Cable commitment spells blue skies for U.S. preschool producers

As Teletubbies continues to reap the ancillary rewards of being the current hot tot tube property, globally, the TV industry is stepping up preschool production in hopes of launching the next big hit. We examine four international preschool scenes-France, the U.K.,...
July 1, 1999

As Teletubbies continues to reap the ancillary rewards of being the current hot tot tube property, globally, the TV industry is stepping up preschool production in hopes of launching the next big hit. We examine four international preschool scenes-France, the U.K., Canada and the U.S.-and I.D. the voted-most-likely-to-breakthrough suspects.

The perseverance of cablers to elbow their way into the U.S. preschool program scene, once solely the turf of PBS, has resulted in improved market opportunities for domestic and international program suppliers. International sales and partership deals abound as American channels scramble to differentiate their programming stylistically and editorially. For preschoolers, it means more choices and theoretically, higher quality programming.

Nickelodeon’s preschool block, Nick, Jr., runs 22 hours of shows a week, including a five-hour weekday block from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Of the 10 series to air this fall, six will be produced in-house, and four will be acquired.

Rugrats and Blue’s Clues are Nick, Jr. products, and the channel saw improved time slot ratings this past year after introducing new acquisitions. Kipper (HIT International, U.K.) and Maisy (King Rollo Films, U.K.) boosted ratings 9% at 1:30 p.m., and from Canada, Nelvana’s Franklin boosted ratings 25% in the 10:30 a.m. slot and 17% at 1 p.m. (In February Franklin replaced Muppet Babies at 10:30 a.m. and Rupert at 1 p.m.; Kipper/Maisy replaced Allegra’s Window/The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss at 1:30 p.m.)

This fall, Nick Jr. debuts a new in-house-produced animation series, Little Bill, based on books written by Bill Cosby. In preproduction is Dora the Explorer, a cel-animated, half-hour series featuring a Latina heroine, set for a 2000 launch.

Brown Johnson, senior VP of Nick, Jr., says that the budgets for original Nick, Jr. productions tend to be less than for older kids programming, averaging around US$300,000 per episode of animation. ‘Because we have fewer minutes of advertising in the Nick, Jr. block, the math for making the shows as expensive as big kid shows just doesn’t work.’ Acquisition prices are ‘fair and competitive,’ she says.

Fox Family is committed to a two-hour preschool block that runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Currently branded as The Captain’s Treasure House, with Captain Kangaroo hosting the four-program block, it will be reconfigured in the fall to accommodate the premiere of It’s itsy bitsy Time, a branded one-hour block in partnership with the itsy bitsy Entertainment Company. (The block will feature series such as 64 Zoo Lane, Animal Shelf, Charley & Mimo and Tom & Vicky.) Preschool programming also airs between 8:30 a.m.

and 9:30 a.m.

Fox Family is still searching for a signature preschool program, and has experimented with acquisitions that include Captain Kangaroo (Saban), The Adventures of Mumfie (Britt Allcroft, U.K.) and The Wiggles (The Wiggles Touring Pty-Ltd, Australia) to find the right combination. License fees range up to US$100,000, and original animation averages around US$350,000 an episode.

Joel Andryc, senior VP of kids programming and development at Fox Family Channel, says that the network wants to build its preschool schedule with unique animation and with a core curriculum of music. Jellabies (Winchester Television, U.K.), a CGI series premiering in the fall, is an example of a show that meets these criteria.

Launched in February, HBO Family runs a four-and-a-half-hour block of preschool programming from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., which then repeats once. HBO Family’s preschool programming is acquired animated product, with the exception of A Little Curious (Curious Pictures, U.S.), an original production that serves as its signature program. A mix of animation and live action, the program centers around conceptual learning skills such as differing between high and low.

Carole Rosen, HBO’s VP of original programming, family, says that she is ‘constantly scouring the world,’ for children’s programming that mimics HBO’s overall philosophy of being stylish, edgy and funny. HBO looks for shows based on well-known characters from literature (like Babar and The Adventures of Paddington Bear), and usually favors working with companies with which it has established relationships, like Nelvana, Cinar and HIT.

Acquisition fees range from US$10,000 to US$100,000 per episode, and the budget for A Little Curious ranges between US$300,000 to US$500,000 per episode. Rosen doesn’t anticipate any changes to the preschool lineup until 2000.

Another February launch, Noggin, a partnership between Nickelodeon and Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), airs nine hours of preschool fare daily. Programming comes from the libraries of its parent companies and includes CTW’s Sesame Street and Nick’s Gullah Gullah Island.

Susan Tomasi, director of programming at Noggin, says that the channel is focusing on original production targeted to older kids, and that there are no current plans to add any new original or acquired preschool productions until at least 2001. ‘We have some of the strongest preschool properties produced over the last 30 years, so we feel that kids are already well served by what we have on the air,’ she says.

Playhouse Disney is The Disney Channel’s preschool block, and it runs six hours weekdays and four hours on weekends. Preschool programming jumps to Toon Disney when Playhouse Disney ends at 2:30 p.m. weekdays.

Five original and co-produced series (anchored by Bear in the Big Blue House from Jim Henson Television) make up 25% of the block. The rest is comprised of other Disney-produced programming and one acquisition, Katie and Orbie (Lacewood, Canada). It also acquires short interstitial programming, such as Microscopic Milton (Splash, U.K.).

Disney Channel’s preschool philosophy is ‘learning powered by imagination, where kids are engaged to think, imagine and create,’ says Rich Ross, senior VP of programming and production at The Disney Channel.

Disney Channel has been aggressively bulking up its library of key original shows (Bear, 91 episodes; Out of the Box, 65; Rolie Polie Olie, 39) and has several programs in development for 2000.

PBS preschool programming airs under the Ready To Learn banner. The pubcaster has over 40 hours of preschool programming a week available to member stations, with most airing six to seven hours of preschool fare a day, according to John Wilson, PBS’s VP of programming services.

The pubcaster has identified children’s programming as a priority, and expects a significant increase in its budget for 1999. (US$23.5 million was spent in fiscal 1998).

PBS has been aggressive in persuading distributors to forego license fees in exchange for PBS’s national distribution and positive image with parents. The determination is based on production costs and the position PBS wants to take in terms of rights, usage and ancillary opportunities for the series.

Broadly speaking, PBS looks for shows that kids find entertaining and parents trust. Specific-ally, programs must have age-appropriate characters who solve problems and resolve conflicts relevant to the audience. Wilson says PBS is hoping to develop shows with core curriculums of science, math, music and visual arts.

While some PBS preschool programming is directed squarely at younger audiences (Sesame Street, Teletubbies, Noddy), shows like Arthur (WGBH/Cinar), Caillou (PBS will add the Cinar series to its fall 2000 sked), Zoboomafoo (Cinar/Earth Creatures Co.) and the upcoming Dragon Tales (CTW) cross over demographics. ‘The `little kids’ (three to eight) category is where we think we have the greatest success and impact in terms of Ready To Learn,’ Wilson says.

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