1998 was Nigel Pickard’s first year as controller of Children’s ITV (CITV)-and he has quickly made his mark.
A new on-screen look, more live presentation and a commitment to exclusively commissioned shows are just some of the hallmarks of CITV under Pickard. The result was the network’s best fall season in years.
‘When I took over, our children’s schedule was looking a little pedestrian,’says Pickard. ‘Some shows did really well, but it didn’t have the feel of a branded block. We needed to make CITV a popular destination for kids
by creating a sense of occasion every day.’
Pickard oversees approximately 14 hours of programming a week. On weekdays, there is an afternoon block between 3:20 p.m. and 5 p.m. On weekends, there is a block on Saturdays from 9:25 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., and on Sundays from 9:25 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
His annual budget is around US$64 million, of which 78% is ploughed into original production. Typically, the budget is skewed towards the fall and winter slates, though the summer season is used to try out new concepts.
Besides introducing more live segments, Pickard’s emphasis on exclusivity is the next most significant development at CITV. ‘You aren’t going to see our commissioned shows windowed on other networks,’ he says. ‘I can’t understand why terrestrial broadcasters share shows with thematic networks. Not
only is it a huge production and marketing subsidy for them, but we help them fulfill
their original production obligations under
the EC quota.’
The exception to this rule lies in acquisitions. ‘Warner and Nickelodeon produce some of the best live action and animation there is. So with series like Nick’s Angry Beavers, we will share windows with them-depending on the deal. Other than that, we think sharing is counterproductive.’
Pickard’s other main changes have
concerned scheduling strategy. He has concentrated resources on the preschool and
five- to 11-year-old markets, and also introduced longer-running series. ‘I felt the
schedule was a bit frenetic if it only had runs of six, so I am asking for more 13- and 26-episode shows. That way we can give new series the best possible start.’
The boldest gamble so far was to commission Ant and Dec Productions (a company that is half-owned by Zenith) to make a 52-week run of Saturday morning magazine show SMTV://Live, which debuted last August.
‘The BBC had been winning this slot with Live & Kicking for years, so we needed something good to turn the audience around,’says Pickard. ‘By keeping SMTV://Live on all year round, we are allowing the show to evolve and build up an audience.’
The decision is paying off, according to Pickard, who says SMTV://Live has consecutively beaten Live & Kicking in the ratings race five weeks out of nine in 1999.
In terms of overall weekday ratings for fall 1998, CITV garnered a 36.2% audience share among four- to 15-year-olds, compared to CBBC’s 34.6%. That trend has continued into 1999, with CITV at 36.6% (up 3% from the same period last year), and CBBC at 34.8% to date.
Pickard’s appointment came as part of a strategic rethink at ITV, initiated by the network’s program director David Liddiment. ‘David is very supportive of the kids schedule because he realizes that it represents ITV’s audience of tomorrow,’says Pickard.
This support has allowed Pickard to commission a wide range of new shows. ‘In the first 18 months, we will have triggered between 30 and 40 new shows, which will flow through over a two-year period. After that, I’d expect us to introduce about 12 a year. The hope is that some new shows will be successful and return as schedule anchors.’
Animation shows that were green-lit by Pickard in 1998 include Watership Down (Alltime/Decode), Foxbusters (ITEL), Hilltop Hospital (Eva), Maisie (Scottish TV), Grizzly Tales, Vampires, Pirates and Aliens (ITEL), Little Grey Rabbit, Preston Pig and returning series like Kipper (HIT Entertainment), which has secured another 39 episodes.
Typically, ITV will pay about 30% to 35% of the production budget, with top-end shows (primarily dramas) costing between US$360,000 and US$520,000 per half hour.
Among the hits of 1998, Pickard singles out 13-part drama The Worst Witch (43% share) and The Top Ten of Everything, a magazine series based on a book by Dorling Kindersley. Both series have been recommissioned. Henson’s animated preschool series Mopatop’s Shop, Kipper and the drama series Whizziwig also performed well last year.
‘There is still room for acquisitions, but
not many,’ says Pickard. ‘CITV is not a dump area. We don’t want preschool or documentary. But we will make an aggressive approach for high quality shows-and will pay a premium if we think it is appropriate.’
CITV mainly acquires from English-speaking territories. ‘The best of the bunch last year was Sabrina, The Teenage Witch,’ says Pickard. ‘Acquired animation hasn’t been that popular recently. But we would look at child-
centered shows like Jumanji or Hey, Arnold, which has done well for us.’
This year, Pickard expects Star Wars to reinvigorate the sci-fi market on kids TV. But his biggest priority is comedy and drama aimed at the older end of the five to 11 age range.’We need to address the fact that we are skewed younger than the BBC,’ he says. ‘I’d love a
new kid-focused sitcom-the next Keenan and Kel maybe.’
Looking further ahead, CITV stands to
benefit from the recent launch of digital
channel ITV2. Currently, Pickard schedules two weekend blocks of repeats for the new net. When ITV2 extends its transmission hours to the morning, he expects the channel to
provide a way of testing new ideas and
complementing the main CITV schedule.