Prodcos strive to fill live-action void

The animation tidal wave sweeping kids television seems to have hit its peak as more and more producers and distributors realize there is a very real need for quality live action for young people. At last October's MIPCOM, it was evident...
January 1, 2000

The animation tidal wave sweeping kids television seems to have hit its peak as more and more producers and distributors realize there is a very real need for quality live action for young people. At last October’s MIPCOM, it was evident that while animated fare was still on the rise, there was a slim offering when it came to live action for children: Of the 10,750 series viewed at the market, only about 2,400 were live action.

‘There isn’t that much quality drama around for children. There’s lots of studio-based drama around, easy to make and cheap, that fulfills a purpose. But top-notch material, there’s much less of that,’ says Oliver Ellis, head of programming at U.K.-based ITEL.

Ellis says two years ago he recognized the dearth of quality live action for kids who are older than preschool but too young for Beverly Hills, 90210, so ITEL set out to beef up its slate. United’s The Worst Witch led the drive into the genre and opened the door to other kid-targeting live action. ITEL followed up with its newest show Life Force. The 13 x 30-minute series, budgeted at about US$3.8 million, presents a future world where a group of environmentally conscious children have to keep the world safe from government agents. The co-pro between ITV and U.K.-based Childsplay will air on ITV this month.

Talk to different programmers about why there is a larger proportion of animated series, and you’ll get several theories. One is that the market tends to swing back and forth, and live action fell out of the hotseat as the popularity of animation came to a head.

‘When there’s a void to be filled, then everyone jumps on the bandwagon,’ says Joel Andryc, senior VP of programming and development at Fox Family. ‘These trends are very cyclical.’

Fox Family’s plan is to keep an equal roster of animation and live action, which Andryc says differentiates the kidnet from Cartoon Network and Disney Channel. Andryc says he is definitely looking for more quality live action, especially light horror and comedy, for the 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekday time slot. Examples of what Andryc hopes to find include shows similar to features like ‘She’s All That, Never Been Kissed and all those very relatable shows that deal with kids in junior high and high school.’

‘I think that kids are interested in seeing the realities of their lives reflected in their entertainment,’ adds Cyma Zarghami, executive VP and GM of Nickelodeon. Fireworks Entertainment/Lynch Entertainment co-pro Caitlin’s Way, which is being distributed in the U.S. by Lynch and worldwide by Fireworks, is a series that fits the bill. Airing in spring 2000 on Nick in the U.S. and YTV in Canada, the show is budgeted at US$15 million and depicts a young city girl who relocates to the country to live with her relatives after getting into trouble with the law.

Another reason for the void in live action for older kids, according to Julian Scott, VP of creative development at Children’s Television Workshop’s film, television and video group, is the fact they were feeling alienated by the type of shows being offered. ‘When I first came to CTW, I looked at the TV landscape for older kids and listened to some kids saying things like, `I don’t see myself on television anymore.’ It’s like Beverly Hills, 90210: nobody relates with it because they’re very glamorous programs.’

Scott set out to develop a series-based show about normal kids with everyday problems, the concept behind West Mall, which he hopes will develop into a 52 x half-hour soap with London-based partner Zenith Entertainment. The story line centers on a group of teens at their mall hangout and targets the eight to 12 set. At the moment, Zenith is handling the U.K. distribution while CTW takes care of the U.S. Scott sees Fox Family or a similar network as the American destination for the show.

CTW is also currently working with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on a project called Life with Riley, about a young American boy who finds himself on the wrong side of the law after his mother dies. His father, not being able to handle his son, ships him off to live with his aunt who is a veterinarian in outback Australia, where he discovers his ability to care for others. Scott says CTW is looking at doing 13 half hours. ABC is the only broadcaster at this point. CTW, which is in distribution rights discussions, will take responsibility for the U.S., and the ABC will have Australasia. No delivery date or budget was set at press time.

Yet another reason for the lack of live action is that it has been more difficult to sell internationally because of cultural and language barriers.

‘Obviously animation travels a lot better,’ says Suzanne French, VP of children’s programming at Toronto’s Alliance Atlantis Communications Kids. However, she sees a slow change in this area. When it comes to live action, French says the fantasy/mock horror genre seems to travel well in some international markets and has been popular since the onset of programs such as Scholastic Entertainment’s Goosebumps. French adds, however, that ‘right now, it’s very hard to pitch a straightforward mystery show. You’ve got to have something that’s kind of unique visually and engaging for kids, which means shaking it up with effects.’

Upcoming live action from AAC Kids includes a recently created pilot about a group of regular high school kids who happen to be trained paramedics and who get called away from cheerleading and football practice to save lives. It has not yet been picked up, French notes, but if it gets a green light, filming will start this spring.

Forefront Entertainment has partnered with U.K.-based Kudos to produce a special effects-filled show called The Magician’s House, which neatly fits the bill as the sort of fantasy that has international legs. Six half-hour episodes appeared on the BBC last fall and aired at Christmas in Canada on CTV. The series features a magical quest and talking animals reminiscent of the Narnia chronicles.

The BBC also added to the scary-series genre with its MIPCOM debut of Belfry Witches, a 13 x 25-minute series aimed at kids ages seven to 12 and distributed by BBC Worldwide. Scholastic Entertainment, in turn, is beefing up its historical fantasy portfolio with Royal Diaries, says executive VP Deborah Forte. The three x 30-minute follow-up to the Dear America series has been presold to HBO and features stories about the lives of Cleopatra, Isabel of Spain and Queen Elizabeth I. The first half-hour show airs in September 2000 on HBO, with the remaining two following in November and December. The target audience is kids ages seven to 14.

Scholastic is also developing several live-action book-based TV movies such as: Out of the Dust, about a girl living in the Dirty `30s; Music of the Dolphins, about a wild child found off the coast of Cuba (both by Karen Hesse); and The Wreckers, about thieves who lured ships to shore in storms in order to loot them.

Because the going rate for quality live action is between US$300,000 and US$500,000 per half hour, increasingly the cost has to be shared between partners.

One company that has built a name for itself in the co-pro area, and is currently expanding on the live-action front, is Toronto’s Decode Entertainment. Its live-action comedy The Zack Files, a co-production with New York’s Lancit Media, was launched at MIPCOM with a budget of US$350,000 per ep. The prodco’s latest co-production, Our Hero, is currently in development with Toronto’s Heroic Pictures. (Decode took on the executive producer and worldwide distribution roles.) A 13 x 30-minute story about an angst-ridden teen who strikes back at her public portrayal in her father’s newspaper columns by creating an angry `zine, Our Hero is set to air on Canada’s CBC and Showcase in fall 2000.

Many say the increased appetite for kid live action is due to the sheer number of new cable channels and their ability to broadcast 24 hours a day, providing plenty of slot opportunity for new shows.

Other networks, like the formerly all-animated Kids’ WB!, are looking towards live action for the first time. Senior VP Donna Friedman says the network is looking to add a half-hour of live action to its sked in fall 2000, possibly expanding it to an hour.

While many producers are jumping on the bandwagon to increase their live-action slates, some outlets, like Canada’s YTV and Nickelodeon, claim there is no shortage and that they’ve been producing the stuff all along.

‘Our appetite for programming is a lot greater than other people’s, so when people say there’s nothing good, I have to say, come and talk to me-I’ve got thousands of [live-action series],’ says Peter Moss, YTV’s VP of programming. He adds that YTV will continue to carry about one-quarter live-action fare on its schedule. Moss does admit that ‘if you go outside of drama, you have a hard time.’

Tommy Lynch of live-action prodco Lynch Entertainment says that all in all, most producers and programmers are recognizing the need to balance skeds with more compelling, sophisticated live-action fare: ‘I think live action kids’ programming is going to get as complex as Tim Burton’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It won’t get that dark, but I think it will get that fanciful.’

More than that, Lynch sees this trend towards higher-quality live action being led by producers rather than programmers. While acquisitions execs and programmers still have the final say on whether a particular show sees the light of day, he says it is the production companies that ultimately control the quality and genres available.

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