Brit preschool production goes into overdrive

Post-Teletubbies, British preschool programming is still booming. At home, the BBC and ITV are vying with each other to commission the longest series runs for toddlers. And from overseas, a growing band of animation and puppet shows are working their way...
July 1, 1999

Post-Teletubbies, British preschool programming is still booming. At home, the BBC and ITV are vying with each other to commission the longest series runs for toddlers. And from overseas, a growing band of animation and puppet shows are working their way into mainstream U.K. schedules.

Among British terrestrial broadcasters, the BBC has the most airtime for preschool. New shows like HIT Entertainment’s stop-frame series Bob the Builder (26 x 10 minutes) generally debut at the start of the weekday kids block on BBC1 (3:30 p.m. to 5:35 p.m.). However, acquisitions, repeats and half-hour puppet shows like Teletubbies and Noddy have berths at 7 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. on the pubcaster’s second channel BBC2.

According to BBC head of children’s commissioning Roy Thompson, preschool is performing well for the BBC, and there are plans to increase the pubcaster’s commitment to the genre. Not only is a new flagship preschool show called The Tweenies in the offing, but there are plans to boost kids output on the BBC’s expanding family of digital channels.

In BBC2′s morning slots, classics like Postman Pat, Brum and William’s Wish Wellingtons all rate well. In the afternoon on BBC1, Bob the Builder’s first run is exceeding expectations, as is girl-targeted property Star Hill Ponies.

HIT has already secured 16 character licenses for Bob the Builder (including Cartel International for greeting cards, the BBC for books, Matin Yaffe for toys and housewares and Falcon Games for jigsaw puzzles and games), and is currently negotiating TV deals in major territories including France, Germany and the U.S. But even this level of interest is overshadowed by the BBC’s decision to commission 260 episodes of The Tweenies (US$13 million) from U.K. indie Tell-Tale Productions. Employing skillful animatronics in colorful characters that look more like kids than the Teletubbies do, the show, which is scheduled to air after the Teletubbies in the 10:30 a.m. slot this fall, is aimed at three- to five-year-olds. Thompson says it is ‘a fantastic show with wonderful characters and high production values. ‘Whether it can match the Teletubbies’ success overseas is another matter. ‘I think it will do well for us,’says Thompson. ‘But it is far less easy to predict if it can be a commercial success.’ Licensed product based on the show will hit retail shelves this October.

ITV’s preschool commitment is primarily restricted to its afternoon kids block on weekdays. However, breakfast broadcaster GMTV, part of the ITV network, does run two acquisitions-Barney and Bananas in Pyjamas-early on Saturday mornings. GMTV gets 40% of the total kids market share on weekend mornings. Kids controller Nigel Pickard is responsible for the daytime schedule, which fluctuates in terms of market share between 35% and 48%. He runs two clean preschool slots at 3:20 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., and then, at 3:40 p.m., he schedules a show that appeals to the five and up crowd. Often, he says, this is British-made animation.

Pickard strips a long-running anchor series in the 3:20 p.m. slot, and varies the content of the 3:30 p.m. slot on a daily basis. ‘The plan is to brand the CITV slot with the first show, but then ensure there is enough variety to keep kids interested,’ he says. His biggest hit in the first slot is the Henson/Carlton co-production Mopatop’s Shop, which ran in a block of 65 episodes during winter 1999. After averaging a 39% share, Pickard committed to an additional 165 episodes, meaning that Mopatop’s Shop is likely to be a feature series on ITV’s sked for the next four to five years.

Pickard has also commissioned 65 episodes of a preschool series called Dog & Duck from United Productions. The live-action puppet series is also likely to go to more than 200 episodes if the first run works.

For the second slot, Pickard commissions key shows at a rate of 13 a year. United’s Slow Norris is now up to 65 episodes after five years of orders. United/Link’s live-action puppet series Teddy Bears was well received this winter and is also set to return. Another of ITV’s winter schedule hits was Dream Street from Dream Street Productions, which took a share of more than 40%.

While ITV tends to air preschool live action in the first slot, it did break with convention by airing 104 episodes of PolyGram’s Maisy-an animated series which Pickard says is ‘one of the youngest things we have ever done.’

Series like Animal Shelf (Itel, 52 x 10 minutes), The Wombles (Cinar/United), Forgotten Toys (Link, 26 x 10 minutes plus a special) and Kipper (HIT, 78 x 10 minutes) have been consistent performers in the third slot, which is designed to appeal to older kids as well as preschoolers.

Neither Thompson nor Pickard have any responsibility for the success of U.K. shows overseas, but Pickard says the international and ancillary markets area is a growing consideration for him.

With the U.K. TV license fee accounting for just 20% to 30% of the budget, Pickard needs to commission shows that can quickly recoup their deficit overseas. If they don’t, Pickard risks late delivery or shows that are not good enough to last. ‘Mopatop’s Shop, for example, has amazing production values,’ says Pickard. ‘It would be tough for Henson to achieve that-or secure licensees-if I only commissioned six or 13 episodes. I have to accept that if a show is too parochial, I won’t get the benefits on-screen.’

Of forthcoming projects, ITV’s answer to Bob the Builder is a stop-frame show called Hilltop Hospital from Eva/Siriol/Folimage, which enters the schedule in the fall. Eva has already signed up ZDF and France 3, and is confident of cracking the U.S. market. Henson is also working on a show for ITV called Construction Site.

Most kids producers and distributors are busy developing new shows for the U.K. and international market. HIT is developing Dinosaur Roar, while Itel is working on Porter & Daughter and 64 Zoo Lane (the latter with Millimages). The League of Gentlemen is making Yo, Ho, Ahoy, a pirate-based idea presented at Cartoon Forum and snapped up by the BBC.

Since Teletubbies and Noddy broke in the U.S., a number of shows have found broadcast berths without needing to create a live-action wraparound to suit U.S. schedules.

HIT’s Kipper is on Nick and Animal Shelf will appear as part of It’s itsy bitsy Time on Fox Family. Hollywood Ventures has also reversioned Slow Norris for broadcast daily on PBS. Outside the U.S., strong performers have included the BBC’s Oakie Doke, which hit a 52% share on TF1 in France.

Eva business development director Tony Stern says: ‘There is increasing tolerance of shorter formats in the U.S. now. People used to rely solely on PBS, but Nick or Fox Family can support a launch now.’ In terms of ancillary revenue however, it is early days for all the U.K. preschool shows apart from Britt Allcroft’s Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends and the BBC’s Noddy and Teletubbies.

Outside ITV and the BBC, the origination of preschool is limited. Channel 4 is reportedly developing plans for preschool, while Channel 5 has recently acquired the Henson hit Bear in the Big Blue House.

Bear also appears on Disney Channel UK, which is one of the strongest preschool broadcasters in the nonterrestrial market. Other key Disney-acquired shows include Big Garage, Adventures of Spot, Winnie the Pooh, Animal Shelf, Rosie and Jim and Sesame Street.

Nick UK is also committed to preschool between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Currently, it runs two branded blocks of Children’s BBC shows, though this will end next year. A major critical and ratings success has been the reversioning of Blue’s Clues-a process Nick UK managing director Janie Grace plans to repeat. ‘On 20 episodes, we reshot the inserts, revoiced it and changed the host,’ she says. ‘Next season, we will do another 10.’

Although many of Nick’s preschool hits are acquisitions (such as Cinar’s Wimzie’s House, Scholastic’s The Magic School Bus and ABC Australia’s Bananas in Pyjamas), Grace plans to invest in one or two long-form preschool series. ‘We have demonstrated that preschool works for us as a strategy, and we are actively talking to independent producers right now.’

Cartoon Network also airs morning preschool toons, including Tom & Jerry Kids, Flintstone Kids, A Pup named Scooby Doo, The Fruitties and Magic Roundabout. However, Fox Kids UK managing director Rod Henwood has steered away from preschool so far because of the intense competition. ‘When the time is right and we have the right projects, I expect it is an area we will move into,’he says.

One of the most significant developments on the horizon is the launch of SDN’s new digital net Nursery Channel. The venture is headed by the highly talented former head of BBC Children’s Anna Home. She is widely expected to present an innovative addition to the preschool turf-though channel distribution will be initially limited.

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