In the cyclical world of kids programming, the demo du jour is always changing, making it perennially difficult for producers and programmers to keep up. Whereas preschool was hot a few years ago due to a baby boom, the bulk of the kids demo has now aged into the tween range. ‘The preschoolers are growing up, and broadcasters are going where the ratings are,’ says Cinar Entertainment president Peter Moss. ‘If you want a high rating in the two to 11 kids category these days, you’ve got to aim for the eight- to 12-year-olds, the upper range of the whole kids demo.’ Kid nets are trying out different types of older-skewing shows to see which hits this mark the best, and one genre that seems to be working well is music programming.
Fox Family Channel is one net that’s betting on tune-centric fare to beef up its preteen viewer base. Over the past two years, the caster has been carefully packing its sked with a slew of tween music programming in a deliberate attempt to hook more girl viewers in the nine to 14 age range. ‘We are trying to grab the tween market to differentiate ourselves from The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon,’ says Joel Andryc, the channel’s VP of programming, ‘and music-driven programming is helping us carve out a niche. Our variety of music shows is not only different from what our competition is doing, but it helps us create a brand.’
Diversity is the key to keeping tweens tuned in, and Fox caters to just about every taste with a wide array of concert series, game shows, dramedies and music video slots. ‘The important thing is to keep it fresh with a variety of formats and genres that incorporate music, so it’s not the same show over and over,’ explains Andryc. Fox Family runs over five hours of music-driven shows a week, devoting a large portion of its Saturday morning block to live-action series with musical elements. And it’s paid off with a substantial ratings boost season to date: Fox is up 125% with kids nine to 14 (0.9 rating versus 0.4 last year) and 133% with girls in that age group (to 1.4 from 0.6).
Fox Family’s biggest musical coup so far is S Club 7, the sitcom series about a real-life British singing group stranded in the U.S. Conceived by Simon Fuller (former manager of The Spice Girls), S Club 7 is also telecast on BBC in the U.K. and on Nickelodeon Latin America. The group’s first CD has sold over 150,000 units without a video or top 40 single, and a line of books and fashion dolls from Hasbro are out in full force at retail in England. With consistent ratings of 4.3 with girls nine to 14, Fox Family was quick to sign on for a third season that will debut in late spring.
Another topper on Fox’s music-centric slate is signature music offering Great Pretenders, a game show produced by L.A.-based Scott Sternberg Prouctions that launched November 1998 and receives strong, steady ratings in its 10 a.m. Saturday slot. The half-hour series gives high school-age contestants rock makeovers and then pits them against one another in a lip synch showdown judged by the studio audience. Andryc says Fox Family will tinker with the format to feature karaoke performances instead of lip synch numbers for fresh episodes in summer 2001.
Quarterly concert series Front Row Center is also a ratings winner, garnering a 2.4 rating with girls nine to 14 in its premiere showing on November 24, 2000, beating Nick’s SpongeBob SquarePants and Cartoon’s Toonami Movie with the same demo. Slotted for telecast in February, the next show, which will be shot at Universal Studios in Florida, is set to feature Artista label stars Pink, Joy Enrique and Dream.
Andryc couldn’t be happier with Fox Family’s music strategy. ‘The upside is that we are showing 150% growth of our tween and teen audience. Music-driven programming speaks to this demo because it’s part of their pop culture.’
Limited library value is the downside to music programming, a fact that Andryc is quick to acknowledge. ‘They’re not as evergreen as an animated series might be because musical tastes and artists change so quickly. If you look at the charts from five years ago, I would bet 75% of the artists are not around today.’ Frequent repeats and repackaging comprise Fox Family’s strategy for getting the most mileage out of costly concert shows before the featured bands and artists become passé. ‘We will run the show a few times within the month, and maybe schedule a marathon of them after we have three or four concerts in our library-perhaps next summer.’
The Disney Channel is another U.S. net that went with a music strategy turnaround to rebrand itself as a tween-oriented destination. The caster’s VP of talent and alternative programming Tina Treadwell explains that before 1997, Disney Channel was an entirely different network. ‘We had a 14-year legacy of doing original music specials with people like Kenny Loggins, Bruce Springsteen and Gloria Estefan. Music concerts were something we realized that we could do quickly to introduce our new kid-based identity in the short term. That’s when we created the In Concert series.
‘We restructured our specials for the nine to 14 market by creating shows that were 60% concert and 40% behind-the-scenes. We show the performer on stage, then cut into their lives-which allows you see them with their parents, how they get schooling, how they are with their friends, etc. [This approach] basically allows the audience to feel as if they were right there with the band, that they are their friends and have something in common,’ says Treadwell.
Nickelodeon’s Cyma Zarghami is proud of the tween-skewing musical heritage on Nick, the channel that introduced Alanis Morrisette as a teen performer 10 years ago on its skitcom You Can’t Do That On Television. ‘We try to be relevant and weave music into the fabric of Nickelodeon-for example, this summer we did six episodes of concert series The Snick Underground, which featured talent like Aaron Carter, Mandy Moore and B*Witched. We also let kids vote for their favorite videos on-line each week on our afternoon block and on Snick.’
In fact, the Snick Video Pick has provided a 50% surge in ratings among kids six to 12 and has had significant impact on CD sales of the artists featured. This programming not only benefits Nick’s overall ratings, but it leads to record sales, which in turn has artists and record labels vying for airtime on the channel. Zarghami notes that after an appearance at the 2000 Kids Choice Awards, singer Mandy Moore had a 67% bump in record sales, and 98û jumped 40%-both stats clearly attributable to the artists’ appearance on the network special. The mutual benefit of an appearance on Nick allows the network to book top talent at minimum scale rates.
Taina, a new musical/dramedy series making its debut in prime time on January 14, is Nick’s biggest, boldest tune-centric move. ‘Taina’s a Latin-American student at a performing arts high school in New York,’ says Zarghami. ‘There is a new song in each episode, and she often imagines herself in `fantasy sequences’ where her daydreams come alive through musical numbers in which she sees herself as a pop star.’
The WB, the most popular U.S. prime-time broadcast network with female teens ages 12 to 17 (14% share of the market season-to-date), has 13 episodes of the U.S. franchise of Popstars ready for debut in a Friday 8:30 p.m. slot following Sabrina the Teenage Witch starting in January.
Already a hit in Australia and the U.K., Popstars is being produced State-side by L.A. based Stone-Stanley Productions. With a budget between US$100,000 and US$120,000 per episode, the show is pure teenage fantasy fulfillment, starting with an open casting call for musically talented teen girls, and seeing the chosen five right through the CD recording, music video production and first concert phases of band development.
Toronto-based prodco Lone Eagle is handling the Canadian version of the format, which will debut on Global Television early this year.
On the gender flip side of Popstars is ABC’s Making the Band. Produced by L.A.-based Bunim/Murray Productions (The Real World) and MTV Productions, the boy band docudrama garnered big first-season numbers for the net. During its March to September 2000 run, Making the Band was the number-one rated program in its time slot with: teens 12 to 17, kids two to 11, tweens nine to 11 and females 12 to 24. Among all regular network programs last season, Making the Band ranked among the Top 10 programs on television in teens 12 to 17 (#10), female teens (#8) and females 12 to 24 (#10). The show’s stars, a group called O-Town, have a top 40 single called ‘Liquid Dreams’ currently on the charts, and ABC has committed to running a second season of the behind-the-scenes show during summer 2001.
Incidentally, MTV and producer Alliance Atlantis had a surprise success this year with 2Gether, a spoof of Making the Band. The fictional series debuted on MTV in the U.S. and Much Music in Canada, racking up enough ratings for an additional order of six episodes (now in production) past the initial thirteen.
Sony Wonder’s Generation O!, a co-pro with Germany’s RTV Family Entertainment, aspires to tween show status with a music-heavy plot line that centers around Molly O, the eight-year-old lead singer of an internationally successful rock group. Each episode also features an original song written and performed by real-life Boston-based band Letters To Cleo. The music show is anchoring Kids’ WB!’s girl-targeted Fraturday block on Friday afternoons.
‘Instead of developing it to fit into the trend of music programming, we developed it in reaction to it,’ says Sony Wonder VP of development and programming Ken Olshansky. ‘At the time we were developing it, the Spice Girls were still strong, and *NSYNC, The Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears were just coming into their own. All of those acts shared a couple of attributes: They were fun to watch and fun to listen to, but their stuff felt very produced and they weren’t artists in the traditional sense. Molly O is an artist, and the things she wants to say come from the perspective of an eight-year-old kid and they come out musically.’
The musical scenarios help up-age the animated series to reach tween viewers who might be moving away from cartoons. But the very attributes that make the show unique might possibly work against it. ‘Generation O! is more American than most shows we develop,’ says Olshansky. ‘We usually try to be more global and not have characters identified with one country or one culture. But rock is such an American art form that it makes sense. The more Molly is who she is, and the more specific we are about it, the more appealing she’ll be to an international audience.’
How does the musical aspect translate as far as international sales? ‘It makes it a lot harder,’ admits Olshansky. ‘Just the logistics of exporting music makes it harder. You’re not just hiring someone to dub voices, you’re hiring someone to sing. The way that the songs fit into the show, they are part of the narrative. It’s not like Josie & The Pussycats, which had separate song segments. We talked to all the broadcasters about [how integral the music is in Generation O!] while it was in development, and it’s actually done very well for us internationally.’ The series is currently airing abroad on TF1 in France, Super RTL in Germany and Disney Channel U.K.
Music-driven series are proving themselves in every venue, and their future looks bright. Fox Kids and Paula Abdul’s Planet Paula Productions are currently developing a new mixed-media (live action and animation) kids series that combines different musical styles and cutting-edge choreography influenced by today’s hip-hop culture. ‘I remember the first record I ever bought,’ remembers singer-actress Abdul. ‘It was `Sugar Sugar’ by The Archies, a huge hit single from a cartoon band. I am looking so forward to sharing this new adventure with Fox Kids.’