Market aligns for international tot show success

Until a decade ago, the preschool market was thought too narrow and too geographically limited to launch an international property that could be financially successful. But following the charge of Barney, Thomas the Tank Engine and Teletubbies onto the global scene,...
July 1, 2000

Until a decade ago, the preschool market was thought too narrow and too geographically limited to launch an international property that could be financially successful. But following the charge of Barney, Thomas the Tank Engine and Teletubbies onto the global scene, a slew of new preschool properties such as Tweenies, Bob the Builder and Bear in the Big Blue House are verging on global success. For those just breaking into the preschool market, that means careful strategy will be required in a hugely competitive scene, but the rewards can be huge, as the acceptance of preschool as a global franchise category to be reckoned with affects every tier of the marketplace.

What has brought about this change in the market? It’s a combination of the explosion of cable and satellite channels looking for quality kid programming, the proliferation of co-productions due to the rising cost of producing kid shows and the general recognition that preschool is a valid and viable category.

The proliferation of kid-dedicated networks like Nickelodeon, HBO Family, Fox Family and Noggin helped to open the door to foreign preschool product in the lucrative U.S. market.

‘If you looked at the U.S. preschool market [in the past], its predominant programming was really only on PBS. There wasn’t much non-U.S. programming,’ says Jane Smith, managing director of the recently-formed U.K.-based Entertainment Rights.

As well, most preschool series feature puppets, costumed characters or animation that can be easily dubbed into many languages and have wide appeal because of simplistic characters and ideas. ‘Very young children, within reason, across the world have not dissimilar tastes,’ says Tracey Hinchliffe, marketing and business director, children’s global brands at BBC Worldwide, whose Tweenies has sold into 30 countries.

BBC Worldwide is currently in production on a re-vamped, stop-frame animated version of the `60s classic Bill and Ben with Ben Productions, expecting delivery in 2001. Meanwhile, its recent preschool debut Yoho Ahoy is launching product in the U.K. this fall via toyco Tomy, including plush and plastics. BBC Worldwide will be announcing an apparel partner shortly.

The increasing necessity of doing co-productions or securing foreign broadcast partners and sales because of the high cost of producing preschool programming (usually between US$300,000 and US$400,000 per episode), in tandem with a broadcaster’s need for low-cost quality programming has also been a factor in helping preschool cross cultural borders.

Peter Hille, member of the board at Munich-based RTV, says U.S. networks are increasingly open to working with other countries to co-produce, distribute, or handle licensing rights for European preschool series to cut down on costs.

‘I’m convinced that more and more American production companies will accept European partners, it’s a question of budgets. American companies don’t have so much money to spend on programs so they look to sharing costs. So now there’s room for an international cultural exchange.’

RTV series Fix & Foxi is a prime example. The 26 x half-hour series is co-produced with Nelvana of Canada, D’Ocon Films of Spain and property creator Rolf Kauka. A North American licensing program is currently being hammered out by Nelvana. In Germany, there’s a Fix & Foxi Adventure Land, a feature film slated for international release and a recently-announced QSR deal covering all McDonald’s restaurants in German-speaking territories and the U.K.

Series produced by several different countries at once have a lead on becoming franchises because they already have universal content, distribution and marketing coupled with local market knowledge and good ancillary potential. ‘Nearly all of our productions are co-productions,’ Hille says. ‘Through our partners we have the chance and the capacity to enter into different countries.’

The invasion of the Euro franchises

Given that you don’t see a whole lot of U.K. and European programming for older kids on U.S. screens, the State-side success enjoyed by such imports as HIT’s Bob the Builder (launching on Nick Jr. in early 2001), Ragdoll’s Teletubbies and Britt Allcroft’s Thomas the Tank Engine is remarkable. But just what is it about preschool that’s made it the only programming category where Europe has had real success in the world’s biggest market?

One theory is that European countries have a stronger history of storytelling to kids, one that has translated to high production values. As well, European countries have been reluctant to import international (read: U.S.) preschool programming because they see the value in educating tots in their own language and culture.

Perhaps even more so than in the U.S., parents in the U.K. and other parts of Europe are extremely protective of what their very young children are watching, and often pick only a few key, quality shows. This is reflected in protectionist content quotas which exist in Europe, Canada and Australia requiring a minimum percentage of programming be domestically-produced.

Holly Stein, VP of HIT’s Los Angeles-based U.S. consumer products division, says European programming is coveted in the States because it often has an educational and pro-social message. She adds that preschool’s overall stature has risen because if an audience can be captured at a young age, a property such as Angelina Ballerina (which is currently in production and is shopping around for broadcasters) will appeal to international broadcasters because it’s attractive in brand-building terms. HIT has partnered with the U.S.-based Pleasant Company, a division of Mattel known for mail-order dolls, because Stein says HIT is looking at building Ballerina from a direct consumer marketing base rather than at retail.

Another reason for the Euro invasion is the sheer number of episodes U.K. production companies have available for delivery, new to the U.S. market. With the proliferation of kid-dedicated networks thirsty for quality content, it’s no wonder that providing broadcasters with enough series to be stripped up front is important.

‘We’re finding more and more, because a lot of children’s programming is moving off terrestrial to paid cable or satellite, they need more programming and want to strip it,’ says Smith. ‘You know you’ll be able to get the money up front for it, and it appeals to the broadcaster because of the added value of preschool ancillary rights.’ For example, Meeow, Siriol Entertainment/CITV’s new 2-D show about a kitten who visits a new country in each ep, has already been recommissioned from 26 to 52 episodes in total.

Judy Guarino, senior VP of international licensing for Jim Henson brands worldwide, has another theory. ‘In the United States, I think that perhaps we’ve finally become a little less myopic and a little more open to people outside of the U.S. who have the ability and creativity to produce shows that would be embraced and welcomed by our preschoolers.’

Strategies for success

Of course, it’s best to have international success elsewhere before breaking into the U.S. It also helps to have the synergy and leverage of a multimedia company, something the Jim Henson Company’s acquisition by EM.TV will provide.

‘In today’s day and age, it certainly helps. It’s not an absolute requirement. But people certainly know the Jim Henson name is known and trusted and people expect good quality programming from us. So of course it helps,’ says Guarino.

For example, the Jim Henson Company is launching a new property called The Hoobs in the U.K. Commissioned for a whopping 250 half hours by the U.K.’s Channel 4, it’s an entertainment and education-based series for preschoolers with music, dance and art. It will also include an interactive element that will be available in classrooms via the Internet. Henson will be selling the series internationally, hoping to capitalize on the interactive aspect worldwide.

In an age of varying schedules and programming across international territories, prodcos also need to be flexible in terms of programming, whether that means creating blocks or making shows shorter or variable.

Nelvana has already created blocks with its Bookworm Bunch on PBS, and Sesame Workshop (formerly Children’s Television Workshop) is seriously considering a similar approach, says Martha Van Gelder, Sesame Workshop’s group VP, international licensing. She says the Workshop is looking at acquiring new programming and cobranding or developing brands under the Sesame Workshop name.

Adding interactive extras to shows is another important step if the company is to remain current with its audience, according to Van Gelder. The Workshop’s new co-production with Ciné-Groupe and IF/X, Sagwa, is one example. The story of a kitten in China who finds her way around through ancient folklore and music, it will have an interactive interstitial that links to a Web site.

Sesame Workshop will also continue to experiment with formats for its Sesame Street programming. Currently, some countries air 20-minute segments, while others, like Holland, air 15-minute segments.

Smith of Entertainment Rights disagrees when it comes to blocks, saying that they aren’t always in a preschool franchise’s interest because the block, not the series, is promoted. ‘I question the value. The block is just a brand, not the characters.’

Changes to the marketplace

As the international preschool franchise has risen, it has caused its own ripples in the kids programming market.

For one thing, retailers are much more accepting of preschool property product because it’s more of a guaranteed sell-through, says Guarino. ‘Overall, it’s extremely competitive out there for the retailers. They want to make the most risk-free choices possible. That means they need to know the preschool series is airing on a premiere broadcaster, in a good time slot, and that there are enough promotions and advertising so that the consumer is aware of the property.’

Van Gelder adds that today, multi-platform properties are key: ‘The change we’ve seen is we go to markets and it’s usually not asked anymore if we’re just a program.’ And given the franchise expectations, she says new players could have a rough go of it. ‘The big players and the traditional players and the quality players are going to have strengthening of position. I think it’s going to be harder to sort of come out of the blue. I think people are going to have to do what you do with any brand: Identify what the attributes are and develop brands the right way, and don’t try to be all things to all people.’

For creating new series with international potential, the right content ingredients make the sale, says BBC’s Hinchliffe. ‘Providing we get that right, then we make the right localization for the right territory around the world, arguably such shows will work as well for children in foreign markets as they will for children in the U.K.’ Hinchliffe says making things work globally may mean changing the inserts of the programming and making sure the value and culture speaks appropriately to the children in that country.

For Entertainment Rights’ new preschool show Cubeez, the strategy for breaking into the U.S. includes having content that travels easily (the series is 3-D and has colorful environments and characters), a style that has international appeal and many, flexible episodes. Right now the series is available in a 26 x 11-minute and a 13 x half-hour format, but Smith hopes to get a further commitment from broadcaster GMTV for an additional 26 11-minute eps. She is convinced the characters have great licensing and merchandising potential and music that will translate well into CDs and videos around the world.

Later this year, Entertainment Rights will step up its U.K. invasion with Merlin, a franchise Smith calls ‘a cross between Sabrina and Alf.’

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