The Write Stuff

Around the peanut bowls at Cannes, kids TV buyers' chat ranged from tales of party excess to the most expensive breakfast (US$400) to deep thoughts on product being screened at MIPCOM Junior, as well as in the bunker and sprawling tent...
November 1, 1998

Around the peanut bowls at Cannes, kids TV buyers’ chat ranged from tales of party excess to the most expensive breakfast (US$400) to deep thoughts on product being screened at MIPCOM Junior, as well as in the bunker and sprawling tent city of the Palais during big MIP.

While there’s been a series of recent inspirational preschool hits, folks are muttering over the lack of hits for the eight to 11 set, on the scale of a Power Rangers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Beyond network scheduling turmoil, with the kids feature biz a risky proposition for toy manufacturers, a lot is riding on TV properties pulling through for the long haul. Teletubbies contributed a disproportionate amount of sales towards saving plush (up 17% January 1998 to July 1998) from the stagnation that other retail toys categories suffered.

Regardless of one’s feelings about using ‘merchability’ as the kid-awareness Richter scale, the absence of older-skewing hits is a point to ponder.

Theory A: There’s so much better product out there now that’s finely targeted and uniquely appealing, that the mass (read: overtly toyetically-engineered) hit phenomenon has been replaced by a plethora of kinder, gentler niche successes.

Theory B: So many companies spreading creative energies thin by pitching too many shows, coupled with the fact that more broadcasters are picking up more new shows, means that there’s much more mediocre fare for viewers, marketers and retailers to wade through.

Theory C: All of the above.

Given the breadth of the playing field, an eight to 11 hit nowadays probably comes down to staying power. You can get a shot at a slot, but keeping it is getting harder.

One of the kids designing their own shows in this issue’s Kid Think column came up with The Cave Age, a series that would explain how things were really invented, ‘more serious than. . . The Flintstones.’ Beyond Caitlin putting my entire knowledge of gadgetry into question (Woolly Mammoths weren’t really the first showers?), since imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism (er flattery), this Flintstones nod points to the bedrock of longevity.

But in addition to a killer decades-enduring premise, there has to be ongoing great writing and ideas to sustain a series. That’s why the Hanna-Barbera animated sitcom pioneer is still funny to adults and each new generation of kids, whether it’s the stone age/modern grafting humor device, or the inherent comedy of Fred in hot water again, it still works.

More recently, Animaniacs re-raised the cartoon content bar with its manic, multilevel writing, memorable characters (Pinky and the Brain, and the underrated Aunt Slappy) and an inability to rest on its laurels (or even leave the theme song lyrics alone). The Warner Bros. offering marks another example of throwing more than enough into one show, and having the deep content efforts pay off.

Last month, the Writer’s Guild of America gave its inaugural Animation Writing Award (given to a member who ‘has advanced the literature of animation in film and/or TV through the years’) to Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain scribe Gordon Bressack.

The words matter. . .if you want to guarantee renewals. Yet not many producers and distributors at MIPCOM were talking about who was writing the scripts. Curiously, those that were typically had pretty stand-out premises on their hands to begin with.

Many producers feel that to maintain market visibility, they must keep offering a fresh slate of kid projects to choose from. The TV market’s voracious new-show appetite has incubated a flesh-eating Catch 22 syndrome for smaller companies, who are unable to channel enough energies towards filling the maw. This has led to a lot of consolidation, umbrella distribution companies and, on the down side, stillborn good ideas that didn’t get enough nurturing. In the long run, rather than throwing a pot-full of projects out there and seeing what sticks, perhaps the most efficient strategy is that pursued by companies such as PolyGram-employing a focused one-thing-at-a-time release plan.

Buyers are overloaded, and can spend increasingly less time screening each new show.

Do your own preselection. And be realistic about the volume/sustainable quality equation.

Cheers, mm

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