Special Report MIPCOM: U.K. shows strength in children’s programming

With the rapid expansion of new broadcast outlets around the world, the demand for television product continues to increase, as evidenced by the growth of markets such as MIPCOM and MIPCOM Junior. With this special report, we continue to follow the...
October 1, 1997

With the rapid expansion of new broadcast outlets around the world, the demand for television product continues to increase, as evidenced by the growth of markets such as MIPCOM and MIPCOM Junior. With this special report, we continue to follow the evolution of children’s television programming through a series of co-production diaries, as well as a snapshot view of the children’s television industry.

Also, for the second time, we present the KidScreen ‘Dream Block,’ the best two-hour block of children’s programs, according to a poll of senior programming executives. To find out which shows came out on top and why, turn to page 74.

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Children’s programmingÑand animation in particularÑis currently the subject of enthusiastic interest among U.K. producers and distributors. At MIPCOM, the likes of ITEL, CTE, BBC Worldwide and HIT Entertainment will contribute to one of the strongest slates ever presented.

Yet, for all the optimism, there is a financial squeeze in the U.K. market. With budgets per hour often in excess of what domestic broadcasters are willing to pay as license fees, U.K. players are increasingly expected to go abroad in search of co-production partners.

One of the best proponents of this process in recent times has been Harvest Entertainment, the rights division of ITV regional broadcaster HTV, which has been involved in complicated international co-productions such as Captain Star and Dr. Xargle.

At MIPCOM `97, however, Harvest’s profile will be minimal. Following HTV’s acquisition by U.K. media giant United Broadcasting and Entertainment (UB&E), there is now a big question mark over the division’s future.

UB&E already has a leading role in children’s programming through three of its subsidiaries: producer Cosgrove Hall, distributor ITEL (jointly owned with HBO) and Absolutely Productions, in which ITEL has a 20 percent stake. Currently, there is speculation that Harvest will be merged into ITEL.

The seven shows that ITEL is bringing to MIPCOM emphasize the increasingly international profile of the U.K. market. Loggerheads (26 x 30 minutes) was originated in Ireland and produced by TFC Trickompany in Germany, while Feodor (26 x five minutes) is a production by E Toons, an international production partnership that includes the U.K.’s Honeycomb Animation. ITEL has also succeeded in preselling The Legend of Calamity Jane to Warner Bros. in the U.S., ‘though most Europeans are struggling to get stuff on the air in the U.S. because they [the U.S.] can service themselves,’ says ITEL’s Oliver Ellis.

ITEL sister company Cosgrove Hall is arguably one of the most likely U.K. producers to break into the U.S. MIPCOM highlights include Father Christmas and the Missing Reindeer (one x 30 minutes), Rocky and the Dodos (26 x 10 minutes) and an animation project in early development with Millimages of France and ZDF of Germany, called Rock Force 291.

HIT Entertainment is also bringing a strong slate of high-quality animation projects, including Kipper (13 x 10 minutes), Percy the Park Keeper (four x 30 minutes) and a new project originated in partnership with Harvest called Fairies. In addition, it is distributing the BBC’s new children’s drama The Phoenix and the Carpet.

HIT creative director Kate Falks confirms the view that ‘people are wising up to the world. There is a need for programming that works beyond the U.K. Animation series like Brambly Hedge and Percy look very English, but speak to an international audience.’

ITV’s controller of children’s programs, Vanessa Chapman, confirms the trend towards international financing. ‘We are encouraging British producers to offer programs to us at not much more than acquisition prices. We have bought two from Cosgrove Hall.’ She regards this as a sensible approach.

‘If they are looking to the future, that’s what they’ll do. The number of slots for commissions is tight. We receive about 150 proposals per slot and some are competing with shows that perform year after year like Paddington, Rupert and Wolves, Witches and Giants.’

Having said that, Chapman’s commitment ‘is to the British production base. Seventy-five percent of our schedule is wholly commissioned. And that accounts for 90 percent of our £40-million budget.’

Although acquisitions like Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! have worked well for ITV, Chapman is keen on ‘segmentable product like Paddington that can run as either three x seven minutes or 30 minutes. In a competitive environment, we need total flexibility. It is easy for our competitors to schedule against 30 minutes of action-adventure, though we do still have some branded U.S. products like Jumanji and Extreme Ghostbusters.’

The BBC is addressing similar concerns about the flexibility of its schedule. Having bought long-running animation like Jonny Quest and The Mask last year, it is now looking for shorter-running series to free up the schedule. It is also looking for classic 2-D animation rather than the recent run of Ren & Stimpy-style productions.

In terms of distribution, the BBC’s main children’s title at MIPCOM will be the early preschool concept Teletubbies, which has caused an unprecedented wave of interest in the U.K. After initial controversy, the program proved so popular with young children that the merchandising program was brought forward to September to catch the pre-Christmas sales lift.

The other major distributors in U.K. children’s programming are Carlton-owned CTE and Scottish Television’s STE. CTE is bringing Honeycomb Animation’s long-running hit Wolves, Witches and Giants (now 39 x 10 minutes), Out of Sight (eight x 30 minutes) and Sunny’s Ears (90-minute TV movie). STE, which has long had production relationships with the likes of Saban Entertainment, DIC Entertainment and The Walt Disney Company, brings a portfolio that includes The Blobs, Hot Rod Dogs and The Hurricanes, which now runs 39 half-hours.

A key sign of the optimism in U.K. production is the increased activity of international studios. Canadian companies Cinar Films and Alliance Communications have both beefed up their presence, while the U.K. has also witnessed the recent launch of an animation studio by Granada, headed by Annie Miles.

The company has now produced a model animation series, Tom and Vicky, though it is not the company’s intention to become an in-house animation producer. Currently, Miles is wading through 100 proposals a week from would-be partners and has singled out eight that will be revealed shortly.

Meanwhile, at MIPCOM, Granada’s sales house, BRITE, will promote a model animation series for four- to seven-year-olds called Titch from Granada’s new sister company Yorkshire TV.

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