opposed to a one-off special for Christmas on Channel 4.

Of his new international status, Gates notes, ‘it’s very pleasing’-with an ear for a British understatement. But, Wind in the Willows works in its own idioms; we made it as true to the original as we could-true to its classic background. We made the first 30 minutes on our own-Mole’s Christmas for Channel 4-then BMG took the video rights and talked to us about doing the rest. It won’t make a lot of difference to the production, they simply put the money up.’

‘I think it’s potentially the next Winnie the Pooh,’ Workman asserts. And the secret is: ‘We stick with the classics and on girl-orientated properties.’ Then he d’esn’t have to worry about the plot, the characters, or the suitability of themes.

There was some doubt over how Wind in the Willows would sell in the States. Too British, some said. ‘That’s why we need to get our act together and talk to all the broadcasters in advance about what they need. Before we greenlight a project, we do all the deals up front.’

He’s talking big money. His next four projects, all cel animation, all classic adaptations (all, of course, under wraps) are for production budgets of US$10 to 11 million, although he won’t be the sole funder.

‘You need to look very carefully at putting together the right backing team-a big toy company, a U.K. broadcaster and a big U.S. network.

It’s absolutely not the traditional view of British production. British children’s shows are generally about uncompromising, family values.

Workman’s belief is that if the deal is right, the audiences will follow.

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