Kids entertainment was on the top of the agenda when Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji paid his historic visit to the U.S. in April. As government aids convened to discuss China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, environmental protection and spy allegations, Premier Zhu met privately with Walt Disney chairman Michael Eisner. Discussions focused on the location of a future theme park in China; Disney wants to build in Hong Kong, but the Premier would like his former hometown-Shanghai-to benefit.
Disney’s push into China is not just about theme parks. For four years, Walt Disney Television International has slowly plotted its Asian invasion. Disney Channel already has pay TV stations in Taiwan, Malaysia and Australia, but would like to have ‘a much bigger presence in the region by the end of the year,’ says Jon Niermann, VP of marketing for the company’s Asia-Pacific division. It is rumored that the company is planning to launch a 24-hour channel in the fall, with a broad footprint into China.
Disney currently offers three two-hour programming blocks called Dragon Club via 37 different cable operators. Most of the programming is Disney animation.
‘Everyone is interested in the children’s market in Asia,’ says Niermann. ‘The industry is growing. We’ve been here 10 years and we have a 10-year plan.’
Nipping at Disney’s heels is the Kermit Channel, a pay TV channel jointly owned by Hallmark Entertainment and Jim Henson Productions. The family channel was launched in January, and has now been picked up by service providers in Indonesia, as well as in parts of Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Singa-pore and Sri Lanka.
Unlike Nickelodeon, which is also rumored to be eyeing the Asian market, the Kermit Channel has been developed as a family network with a block of educational programming. This year, the Kermit Channel will premiere four new Jim Henson Production shows: Brats of the Lost Nebula, Farscape, Home Team, and Mopatop’s Shop.
‘Kermit has a brand that resonates in the Asian market,’ says Jeffrey Johnson, VP and managing director of Asia-Pacific for Hallmark Entertainment Networks and the Kermit Channel. He adds: ‘Kermit is hip, but it’s not viewed as threatening or edgy. The humor of the series we carry is funny, but not disrespectful, so parents feel safer and more comfortable with it in [the Asian] market.’
Jim Henson Productions, through the Children’s Television Workshop, has had a 20-year relationship
with Chinese broadcasters, as well as assisted in the production of a local Sesame Street show in the Philippines. That’s the kind of leverage upon which the new Kermit Channel would like to capitalize. ‘Everyone is now claiming that their networks have important educational contributions to make, but in reality. . . Henson Productions is the number one educational producer in the world, and I haven’t had one cable operator challenge me on this,’ says Johnson.
But the real kids trailblazer is Cartoon Network, which has been in the region for five years. The Cartoon Network & TNT is everywhere, with the exception of tough markets such as Burma and Cambodia. With its distribution in place, Cartoon Network has now prioritized its top markets and has
focused on promotion.
‘Our most important goal is to get people to watch so our ratings improve and we sell more advertising, and to help our cable partners get more subscribers,’ says Michael Rich-ter, VP of marketing for TNT and Cartoon Network in Hong Kong.
Last season, the Cartoon Network produced a local show called Toonsagogo, which was essentially an interactive program request show. It is also trying to be more culturally sensitive. In India for example, the company dropped Cow and Chicken from its lineup because the swinging cow udders could be interpreted as offensive to some Hindu worshippers. In Taiwan, the Cartoon Network has also programmed more Japanese animation to please viewers.
But the big coup has been its ability to successfully crack the Chinese market. Cartoon Network has signed deals with local Chinese cable operations, which now pull blocks of programming off satellite feeds and air them on their stations. Only ESPN and the Star Phoenix Channel have such access in China.
Despite tough economic conditions in Asia, children’s broadcasters are moving into the market. ‘They are doing it for two reasons,’ says Kristina Rose, executive director of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association in Hong Kong. ‘Children’s programs are not controversial, and the market is big and has traditionally been underserved. Finally these companies are beginning to realize it.’
But it’s definitely a long-term investment. ‘All the established brands are taking a long-term view of Asia-Pacific,’ says Johnson. ‘Anyone who’s got a business plan looking at short-term, break-even propositions is wasting their time.’