U.K. indies invest in kids

It is a commonly held view among U.K. independent production companies that the best way to thrive as a business is to build up a diverse production base....
July 1, 1999

It is a commonly held view among U.K. independent production companies that the best way to thrive as a business is to build up a diverse production base.

So it’s not surprising that mainstream indies, known for drama or factual, have singled out kids as an area for potential expansion. Kudos, Initial, Action Time, Zenith, Pearson, Talent TV and Double Exposure are just some of the well-established indie brands plowing extra resources into the kids arena.

Tony Stern, the business development director of Pearson’s recently acquired animation subsidiary Eva, says the interest in kids is ‘no surprise,’ given the international success of shows like Ragdoll’s Teletubbies and Britt Allcroft’s Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends.

According to Stern, distributors and producers go to MIP and see ‘hundreds of stands promoting kids shows. That encourages a view that the more crowded the market is, the more viable it must be.’

The reality is that kids is a tough business for indies to crack, says Stern. ‘It isn’t enough just to get a commission from a U.K. broadcaster-which is hard enough to start with. You need to know how and where to raise the other 80% of the budget overseas.’

According to Stern, Pearson/Eva is well-positioned to succeed on the kids stage for three reasons. Firstly, it has a truly international distribution network with more than 30 offices worldwide. Secondly, it has access to the best-selling characters that reside in sister business Penguin Books. And thirdly, ‘we have people across the Pearson group who can give sound commercial judgments on an idea’s potential across a range of media,’ he says.

Pearson is currently producing Hilltop Hospital, and has Roald Dahl’s The BFG (budgeted at US$10.4 million) in development as a 26 x 30-minute series. It is also scouring the Penguin library for properties.

Not all U.K. indies have Pearson’s market leverage; but the British companies breaking through in kids generally have solid reasons for their success. For example, Initial Film & Television, an emergent force in kids, has used its strong track record in music and events production (The Brit Awards, Miss World) to launch a successful new brand of music/comedy live action for kids.

Chris Pilkington joined Initial from the BBC last year to head up a kids division. ‘Before that, Initial had dabbled in the genre, making a show called No Sweat. But last year, it decided to do it properly.’ The result has been two runaway ratings hits-Comin Atcha’ for ITV and Miami 7 for BBC1. Miami 7 has now been snapped up by Fox Family in the U.S.

All three shows feature young pop bands as their main characters. In the case of Miami 7, the band in question, S Club, was created by Simon Fuller, the man behind the Spice Girls. Having already built up a strong TV fan base, S Club’s first single is now out in the U.K. on the Polydore label.

‘The key for us is to make shows with high production values and good story lines that can travel internationally,’ says Pilkington. ‘We spent a lot of time finding the right concept, choosing a band that could act, and bringing in the best comedy writers.’ Credits for the script team include Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Friends. From music-based comedy, Pilkington wants to expand into comedy drama for teens. ‘Our target audience loves shows like Kenan & Kel and Sister, Sister. So we are building up a pool of writers who can develop ideas in that area.’

Pilkington also expects to diversify into preschool and animation-areas he worked on in his BBC days. Like Stern, he emphasizes the value of a distribution arm in realizing these ambitions. ‘Initial has a powerful distribution partner in sister company GEM. That gives us back-up when we look at acquiring book rights or raising deficits for series.’ In addition to making more 13-part series of Comin Atcha’ and Miami 7, Initial wants to make a comedy/drama for CITV’s Nigel Pickard.

Other indies that have leveraged their existing strengths to successfully span the adult/kids divide include Double Exposure. The maker of the critically acclaimed doc reality series The House is now making kids docusoap Circus Kids for Disney Channel in the U.S. and Europe. Double Exposure director Sandy Balfour says previous experience in the field left him ‘convinced that reality soaps could work for kids if you found the right subject. We plan to do more in this arena. And I expect a lot of children’s broadcasters will sit up and take notice if this one works.’

There has been a similar cross-fertilization of formats at LE specialist Action Time. Having established a presence in the kids arena with entertainment shows like Crazy Cottage (ITV), Wishing (BBC) and Travel Bug (BBC), the company appointed former Disney creative director Amelia Johnson as head of children’s programs last month. According to Johnson: ‘We have a successful track record in the field and are looking to expand. Although there are not many slots in the U.K., there are opportunities overseas, particularly in the field of kids entertainment formats.’

Action Time’s strength is ‘a strong distribution team and diverse relationships with broadcasters,’ says Johnson. ‘We know how to make partnerships happen.’ Priorities include light factual, music-led shows and preschool, ‘where there is potential to build up licensing and ancillary rights.’ Animation is not a short-term goal, but Johnson is currently developing a review show.

This influx of new talent into indie companies is a sure sign of the sector’s ambitions. Comedy and entertainment producer Talent TV, for example, hired BBC Scotland head of kids Ed Pugh earlier this year to build up a children’s production slate out of Manchester.

According to Pugh, Talent is developing kids shows in the drama, comedy, factual and entertainment fields-though he also points out that there are real advantages for the main part of the talent business. ‘A lot of leading on-screen talent in the U.K. entertainment business starts out in kids television,’ he says. ‘So it makes sense for us to be working with presenters as they set out on their careers. It gives us a chance to nurture them and work with them later on mainstream proposals.’

Meanwhile Zenith, which is best known for kids dramas (Byker Grove) and entertainment (SMTV/Live), is now looking at expansion into preschool and animation. That strategy is being spearheaded by new CEO Steve Matthews, who followed a similar path while boss of HTV’s now-defunct rights agency Harvest. Matthews’ view is that owning kids properties with long shelf life is a way for the company to become ‘master of its own destiny.’

Not all indie companies have set themselves the goal of building up a rounded kids slate, however. Kudos Productions, for example, has just won a prestigious drama commission from BBC1 to make a six-part series, The Magician’s House, a co-pro with Canada’s Forefront Entertainment. Its last major TV credit was the hard-hitting adult drama Psychos for Channel 4.

Kudos managing director Stephen Garrett says the company was in development on the series for four years. ‘If it works well and the broadcasters like it, there is scope for further series based on the books that The Magician’s House is adapted from. But as a general rule, we tend to pursue quality projects that appeal to us, whatever genre they are in.’

It was possible to commit to The Magician’s House because Kudos had a packed development slate running concurrently. ‘There are very few slots for kids drama, which makes it a high-risk genre to devote resources to,’ says Garrett. ‘We were able to take that gamble because we were busy with features and drama at the same time. But we would only commit ourselves if we believed in the writing.’

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