Scandinavian children’s programming buyers come to MIP seeking entertainment value over educational content, quality over quantity, and a lack of violence.
That doesn’t translate into a shopping list of shows that are saccharin sweet, rather it means that buyers are looking for programs that don’t appear as if they’ve been manufactured on an assembly line.
Quality is all the more important as local channels are confronting the growing penetration of international cable and satellite services like Fox Kids, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, which are forcing local channels to rethink the amount and type of children’s product they are willing to air, resulting in a pullback of total hours dedicated to children’s programming for some channels.
Program suppliers seeking to penetrate the Scandinavian market need not be armed with 65 half-hours to sell successfully in the region. Many buyers, especially in the public television area, are seeking quality short-format programs (in terms of program length and/or number of episodes) that fit into their specific programming needs and niches.
‘The story has to be told with strength, strong narrative power and imagination, and should use the visual media as opposed to very oral-based storytelling,’ says Anne Schepelern, program buyer for Danmarks Radio/Danish Television (DR), which acquires about 50% of its children’s product. Schepelern comes to the market seeking action-based stories, animation, live-action dramas, feature films and documentaries for kids that vary in content and length from 30 seconds to full-length feature films that will complement DR’s in-house production.
Swedish Television (SVT) in the past has acquired such half-hour shows as Arthur (Cinar Films and WGBH Boston), The Busy World of Richard Scarry (Cinar and France Animation in association with Paramount) and Bear in the Big Blue House, but it also seeks shorter animation and stories to use within its locally produced preschool and kid magazine shows.
Scandinavian buyers shy away from programs that are heavily weighted toward education, in the belief that school systems are where kids’ education should take place.
‘The important thing is that we want our children’s programming to be inspiring, not necessarily educational, although it should be worthwhile to watch,’ says Jan Erik Wieselberg, buyer for SVT. SVT acquires about a third of its children’s programming. Wieselberg points to shows like Canadian series Degrassi Junior High (Playing With Time) and Ready or Not (Insight Productions) as examples of shows that blend education with entertainment. ‘I think it’s in the Scandinavian mentality to look out for the children’s best interests. Ideally, kids should shut off the TV sets after watching something so they could think about it rather than watch one show after another.’
Television violence is a major issue in Scandinavia, and something that buyers avoid. Scandinavian pubcasters like SVT and DR do not accept violent programs, and commercial stations, like TV3, which broadcasts in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Baltic states, and acquires nearly all of its children’s library, are much more sensitive to concerns about the amount of violence in kids programs, as opposed to other issues, such as how certain elements of the program will translate across cultures. ‘Violence in children’s programming is a huge concern, particularly given recent government interest in the subject,’ says Nicky Wood, acquisitions manager for TV3. ‘Importance is given to programming zones [during which] even the smallest of children may be left unsupervised in front of the screen. We are also careful to regulate obvious product placement by toy manufacturers.’
In Sweden, Wieselberg says that the government has gone so far as to try to ban advertising during all children’s programming, but the action has been regarded as an obstruction of free trade.
Scandinavian buyers emphasize that they are rarely swayed by the ratings results of children’s programming in other regions of the world. These ratings don’t carry a lot of weight because other territories operate under different circumstances in terms of programming time slot restrictions and audience size. ‘I don’t care how the show did in other countries,’ says Schepelern. ‘I go mostly for my own gut feeling. I have to like a show to buy it.’
That said, the region is following the trend in North America and Europe of airing more dedicated programming targeted to very young children, one of the reasons that a show like Bear in the Big Blue House appealed to pubcasters like SVT and DR.