As children’s programming reaches a level of domestic saturation, broadcasting networks and syndicators have begun to turn their attention to the global marketplace as a fertile field to pursue new business opportunities.
The international market for children’s programming mirrors the U.S. market of a decade ago, when the development of cable, direct broadcast and other delivery platforms set the foundation for the burgeoning growth of program services. As the demand for programming is increased, and the means to carry it are upgraded, U.S. broadcasters are positioning themselves for rapid global expansion.
‘We recognize that there is an international appetite for children’s and family programming,’ Margaret Loesch, president of Fox Kids Network said. ‘We feel we’ve developed some expertise in the area and that there’s growth and opportunity to use what we’ve done and create or take advantage of the marketplace.’
Fox, much like other networks and syndicators, is determining what it can bring to other countries in terms of programming, promotion and marketing, while developing or acquiring shows created locally to avoid the image that it is force-feeding a glut of U.S. product on global markets.
The keys to international growth are economic viability in the specific country or region, the forging of partnerships with local broadcast entities that understand the cultural sensitivities of each region, and creating the aforementioned balance of local-originated and U.S. product.
The hoped-for result is international brand recognition. ‘It’s an amazingly complex business now to provide channels that serve different audiences,’ says Jon Miller, managing director, Nickelodeon International. ‘The big thing going into the future is really making sure that the brand emerges.’
That’s easier for some networks than others. Nickelodeon has been syndicating many of its series internationally for years. Shows on The Disney Channel and Cartoon Network bring with them instant recognition. Others, just beginning to expand globally, have to form partnerships to obtain a large enough library to sustain a channel, such as Fox’s alliance with Saban.
While all the networks are concerned about their bottom line, they are sincerely interested in bringing children from around the world together. Be it by Internet sites, contests, co-productions or other means, the networks hope to become partners with their audience-providing a means for kids to have their voice heard, and to meet and learn that kids are kids, no matter where they come from.
U.S. penetration is most prevalent in Europe, Australia and Latin America. Asia looms as a hot market in 1997. China, Africa, India and Eastern Europe all have vast untapped potential. With large populations, they represent the most intriguing long-term strategic opportunities.
Here’s a sampling of how some U.S. companies are approaching the international market:
Nickelodeon is working towards not only becoming a global network, but an international children’s lifestyle brand. Its goal of a ‘Planetary Nick’-a place for kids from all over the globe to communicate with each other and express their ideas and concerns-is just beginning to take shape.
Aside from its U.S interests, it operates channels in the United Kingdom, Germany, and most recently, Australia. Additionally, channel blocks ranging from one to four hours of programming air in Brazil, Poland, the Middle East, Thailand and beginning in May, Malaysia, and individual programs air in over 70 countries, from Canada to Kazakhstan.
By the end of 1996 and into 1997, Nick hopes to launch channels in Scandinavia, Italy, Latin America and Asia.
The network has been conservative in rolling out the channel globally. Nickelodeon UK launched in September 1993 and the German and Australian channels in 1995. ‘We have a strategy that says we want to enter markets on a good economic basis, and where we can really contribute something on screen,’ says Jon Miller.
As skilled as Nick is in programming, promotion and marketing, Miller says the network lacks a sophisticated understanding of many of the international markets. Core Nick shows like Rugrats may appear on all of its channels globally, but each country has a significant number of programming hours featuring locally and regionally acquired programming.
‘You have to make what you have particularly relevant to the local audience,’ says Miller. ‘That requires learning and understanding how you go about that process. We don’t presume we know everything about every culture. Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve had a local partner. ‘
Nick’s international partners are Sky Broadcasting (U.K.), XYZ Entertainment (Australia) and Ravensburger (Germany).
Miller says Nickelodeon’s long-range goals are to continue to build a lasting international business while also maintaining a responsibility to its audience. It wants to build a large enough international audience to create marketing programs in which global advertisers will want to participate (Miller anticipates reaching this critical mass sometime in 1997). He wants the channel to serve as a conduit for connecting kids around the world. Most importantly, the company hopes to eventually act as a global kids advocate.
‘From a validity point of view, we have to make sure we’re serving an audience and that audience is so different in different countries that it keeps it very interesting and fascinating.’
Cartoon Network Worldwide has one simple goal-to become World Cartoon Headquarters-not just for kids, but for cartoon lovers of all ages.
Currently available in over 60 million homes in 75 countries, Cartoon Network operates 24-hour services domestically and in Latin America, and splits service with TNT in Europe and the Asia/Pacific region.
To become the central channel for animation on a global basis, the network strives to cultivate and engage a sense of membership among its worldwide audiences, according to Betty Cohen, president of Cartoon Network Worldwide. This is achieved by understanding the sensibilities and cultures of each nation that receives the channel, and responding to those individual needs by customizing programming and promotions.
For example, to celebrate the Chinese New Year (the year of the rat), Cartoon Network Asia ran a stunt around Jerry (of Tom & Jerry). Jerry was ‘kidnapped,’ and missing from the network two weeks before he was supposed to host a Tom & Jerry marathon. Clues were given and kids were encouraged to write in and discover who kidnapped Jerry.
From a marketing standpoint, Cohen hopes the success of a promotion in one region encourages global advertisers to sponsor the same type of promotion in another region. Last year’s ‘Big Fridge’ promotion on the U.S. Cartoon Network, done in conjunction with Crayola, was actually based on the success of a similar promotion Crayola had run on Cartoon’s European outlet. ‘We want to continue developing more and bigger ideas like that to really have kids and sponsors involved in the network,’ says Cohen.
Cartoon has one main built-in programming advantage. Cartoons, by their very nature, translate very well abroad. Because most feature visual comedy and animal stars, the comedy is easier to understand.
The channel is currently available in seven languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Mandarin and Thai. Italian will be added later this year. Decisions on adding languages are determined by the amount of coverage in the region. Additionally, the network seeks to acquire local programming for its international channels, such as Japanese animation for its Asian outlet.
‘Cartoon Network seeks to own the position of the world headquarters for cartoons,’ says Cohen. ‘Having regional offices with multicultural staffs enables us to offer programming that is universal, but packaged in ways that are for cartoon lovers in the specific regions we are serving.’
Fox Kids Network
Fox hopes to do internationally what it did when it launched the Fox Kids Network domestically-sneak up on everybody and take them by surprise. Aided by its parent organization News Corporation, and bolstering its inventory with an alliance with Saban, Fox has launched an aggressive campaign to make the Fox Kids Network the most recognizable brand name among children’s programming in the world.
This past March 30, Fox Kids Network debuted as a 12-hour entity on Australia’s Foxtel. By the end of 1996, similar networks are slated to be up and running in the United Kingdom, Brazil (with Globo) and Latin America. Expansion to Asia is planned for 1997. Further European penetration is anticipated in the next five years.
After determining that the domestic market had reached a point of maturation, Fox concluded that to continue to grow the business, it had to look offshore. It tested international waters in 1994, when it ran programming blocks with great results on Canal Plus in Latin America. ‘It provided a track record for what we could achieve with the popularity of our programs, and the value of the Fox Kids Network,’ Margaret L’esch, president of Fox Kids Network says.
Late last year, Fox began running similar-style programming blocks in Australia. As the idea of a kids network grew closer to reality, Fox realized that it lacked sufficient inventory to sustain a daily 12-hour programming block. Enter Saban. In the agreement made last November, Fox gets Saban’s library for use on its international channels and Saban represents Fox as its licensing and distribution agent.
The 12-hour blocks will feature a mix of local programming and domestic product. ‘Part of our strategy from the outset is to embrace local programming and to make sure that the Fox Kids Network in Australia and in Latin America . . . will have a strong local content, so that kids feel that it’s a channel for them from their country, that also includes American stars,’ L’esch says.
A reciprocal effect is that programming from other countries may find its way into Fox’s U.S. lineup. ‘I have a very strong conviction and devotion to embracing other cultures and looking for their good ideas as well as packaging and presenting our ideas. You learn that our way is not always the best way, and that’s a good lesson for kids. I think one of the ways to expose them to that is to show them different ideas,’ she says.
As with the domestic market, Fox will launch kids clubs and other ancillary promotional programs as warranted, crafting each towards a specific marketplace.
‘We believe that the real growth is clearly international,’ says L’esch. ‘It’s really exciting-and we have no idea what we’re getting into!’
Like an invading army, Saban Entertainment is poised to strike the global marketplace with plenty of troops and a valuable ally.
Saban, whose catalogue of over 4,600 half-hours includes such hits as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and X-Men, currently syndicates programming in over 80 countries worldwide. Late last year, Saban cemented its international distribution when it formed an alliance with Fox to supply, market and distribute programs for Fox Kids Network.
When it originally began to distribute internationally in 1988, Saban only had a programming library of 78 half-hours. Because of the breadth and depth of Saban’s library, it strives to develop relationships on an across-the-board basis in every market. Now with the Fox partnership, it has the means to consolidate distribution.
Under the deal, Saban distributes all of the programming-both Saban- and Fox-originated-going into the venture.
The intent of the Fox alliance is to form children’s channels on a global basis wherever they are viable economically and technologically. ‘The channels represent a tremendous potential for us, and our library has grown so much that it’s been more important for us to establish outlets in this business,’ says Stan Golden, president of Saban International. ‘Distribution is key and this is certainly an important strategic step for us.’
The first channel under the new alliance is in Australia on the Foxtel platform. He feels that other burgeoning markets could include the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Italy, if regulatory restrictions are eased. Delay into certain markets may occur because technological components are not yet in place in many regions to effectively deliver the service.
‘Cable TV and satellite are relatively new to Europe,’ he says. ‘If you compare the world to the U.S., it’s sort of been a mirror image, except it is several years behind.’