In this issue’s animation report, we asked programmers to cite shows and creators they felt had the right blend of ingredients to click with today’s hotly-contended kids audience. Hearteningly, the picks included U.S. indie toon studios, entities considered somewhat an endangered species given the effect of vertical integration and tight license fees. In L.A., the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists has seen a 33% drop in employment levels for its members from 1998 to 1999, and the reasons cited include work moving to right-to-work states and being sent to Asia, and studios cutting back on the number of productions. Canada is also seen as a culprit, since Canadian prodcos are considered to have a competitive edge due to government funding subsidies. Curiously, animators in most countries, including Canada, have similar woes, and the lists vary only in the locations they feel work is being ‘lost’ to (often U.S. series are cited). There are other factors at work here.
Film and TV subsidies, while a definite plus, are not the Aladdin’s lamp they’re made out to be. Goal posts of eligibility shift, funds cease and producers lose deals because partners can’t wait to see if funding is granted. For a series that has international partners, and for which a merchandising program is possible, cautious producers don’t count on subsidies to make up budget shortfalls. Pointing a finger at them has little upside, ditto for the union’s protest against PBS for picking up foreign animation.
In the long run, one market imbalance that is perhaps more deserving of note is longer commissions. Orders for a significant number of episodes give a distinct advantage in all the areas of the kids business that supply revenue streams. Beyond the stable production budget scenario, the mega episode counts currently being amassed by some U.K. tot series provides a much-coveted broadcast platform that can open doors to licensing and merchandising. In terms of global TV sales, it results in a strippable volume that delivers security and stability to casters skeds.
Beginning with the BBC’s voluminous Teletubbies order, and continuing with many hefty orders from CITV’s Nigel Pickard, the strides made by the British kid series into lucrative U.S. waters show what a real leg up the mega-commission can provide. And for U.K. indies that have been in the same boat as their U.S. counterparts, ill able to forge stability in the precarious realm of animation production finance, even a switch to ordering 26 rather than 13 episodes can make quite a difference in terms of financial security and planning for the future. Pickard says if you’re only supplying 30% of the budget, there has to be some accommodation to make it work financially for the producer, and he believes longer runs also work in the channels’ favor. While long commissions are very un-American, the successful influx of foreign animation with double digit ep-volume and blocks for tots that offer a regular lineup doseage prove the value of backing something for the long haul. Kids, even little kids who often don’t know what day it is, have total recall when it comes to TV, and they get mad over repeats or when a show disappears. (We’ve got e-mail to prove it.) The U.S. Darwinistic programming mentality delivers a double whammy to producers-in addition to the cautious-order/perform-instantly approach to series survival, titles are shunted off to make way for the latest anime darling, which seems to be the only thing receiving high-ep orders from U.S. nets.
However, the main factor determining most buyers decisions (and deciding the foreign/local ratio), remains content. The U.S. indie shows recommended by programmers featured unique animation approaches, both visually and editorially. Teletubbies and series like Itel’s Dog and Duck or the anime entries ultimately earn buy-in from broadcasters for their distinctiveness. The ability to deliver something truly unique can be a stronger lure than favorable exchange rates.