U.S. distributors of children’s programming forecast continued strong growth in the international marketplace as they head to MIPCOM in September.
The world’s appetite for high-quality children’s programming continues to surge as new channels, delivery systems and expanded markets create a highly competitive marketplace with an ever-increasing number of distributors and buyers jockeying to secure the best deal available.
Animation continues its reign as the most favored form of children’s programming. Action-oriented and comedy/adventure animation remain the most-sought after genres because of their stylized content and long shelf lives. However, with so much animation available, buyers can afford to wade through the ordinary in search of the unique.
‘Because there is a tremendous selection in the market, buyers are looking for programming with a hook,’ says Stan Golden, president of Saban International. That hook could come via marquee talent attached to a series, a spin-off from a major movie or an existing product line, such as a book series, which Saban is doing with Silver Surfer, based on the Marvel comic, and Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation.
‘It’s important to deliver a format that integrates something that is truly distinctive,’ says Janet Scardino, senior vice president of international sales and co-production for Sunbow Entertainment. She points to Sunbow’s Student Bodies, which mixes live action with animated vignettes, as the type of show that has drawn enthusiastic pre-market interest. ‘We’ve had a lot of response to things that look different,’ she says.
Live-action programming is making strong gains internationally as U.S. producers have learned to create shows that appeal to kids in multiple markets. ‘Although animation is much easier to present, live action has clearly established itself as very competitive,’ says Golden.
‘We’ve been able to find common ground to translate across cultures to make live-action shows that are more relevant internationally,’ says Kathleen Hricik, senior vice president, program enterprises for Nickelodeon International.
William Miller, co-chairman of Hearst Entertainment Distribution and chairman of Hearst Animation Productions, believes that the increased interest in live action is a direct result of a glut of animation in the market. ‘Animation has come to the point where it is sort of a necessary evil; programming executives know that it does a nice job for them, but their enthusiasm for it is waning to a degree.’ He has sensed this feeling when fielding inquiries about Hearst’s Popular Mechanics for Kids, an example of a live-action show that travels well, because it appeals to the curiosity that all kids have.
MIPCOM has evolved as a key entry point for the initial meetings that lead to international co-productions.
As the competition between international channels heats up, an increasing number of buyers seek programs that they can localize. Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) has done this for years with Sesame Street. CTW’s new game show, Risky Numbers, and Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues are examples of other shows designed to be localized. The cost to localize is greater than that of buying and airing the existing product, according to Baxter Urist, senior vice president of CTW’s International Television Group, but having a program with a local host and kids becomes a much more attractive alternative in that market.
The preschool area represents an intriguing international market that U.S. producers continue to struggle to penetrate. ‘Preschool is a category where it’s even more critical to have a well-conceived, high-quality production because many commercial broadcasters are already programming to preschoolers, so the market is cut in half,’ says Brian Lacey, president of Lacey Entertainment in New York.
‘Preschool is not an easy genre to sell around the world,’ adds Nickelodeon’s Hricik. ‘Because it’s the first stuff that kids see, each country and each culture would like their kids to watch programming that originates from that country.’
While distributors and sellers say that there is no break-out market this year, strong growth is forecast in Latin America, as well as Asia and Eastern Europe.
MIPCOM is a competitive sellers’ market, but it is also becoming a competitive marketplace for buying programming. The number of buyers from 1995 to 1996 increased 30 percent. While there’s plenty of programming to go around, distributors who will be successful are those who continue to create the most innovative programs available.
‘There’s a significant amount of product that is not of high quality,’ says Lacey. ‘These programs might enjoy some success worldwide, but they won’t get the penetration, license fees or multiple windows that high-quality ones do.’
Like the U.S. stock market, the children’s programming arena continues to enjoy bullish returns, and shows no signs of slowing down. ‘I think the kids area is certainly a growth area and all indications are that it will continue that way in the foreseeable future,’ says Golden.