Eye-popping animation defines the year the kid biz grew up

For the always-evolving world of kid production, distribution and programming, the year 2000 can be summed up quite simply: It was a good year to strengthen established brands. Anime, CGI and corporate mergers were the talk of the town, and the...
December 1, 2000

For the always-evolving world of kid production, distribution and programming, the year 2000 can be summed up quite simply: It was a good year to strengthen established brands. Anime, CGI and corporate mergers were the talk of the town, and the good news is that prosperity was spread around pretty evenly.

Programmers built on the successes of the previous year, producers were able to maintain and broaden the appeal of their popular characters, and distributors reinforced their outlets and brands.

This year also marked anime’s transition from exotic to mainstream, with many cable networks worldwide scheduling anime blocks as a matter of course. ‘One of the big things last year was that Japanese anime took the U.S. shores by storm,’ says Joel Andryc, VP of Fox Family Channel. ‘Kids have really grown accustomed to the Japanese look.’

Rodrigo Piza, GM of Florida-based Spanish-language animation channel Locomotion, sees it as a welcome addition. ‘It is self-funded by the Japanese market itself, so it allows the animation to be less bland and more spectacular. The next world-wide phenomenon in animation, à la Pokémon, is going to come from Japanese animation.’

Charles Falzon, president of Gullane Entertainment, agrees that anime’s content is different, but isn’t sure that it’s going to stick around. ‘It’s new, and it gives people something exciting. It’s a good art form for the kids business. Whether or not it’s going to become a cornerstone is yet to be proven,’ he says.

Dorian Langdon, president of HIT Entertainment USA, concurs. ‘It’s wonderful to see the success of Pokémon, but the question is how long can that cycle sustain? Some pre-school programming like Sesame Street and Barney have proven themselves over the long haul, but the challenges associated with perpetuating a Pokémon or Digimon through another decade will be significant.’

Dimensional computer-generated animation certainly came of age this past year, moving beyond Nelvana’s popular fall `98 preschool entry Rolie Polie Olie to recent, more mainstream action-adventure debuts Action Man (Mainframe/Hasbro) and Max Steel (Sony Pictures Family Entertainment). ‘I’m a big fan of CGI-animated programs,’ enthuses Fox Family’s Andryc. ‘The technology is moving forward in leaps and bounds-but I don’t think it’s utilized to its full capacity. The best is yet to come.’

‘It’s been extraordinary to witness the progress of CGI and the opportunities it provides animators,’ says HIT’s Langdon. ‘But I’ve yet to be convinced that human characters can effectively emote in CGI. They still look a little cold. My concern with CGI is that given the rapid advancements in the technology, it may look rather dated in the long term.’

The buzzword of the year was ‘tween,’ an elusive, previously underserved segment of the kid viewing audience. ‘One trend this past year was reaching the tween viewer, the nine- to 14-year-old, which everyone has been aggressive on,’ says Rich Ross, GM and executive VP of programming and production at Disney Channel. Fox’s Andryc is keen on tweens as well. ‘There is a glut of same-looking animation in the international marketplace. We’re looking for an older, hipper, unique look, more relatable to our audience-the tween audience-and there’s just not a whole lot out there.’

Other programming trends made inroads during the year: Preschool fare heated up on Nick Jr. and CBS, while Playhouse Disney and the PBS Bookworm Bunch block joined the fray. Kid reality shows and music-driven programming were on the increase, and network face-lifts were common. Fox Family shifted its focus toward tweens and all-ages, while Locomotion switched from being a kids cartoon channel to an adult-oriented animation outlet.

Mega-mergers also consumed the kids marketplace. From the announcement of the AOL-Time Warner marriage in January to the Corus acquisition of Nelvana in September, corporate courtships were consummated in record numbers during 2000. Joel Andryc notes: ‘It’s harder to survive as an independent, unless you have an alliance with a major studio.’

Among those tying the knot this past year were: Pearson Television and CLT-UFA, Vivendi and Universal, Sony Wonder and TV-Loonland, and EM.TV and Jim Henson.

‘I think the trend is part of the corporate world generally. I don’t think it’s specific to our business,’ says Falzon. ‘Our industry has now matured so much that it really is big business, and what comes with big business is acquisitions and mergers and so on. The studios and the bigger organizations have realized the importance of content and creativity and property development. So many of the acquisitions and mergers have been to access content. The Time Warner-AOL deal is to get a library, and the Nelvana-Corus deal is to get a library with the ownership and the rights.’

But it wasn’t all lovey-dovey in 2000: DIC and Disney are getting a divorce. Cinar is still struggling to survive its financial woes. And feature animation took a hit with the failure of DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado and 20th Century Fox’s Titan A.E.

Best CGI kidshow

Rolie Polie Olie

Of all the CGI series telecast in 2000, the one that impressed our roundtable most was an old-timer by computer animation standards. Nelvana’s Rolie Polie Olie, which debuted on the Disney Channel in fall 1998, was praised for still being cutting-edge with its appealing design, personality and clever stories. Says HIT’s Langdon: ‘Olie does a wonderful job in designing non-human forms and has excellent writing. Good job!’

Biggest kid programming trend

Non-traditional animation

Once upon a time, all TV animation looked pretty much the same. Then Nickelodeon broke the mold 10 years ago with Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy. This past year, a wide variety of animation designs, techniques and subject matter proved how unlimited the genre can be. ‘South Park was able to prove that animation doesn’t have to look a certain way,’ says the Disney Channel’s Ross. ‘That opened the flood gates, allowing Pokémon and Digimon in, and allowing The Powerpuff Girls and Rolie Polie Olie to succeed.’

Best on-air use of anime (tie)

Cartoon Network’s Toonami block/

Fox Family’s Made in Japan block

This was the year anime conquered the world. North America held out for years, but with Pokémania and Digimania in full swing, the U.S. nets have found a sure ratings grabber. Cartoon Network and Fox Family turned Japanese animation into a golden asset by branding blocks of anime in prime kid viewing hours. These blocks contain a wide variety of material, appealing to boys and girls with such hits as Gundam Wing, Dragon Ball Z, and Escaflowne.

Biggest Euro breakout

Chicken Run

U.K.-based Aardman Animations has been known as one of the most creative studios in Europe for ages, but this year marked its debut on the North American scene in a big way. Thanks to a partnership with DreamWorks, Chicken Run broke the magic US$100-million mark at the U.S. box office, introducing a whole new look to mainstream U.S. kidfilms in the process. ‘We have a lot of respect for that product-very artistic and very high-quality,’ says Gullane’s Falzon. ‘It’s opening the door to the U.S. for Euro producers of quality product.’

Biggest U.S. breakout

The Powerpuff Girls

Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup may have been around for a couple of years, but there’s no doubt that Cartoon Network’s The Powerpuff Girls exploded in 2000. A superior second season of episodes backed by a tremendous marketing campaign and lotsa merchandise added up to create a Powerpuff-palooza. The character designs are appealing enough to convert new fans-kids and adults-some of whom don’t even watch the shows.

Best on-air makeover

Fox Family Channel

When Fox took over the U.S.-based Family Channel two years ago, it gained a lot of prime cable real estate, but kids were content watching the Disney, Nick and Cartoon nets. Fox Family got off to a respectable start, but two years later has finally found its place as the channel for all members of the family, with an emphasis on tweens. With its mix of anime blocks and reality and music specials, along with compelling off-network series (rescuing Freaks & Geeks alone earns this channel our eternal thanks), Fox Family has become a real class act.

Biggest surprise hit

Angela Anaconda

Our respondents cited quite a few favorites, and each pick was distinguished by being offbeat and different from the usual kids fare. Decode’s Angela Anaconda, which debuted on Fox Family Channel in fall 1999 and has since been picked up by 25 stations serving over 25 countries around the world, won by a hair. This unique computer-animated comedy, employing a photographic paper cut-out look, is slowly growing a stable of loyal viewers despite the lack of a real marketing push. This under-the-radar hit is on target to become a Fox Family success.

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