With the landscape of kids television in the U.K. in a constant state of flux, most recently with the introduction of the BBC’s new digital kids channel, Disney Channel UK must continue differentiating itself as a family channel rather than just targeting kids.
There are 10 dedicated kids channels in the U.K., but Paul Robinson, VP and managing director of Disney Channel UK, is sure Disney’s family focus will separate it from Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. In households subscribing to all three cablers, BARB (Broadcasters Audience Research Board) stats show that in October, Disney UK had a 9.1% share of four- to 15-year-olds watching nonterrestrial TV, Nick had 8.8% and Cartoon had 7.8%.
One way Disney Channel UK differentiates itself from other British kid offerings is through hosted blocks, a technique that is not employed on Disney Channel in the U.S. Robinson says most Disney Channels throughout Europe have hosted blocks because it heightens local connection with the audience. For example, the U.K. channel’s hosts discuss local sporting events and host a radio phone-in show with kids across the U.K. The on-air personalities (four for preschoolers and four for school-aged children) have become popular local celebrities, according to Robinson.
Separating the channel into four age-specific blocks was one of Robinson’s first tasks when he began with Disney in November `98.
The demo zones consist of: All Star Mornings, a mostly animated weekday block for ages six to 12 that runs from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.; an animated preschool block called Playhouse Disney from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Live Studio for ages six to 12, that runs from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.; and a family block from 7 p.m. to midnight. The schedule is a mix of 20% films, 40% live-action series and 40% cartoons. Programming in the afternoon begins with animated series like Disney’s Hercules and evolves into live-action series like Regina-based Minds’ Eye’s Incredible Story Studio, which Robinson likes because the Canadian prodco incorporates story ideas sent in by U.K. kids.
Acquisitions make up very little of the programming, only about 10% to 15%. Of its total operating budget last year, Disney spent 18% on acquisitions.
When the channel does acquire programming, Robinson says he looks for shows that can’t be done in-house. Currently, he’s scoping out shows with animals, which could include science programs and documentaries, because they’re ‘absolutely Disney.’ He says the channel acquires two to three series a year and that shows won’t be picked up unless they fit with the Disney brand. The most recent acquisitions include L.A.-based Lynch Entertainment’s 100 Deeds of Eddy McDowd and Alliance Atlantis’ My Best Friend is An Alien, although Robinson claims the most successful pick-up in recent memory (last April) is Australia-based Beyond Distribution’s Thunderstone, slotted on weekends and evenings. Its audience share of kids ages four to 15 is 11%, according to BARB.
Robinson was attracted to Alien and McDowd because they are smart comedies that understand where kids are coming from and ‘put a different twist on things.’ As well, they have positive endings, quintessential Disney elements. Robinson liked Thunderstone because ‘it was a creative mix of time travel and animals,’ along with high production values.
In terms of upcoming plans, Robinson says the main goal now is to increase the subscriber base, since premium offering Disney Channel UK is only available in half the number of households (about 3.5 million) as cablers like Nick and Cartoon. To achieve this end, Robinson plans to grow the business by advertising through direct mail, public relations and promotional activity with Sky Cable. Disney Channel UK will keep its schedule as is until September 2000, while staying abreast of the changing landscape and continuing the search for complimentary live-action shows.