Although the U.K. can boast a vibrant preschool animation production sector, the best performing toons in broadcasters’ schedules continue to be U.S. imports targeted at the four- to nine-year-old market.
Since the start of the fall schedule in 1997, the only U.K. animation series to feature in any domestic broadcaster’s top three is Dennis the Menace, made by Collingwood Productions for the BBC.
Between February and April, Dennis attracted an audience of around 2.5 million, which equates to a 51 percent share of audience. In the process, it beat off the challenge of ITV’s Men in Black.
The success of Dennis on the BBC is a coup for head of BBC children’s commissioning Roy Thompson, who says, ‘Essentially it works because it is a good British story that is accessible to a wide range of children.’
Every other top animated show on U.K. television originated in the U.S., and, in line with recent patterns, was either an archive show or an animated spin-off from a movie blockbuster.
So, for example, The Mask emerged as the BBC’s second strongest performer, with a two million audience and a 43 percent share. For ITV, Jumanji featured strongly in November-attracting 1.5 million viewers-a 50 percent share. Even ITV breakfast broadcaster GMTV could quote The Lion King spin-off Timon & Pumbaa as its number two performer, with a 40 percent share.
As for reruns of classic toons, the BBC’s top performer in recent months has been Help It’s the Hair Bear Bunch, which took a 60 percent share of the kids audience during weekdays mornings. Over on ITV, The New Scooby-Doo mysteries recently attracted 1.2 million viewers-a 48 percent share. Other classic animation that has achieved more than 10 percent of the audience includes Wacky Races, Sylvester and Tweetie and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop.
The message seems to be that kids-and, just as importantly, their parents-are attracted to properties that they are familiar with. Dennis the Menace, which is one of the U.K.’s longest-running and best-known comic book characters, reinforces this observation.
This inherent conservatism would seem to be goods news for the cable and satellite broadcasters such as Cartoon Network, which rely on their archives to feed schedules. Sure enough, Cartoon Network reports that The Flintstones, Tom & Jerry, Scooby-Doo and Batman were all in its top 10 during 1997.
Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that the U.K.’s kids are dieting on nothing but second-generation toons. Cartoon Network’s best performers are recent creations such as Johnny Bravo, Dexter’s Laboratory and Cow & Chicken.
Nickelodeon’s top five since the fall underlines the point. Rugrats, Doug, Stickin’ Around, Hey Arnold! and Angry Beavers have all demonstrated kids’ willingness to tune into new shows as well as old. Both Rugrats and Hey Arnold! have translated comfortably to mainstream terrestrial television too.
On GMTV, the top performer since the fall has been Recess, which achieved a kids TV rating of 10.08 and a 40 percent share of the kids audience in the tough Saturday morning slot.
The dearth of U.K. animation in the top rating slots is a reflection of the relatively high cost associated with producing long-running series in Europe. With broadcasters willing to pay only part of the budget, the onus lies on independent distributors to piece together finance. Only a few series, such as the tortuous EBU co-production Noah’s Island, the EBU’s The Animals of Farthing Wood and Dennis, stand out as creditable European performances in recent months.
The BBC and ITV tend to take the view that by acquiring good U.S. animation cheaply (and preferably after it has proved its worth on the cable and satellite window), they can concentrate on building up other areas of the schedule. In some cases, popular animation series will be used tactically in the schedule to encourage children to stay tuned in and watch less-rating-driven shows straight afterwards.
The BBC’s Thompson points out that it is live-action series such as Grange Hill or Blue Peter that more often than not top the BBC’s ratings. ‘Our recent drama successes include The Demon Headmaster, Wild House, Aquilla and The Queen’s Nose. Animation is a key part of the mix. But all things being equal, a good drama will always beat animation for US.’ ITV experiences similar results with popular programs such as the magazine show Art Attack.