International co-pros: A necessary evil for high-end kids shows

Any kind of creative collaboration is fraught with difficulties-just ask Lennon and McCartney. Television is no different. Producing TV for children-be it toons or drama-that aims to satisfy audiences in both North America and Europe has the potential to make even...
January 1, 2001

Any kind of creative collaboration is fraught with difficulties-just ask Lennon and McCartney. Television is no different. Producing TV for children-be it toons or drama-that aims to satisfy audiences in both North America and Europe has the potential to make even Lennon and McCartney’s prolonged differences resemble a playground spat.

The question industry-watchers are asking themselves as they prepare for the annual deal-making trip to Natpe is whether these trans-continental projects are becoming even more problematic as the growing content need differences between kidcasters on both sides of the Atlantic threaten to turn co-production into mission impossible. Do the creative compromises that inevitably arise justify the ends? And just how do the various partners resolve their differences so they can remain on speaking terms once the series leaves the post-production suite?

The received wisdom is that North American nets want edgier, more envelope-pushing fare (full of gross gags and scatological innuendo) than their conservative, more highly regulated European cousins. Sex might play well in Scandinavia, but anything aimed at children containing violence is taboo. The French can also be sniffy about kids programming that is too provocative. Europeans tend to like their kids fare laced with a strong dose of moral succor and, ideally, a semblance of educational content. Otherwise parents would rise up in revolt.

That’s the theory. The reality is a little more complicated, although Theresa Plummer-Andrews, head of program acquisition at BBC Children’s, recognizes the argument. ‘When we work with international third parties, they tend to either be other European pubcasters-primarily because of our relationship with the EBU-or Australians and New Zealanders because they have been brought up with British television. They know what works here and what doesn’t.’ She adds: ‘This is the BBC, so when we broadcast children’s programs, parents should feel comfortable enough to leave their kids in front of the screen without constant supervision.’

But despite this predilection for hooking up with Euro, Aussie and Kiwi producers, there are signs that the BBC is increasingly working with Canadian and U.S. partners. Production recently ended on Rotten Ralph when animation on the last of 52 11-minute episodes was completed. The toon, which debuted more than a year ago on the BBC and Fox Family, was made by Cosgrove Hall for New York’s Italtoons Corporation, Tooncan Productions and BBC Worldwide. Although no one is prepared to come out and say it, the suspicion is that the experience was an eye-opener for all concerned.

Steve Jones, the show’s producer at Cosgrove Hall, says: ‘Rotten Ralph’s reference points tend to be much more embedded in U.S. culture than anything recognizably British. In one scene, the word `faucet’ was used. Most British kids wouldn’t know that term.’

Jones nevertheless insists the BBC was scrupulous in ensuring that Rotten Ralph, shown in the U.K. as part of its afternoon CBBC slot, did not breach any of its guidelines on the portrayal of violence. ‘Ralph is rotten, not evil,’ he says. ‘We had to tread carefully. For instance, it was unacceptable to have Ralph grabbing any of the other characters by the throat. We could only show arms being shaken.’

One reason why the BBC can run into difficulties with North American partners, according to Plummer-Andrews, is because of the more flexible scheduling policy that exists in the U.S. and Canada. ‘Networks like YTV in Canada can put on children’s programs far later than we can, as they don’t have to adhere to the same strict guidelines. We’re often aiming our shows at five-, six- and seven-year-olds, while channels in the U.S. and Canada are hoping to attract older children when a show goes out at 7.30 p.m. or 8.30 p.m. That’s more of a problem than any genuine cultural difference over the kind of material that is permissible.’

Does this represent the whole picture? British independent Ellis Iddon, whose company Winklemania made The Adventures of Shirley Holmes, thinks that North American kidcasters definitely do have an appetite for racier fare than their European counterparts. He says: ‘North Americans want more edgy, more oblique violence in their shows. The storytelling must always be punctuated with action. You’ve got to grab the audience straight away. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety.’

One outfit that is learning to live with this inescapable fact of life is Germany’s EM.TV. Three years ago, EM.TV set up a co-production department, which is now successfully making shows in tandem with North American partners. The first show out of the division was Rainbow Fish, based on the Swiss best-selling children’s book and made in cahoots with Sony Wonder and Decode. This was followed by the more cutting-edge, Simpsons-style satire Pigs Next Door, developed by Ireland’s Magma Productions and co-funded by Fox Family.

EM.TV is producing its second series with the acclaimed San Francisco studio Wild Brain. Mr. Baby is an animated saga featuring a giant baby who leads the life of an adult. The series is due to air next month and is apparently selling well internationally, with deals signed in 15 territories and interest from U.S. buyers including Warner Bros.

The company’s first venture with Wild Brain, Poochini’s Yard, featuring a misunderstood dog, was not without its creative tensions. Ian Ensslen, a senior producer in the division, admits: ‘I don’t want to say there were problems, but it took a while to find out what our U.S. partners wanted. In the early days when Poochini was being developed, we had to ask for some of the grosser jokes to be toned down. Now we know what each other wants, everything goes smoothly.’

His boss, Dr. Sylvia Rothblum, adds: ‘European and North American tastes are getting closer. Kids like violence. The more violence there is in a show, the more successful it is. But there’s been a backlash against this in the U.S., and our shows are not violent. They use a lot of slapstick humor to entertain the audience instead.’

Rothblum is referring to recent FCC attempts to force U.S. broadcasters to increase the educational content of programs aimed at young minds. A senior British children’s programmer, however, reckons these rules are far from watertight. He says: ‘Their definition of what constitutes education is incredibly liberal. It’s not difficult to satisfy the quota. Any reasonable drama could qualify.’

From Wild Brain’s perspective, having EM.TV to finance the projects is a big plus. ‘In under nine months, we were financed and in production,’ says the studio’s co-founder and executive producer Jeff Fino. ‘I don’t think that happens in the U.S. It would take a much longer period of time, and you would never start with so many episodes. With Poochini, we produced 26 half hours right off the bat.’

This relatively straightforward approach to raising the coin is very much the opposite of U.K. indie Kudos’ experience of working with Canadian backers on the live-action drama series The Magician’s House. ‘Content was never a problem,’ insists Kudos CEO Stephen Garrett. ‘Our relationship with Forefront Entertainment has always been excellent. But the complexity and fragility of the Canadian funding system caused us endless problems.’

There was, however, one element in the story that, ironically, needed to be made less racy for Canadian audiences. Garrett explains: ‘At the heart of the story is this very modern, dysfunctional family. Part of the story line revolves around the couple, which is not married, having a baby. At a late stage, there was some resistance to this from the Canadians, who insisted they should be married if they were going to have a baby. We shot an extra scene for them to make it clear they were married.’

Elaine Sperber, head of children’s drama at the BBC, had to tackle similar problems in developing the scripts for dramedy Big Kids, billed as ‘an educational series’ and co-produced with the Nickelodeon- and Sesame Workshop-backed U.S. kids channel Noggin.

Says Noggin GM Tom Ascheim: ‘The BBC is one of the most widely respected names in the world when it comes to quality programming, and we felt that its sensibilities mesh with our goal to create some of the freshest and most distinctive educational programming ever made. We are confident that Big Kids will help us achieve this, as it takes an inspired look at the triumphs and challenges of family life.’

As the series was aimed at six- to 12-year-olds, the BBC had to tread carefully when it came to such sensitive issues as the depiction of alcohol. Children start drinking far earlier in Britain than they do in North America, so a sequence showing booze being consumed at a school dance had to be watered down.

‘We had a great relationship with Noggin,’ says Sperber, herself an American, ‘but when you co-produce with North Americans, you always run into problems over British accents and language. We couldn’t use terms like `snogging’ in Big Kids because no one in the U.S. would have understood it. It was the same with the phrase `You fancy him.’ This had to be changed to `You really like him.”

A former Disney executive who worked with the BBC on Microsoap, Sperber is now in pre-production on Cinderella and Me, a live-action drama co-produced with Catalyst in Toronto. Based on Phillip Pullman’s I Was A Rat, she claims the six x 30-minute series, to be shown in the BBC’s Sunday afternoon teatime slot, is the biggest co-production her department has done to date.

She has no illusions about the difficulties of working with folks on the other side of the Atlantic, but remains upbeat. ‘Of course it’s difficult to iron out the cultural difficulties, but at the end of the day, success depends on how well you and your partner understand one another,’ Sperber reckons. ‘Cinderella and Me is an Anglo-Canadian co-production based on a British story. Some of the Canadian actors will have to do British accents, but it’s not as if we’re doing David Copperfield.

‘The only thing that really upset me about Microsoap is that Disney in the U.S. has never shown it because they claim audiences can’t relate to British accents. As an American, I find that a bit narrow. I’m convinced that these sorts of partnerships are the way forward. We have to forge a way to make them work. If not, the high-end stuff just won’t get made.’

Just Television CEO Wilf Shorrocks, who forged a co-pro arrangement with L.A.-based Mike Young Productions for action-adventure toon Butt-Ugly Martians, agrees. ‘There’s a lot of talk about regional differences, but a successful show is a successful show. Kids are basically the same in any country. It’s true that Europeans are less accepting of violence than North American audiences. In places like Scandinavia, they’re very, very cautious. We’ve had to be careful with Butt-Ugly Martians because you have to take a global audience into consideration. Having a hit show in the U.S. isn’t good enough anymore.’

Shorrocks is in the throes of stitching together a six-series co-production deal with animation giant Nelvana. This looks set to include a version of Roald Dahl classic The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me. With material like that you can’t go wrong, but co-productions remain something of a highwire act, especially when Americans are involved. As one British executive says: ‘It’s very rare that they need us as co-production partners. We actually need them, and only for certain kinds of programs do they need Europeans.’

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