U.S. television services specializing in children’s programming have learned that when in Rome, or for that matter, London, Bangkok, Buenos Aires or Sydney, it’s best to do as the locals do.
To be competitive abroad, it’s necessary to think that way. Different viewing habits, cultures, languages and sensibilities add up to a job that requires a mile of research for every inch of penetration.
The growth of cable, satellite and digital platforms has created an infrastructure for U.S. services to expand their brands globally. In the last five years, services including Fox Kids Worldwide, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and Discovery have reached out for a slice of the pie as America’s kids services try to complete an electronic Manifest Destiny.
With nearly 50 percent of the population in Latin America under the age of 20, and similar statistics in Asia, there’s a lot at stake for kid-driven services. The economic viability of launching in a new market, especially if that country has a low cable penetration that won’t sustain strong advertising support for a kids channel, remains the stumbling block that services must overcome in international expansion.
The second hurdle that must be cleared becomes meeting these new markets on their terms and finding ways to reach out to kids that make them feel as if the channel has been designed exclusively with them in mind, not with a ‘made in the U.S.A.’ flavor forced down their throats.
‘What you see [on Nickelodeon] in Germany feels very German from a kids perspective, compared to what you see in Australia,’ says Bruce Tuchman, vice president and general business manager at Nickelodeon International. ‘The way the programming is scheduled, the types of programming that airs, the on-air look . . . are all conceived to make viewers feel as if we’re serving the local kids in that marketplace.’
All services realize the importance of providing feeds in local languages, but Discovery Kids, a 24-hour educational network that operates in Latin America, goes beyond traditional dubbing by recutting and reshooting parts of programs, removing all English graphics and music, and replacing them with Spanish counterparts. It’s a costly but necessary undertaking, according to Rick Rodriguez, vice president of programming at Discovery Communications, Latin America-Iberia. ‘Localization is critical because we’re trying to impart [educational] information as well as keeping kids entertained.’
Localization extends not only into program content, but to promotions and interstitials as well. ‘We want kids to feel that this is not an American channel being imposed on them, but that this is a channel being brought to them by other Latin American kids,’ says Mary Ann Halford, senior vice president and general manager of Fox Kids Latin America.
Fox has made its Latin American channel relevant to kids by employing several young veejays who appear in interstitial programming and at promotional events, serving as the quasi-spokespeople of the service. ‘Our biggest challenge is to create an interactive experience that keeps kids wanting to come back every day,’ says Halford.
Kids connect with Disney Channel France via ‘Zapping Zone,’ a daily, live two-hour program block in which viewers can phone, fax and interact with the on-air hosts. ‘The greatest amount of time that we dedicate to local production on our European services is the live blocks that we run in after-school time,’ says Selby Hall, senior vice president of marketing and research at Walt Disney Television International.
The majority of program scheduling on most international services remains dubbed versions of shows that have appeared on their U.S. services. The rest of the lineup is left to local programmers to judge what best fits for that region. For Cartoon Network, that means acquiring a higher volume of Japanese animation for its Asian service.
Original productions are not done on the same volume as in the U.S., but it’s possible to draw parallels that international channels are in the same stage of original program development as their U.S. counterparts were in their early years. ‘It is very important in the international business to do things cost-effectively because the market hasn’t grown to the same point as it is in the U.S.,’ says Betty Cohen, president of Cartoon Network Worldwide.
‘The problem with original programming in emerging markets is that it takes awhile to have the amount of distribution and advertising support necessary to justify it,’ adds Rodriguez.
Where the international market still lags is in its understanding of the value of kids as an advertising target market, according to Cohen. ‘The idea of advertising kids products to kids seems to be evolving at different rates of speed around the world,’ she says. Countries such as the United Kingdom and France are among the most sophisticated in this area, while Asia lags behind.
Along with continuing distribution problems in certain areas, such as Argentina, which has several local children’s services, and Japan, which has been traditionally difficult to penetrate (although Cartoon recently launched a shared venture there), some services have found that they have to alleviate the apprehension that new markets have over whether these services will deliver what they promised, according to Ynon Kreiz, managing director of Fox Kids Europe.
Global expansion has allowed a mini-melting pot of creative ideas, as programmers from different versions of the same channel exchange concepts and concerns about how to best market their channels, and their U.S. parents gain fresh perspectives that they can use at home.
‘Every market presents its own challenges,’ says Tuchman. ‘If we meet our criteria and find a economically sensible business model that truly and meaningfully connects us with kids, then we are going to do really well.’
In this report:
- Kids reality shows sell ‘edutainment’
- They’ve got the whole world in their plans
- Local programmers emphasize local character
- Sonic Underground
- Bob Morane
- The Myth Men: Guardians of the Legend
- Mumble Bumble
- Fix & Foxi
- Princess of the Nile
- MIP-TV Roundup