It is two years since Steven Andrew quit the BBC to join Granada Media Group as head of children’s programs. At that time, GMG had made tentative steps into the animation market and formed a speculative production joint venture with Nickelodeon UK. But aside from this, GMG’s kids output was surprisingly low-profile for a company that is the biggest supplier of hit shows to the ITV network.
Since last summer, Andrew’s department has begun to rectify this situation with a raft of comedy-dramas and factual shows aimed at eight- to 12-year-olds. The most significant production to date has been the drama My Parents are Aliens, which debuted with a run of six last fall. The show did so well in the ratings that ITV’s outgoing head of kids Nigel Pickard immediately greenlit another 20 episodes.
For Andrew, My Parents are Aliens was satisfying because ‘Nigel specifically asked for funny, contemporary drama, and we delivered what he wanted very quickly.’ Granada’s comedy-drama credentials were further enhanced by Big Meg, Little Meg-another returning series that tells the story of a girl who swaps bodies with her mom. ‘It was a priority for us to produce long-running series of this kind,’ says Andrew. ‘We spent a lot of time looking at what made U.S. shows like Sabrina, Sister Sister and Saved by the Bell work.’
Granada’s commitment to drama is set to continue with a number of series lined up for next year. Among these are: Oakland Heights, a drama for ITV set in a progressive mixed boarding school; and Strange Tales, the first live-action series to come out of the deal with Nick UK. Co-funded by Canada’s YTV, this 26 x 30-minute series is a ‘fish out of water story’ that follows the experiences of a young English boy whose family moves to Canada.
Andrew is also developing drama projects that stretch the genre. One, which is in the pipeline for next year, is based on a Jacqueline Wilson novel about adolescent girls in love. In an interesting departure, the series will use animated sequences to ‘see’ inside the girls’ imaginations. Another planned GMG drama has been created with Ant & Dec (hosts of hit ITV show SMTV Live) in mind.
In all his projects, Andrew places great emphasis on writers: ‘We spend a lot of time reworking scripts and are prepared to hold projects back until we get the writer we want,’ he says. ‘The U.K. is not used to mass-producing scripts to a certain level of quality. So we dedicated a lot of last year to unearthing the best available writers.’
Granada has got off to a slower start in animation-partly due to the timelines involved in production. Andrew only took control of the genre during Christmas 1999 after GMG’s head of animation Annie Miles quit the company to head Fox Kids U.K. He inherited a number of projects from Miles, including completed shows such as Tom & Vicky and Titch.
Animation series now on the development slate include: a show based on the Natalie Standiford book Space Dog; a well-advanced project called Webster Spider (an original premise about a rastafarian spider); Joe’s Clothes, a preschool show about toddler adventures; and Buzz, about some hilarious bees-which is part of the Nick UK deal. Going forward, Andrew is keen to find long-running series for eight- to 12-year-olds, though he admits that this will require the right co-pro partners.
His emphasis on writing carries through to animation: ‘A lot of U.K. animation is let down by weak storytelling,’ he says. ‘So instead of looking at unsolicited ideas or books, we are targeting writers of adult comedies to see if they are interested in taking advantage of the freedom animation offers.’
He’s also not averse to seeking input from the other end of the spectrum: ‘I believe strongly in talking to the audience. Some of our best ideas come through bouncing concepts off kids in workshops.’
Although Andrew is clearly drawn to comedy-drama for older kids, he is covering all bases as far as his slate is concerned. Last year, for example, Granada’s 13-part docusoap North Hollywood High rated well for Channel 4. The company is now filming a follow-up called New York High-about the school formerly attended by Johnny Depp and Jennifer Aniston.
He also plans to put out feelers among indie producers for ‘about four preschool ideas that we can develop. We are not in a hurry, but we are keen to find partners with the right ideas.’
One of GMG’s most interesting projects is the 26-ep puppet/CGI-based series Rabbit in the Hole for ITV. Scripted by Kirstie Falkous (who also penned Strange Tales), the story centers around a single-parent rabbit family and a single-parent wolf family. The puppets are being made by former Henson creative Neal Scanlan, whose credits include Babe.
Andrew was so impressed by the project when he saw it that he turned to the international market to boost its budget. ‘We could have made a nice show for £90,000 [US$135,000] an hour, but I felt that with £180,000 [US$270,000] and a later delivery date, we could make something very special that would work really well internationally.’
Domestically, he thinks the extra investment will also pay dividends. ‘When you are competing with shows like Pokémon and Tweenies, which have huge resources behind them, you need to put as much as possible onto the screen. That raising of the bar has to be good for kids.’
Although Granada is joined at the hip with ITV, Andrew is keen to find other markets for his kids shows. In line with other Granada departments, he does not rule out incubating shows in the U.S. He also believes that the Nick UK deal is on track. ‘The deal was set up before I came in. It was intended to lead to five series over five years. Currently, we have two animations and one live-action in development after two years.’
The big prize for Andrew would be to win a BBC commission. With Pickard moving from ITV to head BBC Kids, this becomes a possibility. ‘The BBC has a strong and talented program-making core. But having spent 12 years there, I’m disappointed I haven’t sold anything to the BBC yet. Maybe Nigel will shake things up.’
Although Andrew is focused on building Granada’s kids slate, internal restructuring at ITV may mean a shake up in his responsibilities sooner rather than later. With the Carlton/United merger off, there is the imminent prospect of Granada acquiring one of its ITV rivals: United or Carlton. If GMG bought United, it would gain control of animation studio Cosgrove Hall-which resides in Granada’s spiritual home of Manchester. Even if Carlton proves to be Granada’s target, the shows emerging from Michael Forte’s department would bolster GMG’s position in the U.K. kids market.
Andrew will not speculate too much on merger talk, but does believe ITV would benefit from being ‘one strong commercial channel with everyone pulling in the same direction.’
If Granada acquires Carlton or United, then somebody’s job is likely on the line (Andrew, Forte or Dan Mandicott at United). The only thing that may spoil Granada’s plans is a hostile bid for United by RTL Group-the company formed by the recent CLT-UFA/Pearson merger.