The BBC has enjoyed a lengthy reign as king of the U.K. airwaves on Saturday mornings. Over the years, many formidable opponents have crafted detailed programming plots in hopes of filching from the mighty net’s viewership, but, so far, to no avail.
In the latest and most costly attempt to steal Saturday morning eyeballs away from the BBC, rival network ITV implemented the August 29 launch of SMTV:/LIVE, an entertainment series airing from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. that breaks the traditional mold for ITV’s a.m. weekend programming in some very fundamental ways. ‘We’ve always battled head-to-head with the BBC for Saturday morning ratings, but we’ve also both tended to carry very similar magazine-based shows targeted to the six to 11 demographic,’ says Nigel Pickard, ITV’s head of children’s programs. ‘It makes more sense to change our block’s format so we won’t be butting heads and going after the same audience.’
Commissioned for just over US$8 million (roughly US$158,000 for each of 52 episodes), the show includes popular animated series such as Angry Beavers (Nickelodeon) and Cow and Chicken (Hanna-Barbera Cartoons), as well as original comedy sketches and interactive high jinks that are designed to involve the viewing audience more fully, including telephone quizzes that span commercial breaks and over-the-phone contests (for example, an upcoming mouse derby will match viewers with racing rodents appearing on the show). The last hour of the block will consist of a live music segment, featuring in-studio performances by popular contemporary bands and broadcasts from record stores all over England. U.K. pop stars Ant & Dec will host the show, and the twenty-something comedy duo that first achieved star status on Brit teen soap opera Byker Grove will be joined by Cat Deeley, MTV video jockey, model extraordinaire and the world’s Most Perfect Woman, according to U.K.-based FAM magazine.
ITV is hoping that the series’ hip hosts and musical segment will start to attract an older audience to the final hour of the program. ‘Every show strives to grow its demographic, and we’re no different,’ admits Pickard. ‘At 9:25 a.m., we’re obviously starting with a younger audience, but if we are featuring up-to-date music and predicting trends, we should be able to get tweens, teens and the 15 to 25 demographic by the end of the block.’
Prelaunch promotional support for ITV’s new baby was deliberately light; according to Conor McAnally, producer for Ant & Dec and executive producer of SMTV:/LIVE, details about SMTV:/LIVE were kept under wraps until just before the series premiered in order to properly ambush the BBC. ‘[We] actually said nothing to anyone about the show,’ he says. ‘It [was] anti-promotion, really. The BBC [didn't] have a clue about the particulars of the series.’ A scant four weeks before the block debuted, ITV began broadcasting a string of on-air teaser spots, showing various elements of the new show in an unconnected and jumbled collage that gradually became clearer as the launch drew closer. Public relations efforts emphasizing the identity of the show’s well-known hosts generated coverage in a slew of British teen mags, program listings journals and newspapers in late July and August. Off-air events are in the works, but no concrete plans had been announced at press time.
McAnally expects SMTV:/LIVE to become a hot licensing property as the show develops a more substantial core audience. ‘At a very fundamental stage, merchandising will take the form of T-shirts, hats, record bags and school bags-all branded with the show’s logo. Beyond that, there could be compilation albums from the musical hour in the works.’ Series-based products are still in the development stage.