The truism that ‘no two deals are ever the same’ has never been more accurate than in today’s climate of intricate production partnerships linking companies from around the world. The main feature in our MIP-TV special report traces the evolution of these partnerships through the complex deals that led to new children’s television shows that are now being marketed at MIP-TV. The report also includes a discussion with U.S. studios on television programming trends, as well as a glimpse into the television markets of Germany, England and France.
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Approaching this year’s MIP-TV, there is a sense of expectation among studios in an industry with a long history of jumping on the bandwagon whenever a hot property or genre takes off. When asked what kids programming trends they’re responding to this year, most studios were unable to identify a clear new emerging trend. In fact, you might say that this antifad climate itself is this year’s programming trend, making the marketplace at MIP-TV exceptionally diverse and interesting.
As always, there’s lots of speculation at the studios concerning the endless search for that elusive runaway hit. Mainstream programmers are taking risks on ever more personal, original kids product forming alliances with small, boutique animation shops or even acquiring them. Studios that made their mark in animation are suddenly staffing up to produce live action. Merchandisers are being called into play early in the game in an attempt to gauge ancillary market potential from the gate. And former trend-setters are returning to the animated classics.
Will all this artistic independence pay off? Nobody knows, but one thing is for sure: whatever is successful with kids is bound to become trendy.
Of all the studios interviewed, Disney’s position on trends is the most straightforward. ‘We ignore them,’ says Barry Blumberg, vice president of series development for Walt Disney Television Animation. Blumberg brought Mighty Ducks and Jungle Cubs to ABC’s children’s lineup, and he believes in remaining fiercely independent. ‘We stick to telling really great stories and creating great, original characters. Disney takes a leadership position in creating programming, rather than trying to follow anyone else or any trend.’
Citing the studio’s current penchant for independent impassioned animators, Blumberg drops the name of Jim Jinkins, president of Jumbo Pictures, who, with partner David Campbell, accepted a Disney acquisition bid for their Greenwich Village-based shop. Executive producers of the new 101 Dalmatians: The Series, the team made its mark with the award-winning Doug for Nickelodeon in 1991, which spun off into Disney’s Brand Spanking New Doug.
‘It was not so long ago when, to get a sale with one of the majors, you had to have something that was presold, which means basically that you had some kind of track record a comic book or a movie or something,’ Jinkins says. ‘[Studios] seemed to think if there was some energy and response to a thing in one form, then maybe it would do well in another. I was fortunate to be involved with Nicktoons, which really was the opposite looking for passionate creators [and] giving them time and money and support to deliver that vision.
‘To me, the problem is it sometimes works backwards, and people in powerful positions are making creative decisions based on the business plan.’
Jinkins says that in developing a kids concept, he tries to get a feeling for why the show needs to be made, and how, if it were not made, it would leave a hole in the universe of kids programming. ‘Once you figure [that out], there’s no stopping you. You will go to the end of the Earth to get it made and get it sold.’
When asked what she thinks is going to be the hot genre this year and next, Kathleen Hricik, senior vice president of programming enterprises at Nickelodeon International, d’esn’t hesitate: ‘live action, which has been a difficult genre to sell internationally in the past. I think the complexion of that is changing, and I think there is more reception to really strong live-action programming. It’s a genre that will grow.’
Hricik feels a noteworthy trend is the increasing worldwide demand for kids programming in general. ‘There has always been a great need for animated programming, but we feel the demand has grown beyond that genre into the other areas, and we are fortunate to be able to cover that gamut.
‘As we grow internationally, we have to consider how shows will travel,’ says Hricik. She notes that Nickelodeon’s channels in five other countries provide feedback for the network’s U.S. productions. ‘Our development has come to be influenced by international input, which really helps us to create shows that translate and travel around the world.’
For Robby London, executive vice president of creative affairs at DIC Entertainment, trends are a moot issue in today’s complex programming environment. ‘There are so many people with so many different kinds of programming today that diversity is no longer an issue. It’s almost impossible to identify trends anymore because the market is so broad and diverse.’
He cites the absence of any single genre showing unusually strong ratings, adding, ‘the danger in following trends is that you don’t know what element of the trend is causing the success.’
London says he’s less impressed nowadays by difference just for the sake of difference. ‘Different is not necessarily good or compelling. My strategy is to focus on being compelling. Our game is entertaining kids, and it’s so easy to lose focus of the fundamentals.’ London cites Toy Story as a good example of an entertainment property that, while innovative, never lost sight of the basics. ‘Entertainment, characters, conflict, storytelling it’s all there,’ he says.
From DIC’s production slate, London also points to Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, a co-production with Scottish Television that is scheduled to launch in the fall of 1998. The show is based on the classic detective stories, but set in the future. ‘It’s not about bells and whistles for us this year,’ says London. ‘It’s about trying to make the audience love the characters and laugh. It’s a very classic formula.’
From the merchandising corner, NancyJane Goldston, senior vice president of marketing for Universal Studios Consumer Products Group, is betting on children’s programs that ‘do it all’: cross several demographics, demonstrate strong international appeal, and last but not least, exhibit strong ancillary and tie-in potential.
‘It’s a unique market, but I think [the Hercules and Xena series] are two properties that appeal to many audiences and perhaps that’s why they’re so successful. They hit the primary boys market of ages six to 11 with hot action-adventure, and yet, Hercules also satisfies a certain creativity; he’s a role model. In addition, Hercules has strength in the adult market, again because it’s an action-adventure series. . . . In many ways, there’s a cult following being developed with both the Hercules and Xena characters.
‘One of the things we’re looking at today is that our brand development effort will expand. It will focus on mining our opportunities in collectibles, as well as our clip and still licensing efforts from the vast library of Universal properties.’
As a merchandising specialist, Goldston is pulled in to the creative process early at Universal. ‘There’s a strong collaboration between all the divisions, and we’re one element of that team. Often, if there’s a master toy licensee involved in the project, we need to work on those aspects at the early phases, when the development process is beginning.’
Goldston says the international potential for consumer products is strong. ‘To show our commitment, we have offices now set up in Japan, the U.K. and Germany.’
Phil Roman, president and CEO of Film Roman, says the independents are in a strong position to respond to trends, being small enough to roll with the rapid changes in kids tastes. ‘We’re an alternative to the big studios. We don’t have a specific look or feel, whereas, with some studios, you look at a show and know exactly where it has come from. Our shows are designed for each property.
‘When we develop shows, we try to cover lots of different bases. But the latest trend is a return to the old humor and funny, classical characters, rather than action-adventure. Those shows have more of an international appeal.’ However, Roman observes that action-adventure has greater domestic success, especially for toy-related properties.
International sales have become so important to independents such as Film Roman that, in some respects, domestic sales are a back-end market, especially since the recent mega-mergers have boosted the entertainment conglomerates marketing muscle in the U.S. ‘We’ve had to adjust,’ says Roman. ‘I think it’s temporary. Every couple of years, it changes. But we’re small enough to be able to react.’
Roman says that since many of the company’s animated productions run at a deficit, ancillary market potential plays a vital role in a project’s success, and in the properties the company decides to pursue. ‘It gives us a chance to make up the difference. We look for that potential upfront.’