Most French channels, whether they are terrestrials or kids networks, give priority to programs dedicated to children ages six to 10, but a few still keep time slots for preschoolers and young children. Generally scheduled in early morning blocks, these programs tend to be acquired from foreign prodcos and distributors (especially from the U.K., Germany and North America), but some are produced locally.
A few developing series have the potential to become the next international hit, in terms of TV licenses, video sales and merchandising. First up is Hilltop Hospital, a French/English project currently in production at Paris, France-based studio Folimage. This 26 x 10-minute plasticine puppet series, adapted from books by British author Nicholas Allan and directed by Pascal Le N™tre, stands as an ER for younger viewers. Its objective is to present the hospital world in a less frightening way. The hospital staff and patients are all friendly animals who play out health situations that children sometimes face in real life (such as a broken leg, a new baby or death), but always with humor, rhyme and a lot of tenderness.
This European co-production, which is budgeted at US$4 million, partners British company Siriol (which handles all script-writing), Folimage, France 3, Canal J, ITV, Eva Entertainment, ZDF and Buena Vista Home Video (which acquired European video rights). The first half of the series will be delivered to kids channel Canal J at the end of the year. On the international market, Hilltop Hospital is eagerly anticipated by buyers, especially U.S. players like Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, ABC, itsy bitsy Entertainment Company and Miramax. It’s even rumored that Mattel is itching to sign on as master toy licensee. Although the official international launch of the series will take place at MIP Jr. in October, Hilltop is already slated to debut on France 3 in spring 2000.
In the French programming scene, this terrestrial channel is the most involved in preschool fare. Its puppet-hosted morning slot, Les Minikeums, airs daily from 6:45 a.m. to 8:35 a.m. and runs about six short animated series a day, including Noddy, Urmel (France Animation/Ravensburger) and The Busy World of Richard Scarry (Cinar). Of the 1,400 hours France 3 broadcasts each year, about 350 animated hours directly target preschoolers. ‘We are looking for any kind of animation programs-puppets, clay, 2-D animation-but always with both an educational and entertaining outlook,’ says Bertrand Mosca, head of the channel’s youth department and co-producer of Hilltop Hospital. France 3′s global budget amounts to US$29 million, which is divided between co-productions (US$19 million) and acquisitions (US$10 million). In 1998, France 3 was involved in 17 co-productions of series, seven of which (40%) were for preschoolers.
TF1′s TF! Jeunesse schedule offers Salut les Toons, an hour-and-a-half block of animated, action-adventure programming for kids ages four to six. Airing weekdays starting at 6:55 a.m., the block is hosted by funny 3-D mice-Bob, Scott and Zoé-and is composed of series such as Caliméro (160 x 13-minutes, Intercartoon/Rever SRL, Italy), The Adventures of Paddington Bear (Cinar), Dino Juniors (TK), Tabaluga (EM.TV & Merchandising/Yoram Gross Film Studio/ZDF), Oliver Twist (Saban) and Planète Animaux, a series of short wildlife documentaries co-produced with Marathon.
TF! Jeunesse’s global budget amounts to US$24 million, split down the middle between acquisitions and co-productions. About 320 hours of programs are broadcast in the Salut les Toons block. Upcoming series that have hit show potential include Jim Button, a 52 x 26-minute show produced by Saban International that will debut on-screen this fall, as well as AB’s series Triple Z and Dupuis’ Papyrus 2. All three newbies are animated preschool series.
From the network side, another potential hit is T’Choupi, a 2-D, 65 x five-minute series adapted from children’s books by Nathan Editions, a production partner on the toon. Other co-producers include Les Armateurs, children’s channel Canal J (which will be the exclusive broadcaster in France), service and distribution company Cymax, as well as licensing entities V.I.P. and the U.S.’s itsy bitsy Entertainment Company. Worldwide licensing rights will be shared between these last two companies. With a budget of US$2 million, T’Choupi relates a little penguin’s daily life, which is similar to a child’s, complete with successes and shortcomings. Currently in production, T’Choupi will be delivered in September.
‘We have received excellent TV feedback [on the series], especially in European territories, but also Japan,’ says Isabelle Mitsch, director of international sales at Cymax. PolyGram is interested in producing T’Choupi videos, and Hasbro will manufacture toys based on the series.
T’Choupi will air on Fox Family’s new It’s itsy bitsy Time block in the fall. In the U.S., licensed products will launch at Christmas, and will include books. T’Choupi is one of four new international projects Canal J has joined as the sole French broadcaster. The dedicated kids cable and satellite channel, which carries programming for two- to 14-years-old, broadcasts about 5,000 hours a year and dedicates about 30% of its sked to preschool fare. This progrmaming, mainly composed of animated series (clay, plasticine and 2-D cel), is scheduled in morning slots from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. and runs again in an early afternoon block. Canal J divides its US$14.4-million programming budget between in-house magazine productions, co-productions and acquisitions.
One potential international success is Millimages Productions’ 64 Zoo Lane, one of three preschool productions currently being developed at Millimages. The studio is also working on the second series of HIT/Canal J co-pro Archibald the Koala, as well as on Pablo the Little Red Fox, a 52 x five-minute co-pro with Red Fox Productions, Disney France, the BBC and Buena Vista Home Entertainment, which gets worldwide video rights, except in the U.S. and Japan. Pablo is slated for a December delivery. 64 Zoo Lane’s exclusive broadcaster in France is, once again, Canal J. Budgeted at US$3 million, the series is a 26 x 11-minute co-production by Zoo Lane Productions (in association with Canal J), ZDF, ZDF Enterprises, and Buena Vista Home Entertainment, which gets video rights in all territories except the U.S. and Japan. Internationally distributed by Itel, the series features the weird relationships between protagonist Lucy and her strange neighbors, the residents of the zoo. This series has been sold to Fox Family by itsy bitsy, which picked up TV, video and merchandising rights for the U.S. market.
François Deplanck, Teletoon’s GM, believes the next preschool hit will come from Ellipsanime, which is currently developing a 65 x five-minute 3-D series called Funny Bugs. Adapted from a Gallimard book series, the A Bug’s Life-esque series centers around the daily lives of garden insects. Teletoon, whose early-morning and afternoon preschool block, Minitoon, fills 19 hours out of the net’s 101 hours per week, is discussing the project. With preschool fare comprising 20% of Teletoon’s sked, the channel invest its US$4-million programming budget three ways. US$640,000 goes to co-productions, US$2.2 million to acquisitions and US$1 million to design and promotion. ‘Teletoon acquires more than 1,000 hours each year, and a lot of them are preschool programs,’ says Deplanck.
As for the three other cable and satellite channels-Fox Kids, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network-these international channels also offer preschool slots in the morning. Schedules mingle brand series and European acquisitions. Disney Channel has also started investing in 3-D series Rolie Polie Olie (a Nelvana/Métal Hurlant co-production), in association with terrestrial educational channel La Cinquième, which will launch weekend preschool slots in the fall.
This new block will be mainly composed of acquired series. As far as preschool animation goes, French broadcasters are not positioning themselves very differently from their competitors. Those involved in the biz look for quality and originality, without much concern for diversity. In France, preschool viewers are not tallied in audience ratings, explaining the greater focus on programming to older demographics.