U.S. broadcasters open more slots to non-U.S. fare

U.S. broadcasters' current receptivity to foreign product is generally traced back to one seminal moment in February 1997: Fox Kids' acquisition of Gaumont Multimedia's Space Goofs, co-produced with broadcaster France 3 and Germany's ProSieben, followed in the fall by its success...
December 1, 1998

U.S. broadcasters’ current receptivity to foreign product is generally traced back to one seminal moment in February 1997: Fox Kids’ acquisition of Gaumont Multimedia’s Space Goofs, co-produced with broadcaster France 3 and Germany’s ProSieben, followed in the fall by its success with the series. News of the network’s straight and seamless acquisition of the 100% foreign-produced series and the program’s U.S. reception buoyed the international market, as producers jockeyed to be second in line to land a major U.S. outlet. Two years later, such acquisitions are more routine, as U.S. cablers and broadcasters scout the MIPCOM and MIP-TV markets for fresh product skewing older than the preschool fare that traditionally was considered most likely to work across borders.

Gaumont’s Oggy and the Cockroaches also launched on Fox Kids to critical and ratings success this fall, says Fox Kids Network’s senior VP of programming and development, Carol Monroe.

‘Our interest [in foreign product] is growing because we’ve had success, but we’re not saying, `Let’s see what percentage of foreign product we can put on the air,” notes Monroe. She says that foreign-produced product fills six of Fox Kids’ total 19 hours per week, citing the two Gaumont series; the live-action Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog, conceived in-house, but produced entirely in Ireland by Irish company Sharp Mist; and Canadian-produced Scholastic’s The Magic Schoolbus, produced by U.S.-based Scholastic Productions in association with Canada’s Nelvana. ‘Five years ago, that [number] would probably have been zero,’ notes Monroe.

Strong opening ratings have also been scored by Pokemon, a Japanese property based on a Nintendo video game phenomenon in Japan. The series launched in syndication in September, through Summit Media. Summit’s CEO, Shelly Hirsch, admits that a number of Japanese series have failed to catch on in the U.S., due to the fact that they were not properly Americanized. Pokemon, however, has been rescripted and revoiced to make sense to an American audience. As well, all Japanese signage has been erased.

Al Kahn, president of Leisure Concepts/4Kids Entertainment, the U.S. licensing agency for the property, adds, ‘A lot of people don’t want to take on Japanese product, especially animation. It’s not as fluid as some series that are done for the U.S.-it’s a different look.’ However, Kahn believes that the property will be as much of a phenomenon in the U.S. as in Japan, pointing to strong opening ratings and the early signing of impressive promotional partners like FAO Schwarz, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Toys `R’ Us and Hasbro as indicators.

The six Nelvana series picked up by CBS confirm the unprecedented level of network opportunity, and that the trend is not just a cable/syndication measure. And the interest in non-U.S. preschool programming is also hot, with new European contenders being elevated in consideration for Teletubbies-level success.

In the U.S., Nickelodeon recently beefed up its European slate, acquiring two British properties for its preschool block. According to Brown Johnson, senior VP of Nick Jr., the branding needs of Nick’s preschool block differ from the ‘uniquely Nick-made stuff’ that dominates other time periods. Johnson recently picked up 13 half-hours of the British Kipper series (winner of a 1998 BAFTA for Best Animation), from author/illustrator Mick Inkpen, HIT Entertainment and Grand Slamm Children’s Films, all based in the U.K., and Varga Studios in Hungary, to air next spring. The buy follows on the heels of Nick Jr.’s acquisition of 13 half-hours of Lucy Cousins’ Maisy series from the U.K.’s PolyGram Visual Programming and King Rollo Films. While government subsidies offsetting production costs often make foreign properties attractive, creative considerations are foremost at Nick, says Johnson.

‘When we consider programs from around the world, we look for strong characters as opposed to format shows,’ says Johnson. As toddlers prefer nonverbal fare, adaptation for the preschool set can be easier, Johnson notes. Maisy, for example, had only one narrator’s voice that had to be replaced, and Kipper’s single British narrator was deemed suitable for American tots.

Ironically, it was Haim Saban, now-chairman and CEO of Fox Family Worldwide, who sold the first European product, Maya the Bee, to Nickelodeon during the channel’s launch in 1979. ‘He was the first one out there in the international marketplace, and that helped propel him to where he is today,’ notes Joel Andryc, senior VP of development at Fox Family Channel. This fall, Fox Family launched with fully one-third of its kids slate foreign-produced. Thus far, the foreign-friendly slate is working, with Three Friends & Jerry, HIT Entertainment’s co-production with Sweden’s Happy Life, Germany’s TMO Films and Loonland Animation, and Nickelodeon UK, taking the number one slot among kids, and the Nintendo-based Donkey Kong Country series from France’s Medialab and Canada’s Nelvana coming in second. ‘We didn’t expect [Donkey Kong Country] to perform that way, but the marquee value of the property was strong,’ notes Andryc. The series’ unusual CGI look was another factor, he says. ‘Kids have become more acclimated to nontraditional, non-cel animation,’ he notes, adding that Three Friends & Jerry also feeds kids’ hunger for unconventional fare.

Andryc attributes the rise of foreign programming in the U.S. to the fact that acquisitions and co-productions are cheaper to pick up than in-house or commissioned original productions and offer greater programming budget flexibility. ‘The financing varies depending on the level of our [creative] participation,’ he notes. For instance, completed product allows broadcasters greater pricing leverage at a time when fragmentation, still on the uptick, is driving cost controls. And, when broadcasters require higher levels of creative control, they have the option to cover a higher percentage of the budget. High-end animation, which often costs up to US$400,000 per episode, increasingly requires more co-production partners to defray costs.

U.S.-founded kids networks that have built bases across Europe and in other territories are also creating more programming ties with the international production community. Three Friends & Jerry was developed by the producers in association with Nickelodeon UK and now-defunct Nickelodeon Germany.

Fox Family’s preschool block’s recent foreign pickups include Tabaluga, produced by Germany’s EM.TV & Merchandising, which fits the block’s heavy reliance on music, and Ted Sieger’s Wildlife, co-produced by Germany’s Hahn Film and broadcaster ZDF, which was chosen for its ‘distinctive quality and style,’ notes Andryc. Various short-form animation properties, more common overseas, have also joined U.S. slates.

According to Sander Schwartz, executive VP and general manager of children’s programming at Columbia TriStar Television, there are still hurdles in placing foreign properties. Schwartz is currently trying to sell 94 episodes of Samurai X, a Japanese-produced property from SPE Visual Works, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment. ‘It’s been rewritten and adapted to make sense to U.S. audiences,’ says Schwartz. A broadcaster with a diverse palate is sought for the anime-type property, which targets teens and older kids. Despite the challenges inherent in acclimatizing U.S. viewers to new looks and adapting foreign shows to U.S. network specs, the plethora of outlets that has opened up in the U.S. has created a marketplace with what Schwartz calls ‘a voracious appetite for product.’

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