It is just possible that the BBC hierarchy would be happy to see its weekday afternoon children’s block outgunned by free-to-air commercial rival CITV this fall. With CITV controller Nigel Pickard poised to take over at Children’s BBC, the corporation might welcome some evidence that his cloak-and-dagger appointment was the right decision.
By the time Pickard arrives at CBBC, and former Nick UK boss Janie Grace takes over as his replacement at CITV, the fall schedule will have been won and lost. Of course, Pickard and Grace will tackle obvious weaknesses in presentation, but they will have to wait a year before they can claim credit for any programming triumphs-or root out the no-hopers in their schedules.
Looking at the lineups they inherit, the two heavyweights appear evenly matched in drama. CITV is relying heavily on returning series such as My Parents are Aliens (Granada) and The Worst Witch (United). The former series has more episodes than last year’s run, and the latter has been given a Christmas special.
CBBC is also banking on proven drama. The long-running soap Byker Grove (Zenith) has rated consistently for years, while The Queen’s Nose (Film & General) returns after a year’s absence. CBBC has a Sunday tea-time slot that will see the return of The Magician’s House (Kudos/Forefront). Belfry Witches (BBC) also enters its second season, but given that the second run of six was commissioned at the same time as the first run of seven, this was a scheduling certainty regardless of ratings performance.
In addition to returning series, the Beeb is launching Big Kids (BBC), a live-action series in which the parents periodically regress to being kids after being hypnotized as part of an entertainer’s stage act. This leaves their children to take on the job of being the parents.
Pickard commissioned vast numbers of animation hours while at ITV, and some of these will filter through in the fall schedule, according to CITV program strategy executive Trish McGee, who is minding the fort until Grace arrives. Twins (Cinar/Flextech), Preston Pig (Link/Varga) and model animation Fetch the Vet (Cosgrove Hall/ITEL) are three highlights.
The BBC’s new toons include Ethelbert the Tiger (Link), however the corporation has again concentrated on strong performers from last year. For preschoolers, Bob the Builder (HIT), Tweenies (Tell-Tale) and Yoho Ahoy (League of Gentlemen) are coming back. For older kids, Rotten Ralph (Italtoons/ToonCan/Cosgrove Hall) reappears.
CITV has been the more aggressive caster in terms of acquisition. After the success of Japanese import Pokémon, which is expected to do even better this year as the licensing kicks in, the network has acquired 13 episodes of U.S. animated series Max Steel. If that run does well, CITV will sign up for a longer stretch.
The BBC’s public service remit means it is committed to airing a range of factual shows. Returners include flagship magazine Blue Peter, Newsround and Smart (all BBC). There will be debuts for S Club Go Wild (At It Productions for 19 Management), in which members of the teen pop band front a run of wildlife shows, and Space Detectives (BBC), a factual investigation follow-up to last year’s Dinosaur Detectives.
ITV also has some strong factual entertainment in the shape of Art Attack (Media Merchants) and Top Ten of Everything (United). Ironically, the network has its own S Club vehicle-a magazine show called S Club TV.
For CBBC, the critical question is whether Saturday morning show Live & Kicking (BBC) can combat CITV’s SMTV: Live (Zenith). Conversely, CITV has to do something about the all-conquering Tweenies. McGee says there are plans afoot to limit the damage it inflicts on the opening tranche of the CITV block.
CBBC and CITV still lead the kids market, but the thematic networks have also drawn up attractive fall schedules. Cartoon Network launches Batman of the Future (Batman Beyond in North America-Warner) in September, and also has new episodes of The Powerpuff Girls and Ed, Edd n Eddy (both from the Cartoon Network) for October. There will be a week-long event called Bravo Live, in which kids are invited to ring in and speak to a computerized version of animated character Johnny Bravo. Sister network Boomerang will feature toon classic Dangermouse (Cosgrove Hall).
Fox Kids Network is also introducing a wide range of live action and animation. Highlights include live-action comedy Big Wolf on Campus, Spiderman Unlimited and Flint the Time Detective. Returning series such as Digimon and Monster Rancher are aimed at FKN’s core five to 12 demo. Significantly, however, FKN is also entering the preschool arena with a daily block of shows that include Kitty’s Paradise, Jellikins, Nanalan and The Big Garage.
In the last two years, the competition between the big two free networks and the thematic channels has been intensified by increased kids activity on the U.K.’s other commercial terrestrial networks, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
To date, C4′s primary focus has been on teen pick-ups like Dawson’s Creek, which appears in its T4 slot. However, starting in January, it will launch The Hoobs, a 250 x 30-minute puppetry/animation preschool show from Jim Henson Company. Henson now has major preschool shows on CITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
Channel 5 has significantly boosted its presence in the kids/youth market with both acquisitions and commissions. This fall sees the premiere of preschool show Happy Monsters and the return of the Henson hit Bear in the Big Blue House, which has helped build the C5 morning kids block. Fall also sees the return of solid preschool shows Havakazoo and Beachcomber Bay.
More ambitious is the C5 premiere of Redwall, an animated series based on books by Brian Jacques that tell the story of a mouse community living in an English cathedral. C5 also premieres contemporary animation series Mega Babies, about a trio of tots who ‘drool, slobber and test the limits of decency.’ Cartoon Network staple The Powerpuff Girls has also joined the Saturday morning schedule.
Like Channel 4, C5 is also seeking to carve out a niche with teens. Fall sees the launch of Daria (MTV) and the return of post-apocalyptic soap The Tribe (Cloud 9) and U.S. acquisition Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane (Buena Vista). There is also the premiere of docusoap Run For Your Life (Initial Kids), which follows teenage athletes preparing for a major championship.