The formula is simple. Good stories and compelling characters equal entertaining children’s programming.
Yet despite that simple premise, developing innovative shows can prove illusive. The history of children’s television is littered with great ideas gone astray.
With increased competition, shrinking shelf space and rising production costs, the quality and creativity of children’s programming must be better than ever, not only to attract buyers, but because children demand it.
KidScreen surveyed the major U.S. studios to determine how these new market realities have affected their new project development strategies.
A Brave New World
Ten years ago, the three broadcast networks tightly controlled the children’s programming marketplace. Most new properties were adapted from ‘safe’ media, such as feature films. The explosion of new networks and cable channels has increased program outlets, allowing production companies to break narrow network mandates and create a wider range of material.
However, the recent mega-merging trend of media companies has created a paradox. The redrawn alliances between studios and distributors may actually be causing market shrinkage, even as more outlets open. Hanna-Barbera has Cartoon Network. Saban deals with UPN and Fox.
‘You can’t pitch to certain markets because they’re part of a competitive company,’ says Janice Sonski, vice president, creative affairs, DIC Entertainment, which is owned by Capitol Cities/ABC.
New networks such as UPN and Kids’ WB!, which have staked claims in the children’s marketplace, have further reduced domestic syndication opportunities.
‘We saw that the real estate was shrinking,’ according to Jean MacCurdy, president, Warner Bros. Television Animation. ‘That was a very strong component in our decision to go forward and create the Kids’ WB.’
For newer animation studios like Columbia TriStar, the goal becomes defining its brand. ‘It’s an evolving process to find our look, style and type of animation,’ says Sander Schwartz, senior vice president, children’s programming, Columbia TriStar. ‘If you talk about that look before you make a show, you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.’
DreamWorks SKG plans to let its product speak for itself. ‘It’s not about the company defining the nature of the shows, it’s more the shows defining what the company is,’ says Gary Krisel, who heads DreamWorks’ television animation division.
Film Roman, steadily moving from a work-for-hire to a proprietary studio, believes in establishing a look that separates its product from competitors. ‘We need to be diverse enough to do different things, and have quality control as our signature,’ according to Ralph Sanchez, vice president, creative affairs at Film Roman.
Cable channel Nickelodeon targets areas where kids are not being served, seeking to be relevant without being trendy, and consistently trying something new. ‘We always try to break our own rules,’ says Cyma Zarghami, general manager of Nickelodeon.
Older studios aren’t turning away from their bread and butter. Although Hanna-Barbera has developed 40 new characters this decade, it reviews its classic character library to determine which properties have contemporary value. In August, it debuted its revamped Jonny Quest, to be followed in upcoming years by The Jetsons and Scooby-Doo. ‘We’ve found that those cartoon stars are stars because they are good characters with good stories,’ says Hanna-Barbera president Fred Seibert.
MCA Television Entertainment (MTE) uses the same approach in building the profile of its Universal Cartoon Studios division. Woody Woodpecker and Universal’s stock of classic movie monsters are being prepped for major relaunches. ‘It’s a mistake not to look at anything that’s in the Universal heritage,’ says MTE president Barbara Fisher. ‘We want to make a show that kids will like and that other generations will have a fondness for seeing again.’
Some studios like Saban feel a need to diversify. Traditionally known for action-adventure properties, Saban has begun producing more comedy and educational fare, such as The Why Why Family, which debuted this fall.
Business Reality Check
Network licensing fees are down, animation production costs are up. That’s old news. To meet rising production costs, ancillary market potential fits into the strategy of program development, but, according to most studio executives, d’es not drive it.
‘We’re not in this to do business deals,’ says DreamWorks’ Krisel. ‘With DreamWorks, it starts with characters and concepts. The ancillary markets come in when you try to figure out how you can afford to do it.’
Hanna-Barbera commissions its projects without any consideration of ancillary markets, which factor in only when a program g’es to series. ‘Great series beget great merchandising campaigns,’ says Seibert. ‘Talent and properties lead the way for success.’
Nickelodeon pioneered the concept of launching series exclusive of merchandising potential. ‘The heart of a good show is a good idea,’ says Zarghami. ‘If the other stuff comes, that’s great.’
However, Film Roman’s Sanchez and DIC’s Sonski concede that ancillary opportunities are important for syndicated series. ‘The business potential of a property involving merchandise will help support [via advertising] getting placement into syndication,’ says Sonski.
The competitive environment has given new importance to the international market. Some producers, like Sunbow Entertainment, have erased the distinction between domestic and international. ‘We think of ourselves as a global producer,’ says Nina Hahn, Sunbow’s vice president of development. ‘We consider the global impact of our shows and create programs that translate well into other markets.’ Sunbow hopes to develop a Sesame Street-like property with global appeal.
‘We often look to classic literature that transcends cultural boundaries,’ says J’el Andryc, senior vice president, development at Saban, pointing out that series titles may be changed to fit market sensibilities. A Saban international co-production of a Jules Verne-based sci-fi series called Space Strikers in the U.S. is called 20,000 Leagues in Outer Space internationally. ‘The classic title has more appeal to European buyers.’
Hanna-Barbera, on the other hand, produces its shows for a domestic market and considers the international market secondarily. Seibert believes ‘exceptional talent leads to exceptional properties that lead to exceptional success worldwide,’ banking on the idea that a good show travels well.
Columbia TriStar’s Schwartz agrees. Networks are currently his primary buyers. The decision to produce series is based on the network buyer’s decision, not immediately the international market.
Many studios are waiting for the U.S.’s broadcast regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to define ‘educational’ before leaping into development of ‘FCC-friendly’ series. But as Nickelodeon has proven, a good business can be made out of quality television.
Those already in the development process have been trying to meet one of the trickiest challenges in children’s TV: creating shows that are fun and informative. ‘I hope we can bring the Warner Bros. sensibility to what is now a new genre,’ says MacCurdy. ‘But you can’t serve all needs in one place. Animaniacs is a great show, but it’s entertainment. You have to be clear on your purpose and focus.’
MTE’s Fisher agrees that slapping an educational element onto an entertainment vehicle would be a mistake, but believes storylines in some shows can be altered to demonstrate positive values, without compromising the entertainment aspect.
Executives fear that a narrow interpretation will undermine the spirit of the mandate. ‘We’d like to use the mandate to create an innovative show that won’t be the sixth day of school,’ says Film Roman’s Sanchez.
Andryc agrees. ‘It’s not going to do anyone any good if the kids aren’t watching the shows.’
Studio executives are optimistic and excited about what seems to be a diverse future for kids programming that will involve an eclectic mix of action-adventure, comedy and live-action. ‘In the next few years, any style that we can think of is going to be investigated,’ says Hanna-Barbera’s Seibert.
Hanna-Barbera’s World Premiere Toons series on Cartoon Network has premiered 48 cartoons featuring 40 new characters over the last several years, building an efficient pilot system to ensure new character development through the end of the century.
‘The way to create a successful schedule isn’t to copy other shows,’ MacCurdy adds. ‘You really have to be ahead of the game and be looking to break the mold.’
Studios continue to search locally and globally for new talent and concepts. ‘We hope that we are open-minded enough to hear a good idea from an odd place, and admit that it’s a good idea,’ says Krisel.
In a perfect world, perhaps executives would like to operate under the DreamWorks mandate. ‘The wealth and success of this company comes from creative work, not business deals,’ Krisel adds. ‘We’d rather fail doing something original than work in something for some other reason.’
The bottom line, as always, are the kids. ‘You can’t be in the volume business,’ says Schwartz. ‘You need to build shows of superior quality.’
Easier said than done. But more than ever, studios believe they are on the way.