Vrak? ‘It doesn’t mean anything at all. And that’s a good thing because kids can make what they like out of it,’ says Denis Dubois, VP of programming for Montreal, Canada-based Vrak.TV. The French-language channel (formerly called Canal Famille) was relaunched January 2 by parentco Astral Media, and kids will literally be able to make what they like out of it. Well. . . almost.
‘We want a channel that is different from all others in that the kids choose what they watch,’ Dubois explains. The original channel-born 12 years ago-was anything but. It was out of date, couldn’t compete with the other French-language kids channels that air 24 hours a day (like TVA and SRC), and had a limited budget derived solely from subscriber fees, he says. It is and was licensed to broadcast Canada-wide to three- to 14-year-olds, but Quebec law forbids advertising on channels that target kids under 13. Still, with two million subscribers across Canada last year, a 20% share of kids two to 11, and a number-one ranking with 12- to 17-year-olds last summer (both figures apply to French Canada), Dubois has high hopes for his newly reborn channel. Currently, Canal-cum-Vrak broadcasts on cable in the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario, and via satellite in Western Canada.
So the model hasn’t really changed, just the attitude. Dubois is working with the same money (for this half season, his budget is approximately US$4 million), he’s just increasing the time he’s on air (from 12 to 16 hours a day) and making sure he has exactly the right content. The goal is to attract more subscribers to pay for the increased airtime and new programming. Although it’s too early to tell whether that’s realistic or not, the ratings taken for the first week in January were double what Canal Famille reported for the same time last year, and the website (www.vrak.tv, which also debuted January 2) was rated the most popular site in Quebec. In five days, says Dubois, 40,000 kids in Quebec e-mailed with comments on the relaunched channel.
‘There will be a programming committee of kids to decide what we buy,’ Dubois says. Initially, the channel will have a special broadcast day (in April this year) featuring one episode from five or six series. Kids vote via mail, phone or on-line for the shows that will make up the next season starting in September 2001, and comment on the ones that currently make up the programming slate. ‘We will be very honest with our viewers,’ Dubois stresses, ‘and say on-air: `Excuse me, we made a mistake. We are not going to broadcast this series anymore, and this is what our viewers have asked for instead.” Further use of this process will depend on this year’s success.
Negotiations for some of Vrak.TV’s programming will include the stipulation that the channel wants one ep to show the audience first. For some distributors, it provides an interesting opportunity, Dubois explains, responding to the suggestion that securing a single ep from a producer might prove difficult. ‘This gives them the chance to show their product, especially if they are not well-known. Now they have their foot in the door, whereas otherwise, we may not have bought their show at all.’ Also, Dubois successfully tested the concept last spring with series like Woody Woodpecker from Universal and Brothers Flub from Sunbow. ‘It’s not a problem. . . at this time,’ he acquiesces. ‘But we’ll have to see.’
The rights to the shows Dubois buys span five years across Canada in the French language (there are approximately seven million French-Canadians)-exclusive for the first three years, and non-exclusive for the last two. In terms of cost, he says he pays anywhere from US$1,500 to US$3,500 per half hour.
Still, this kid-committee process won’t rule all of Vrak.TV. Much of the channel’s programming-targeting kids three to 14, and running daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.-will be developed through traditional commissions (40%) and acquisitions (60%).
In terms of branding, ‘the name Canal Famille was too childish and didn’t sound like something teens would watch,’ he explains. It also suggested an audience that wasn’t there: The family.
Focus group research determined what the channel should be called, what it should look like, and what should be on it. ‘Through this research, we found that starting age nine and up, kids [in Quebec] really like live action and sitcoms. They are distancing themselves from animation. . . so that has become our position. We still have a percentage of animation, but we are going for more live action and sitcoms,’ says Dubois. Currently, Vrak.TV’s split between animation and live action is 35% and 65% respectively.
Vrak.TV’s current programming consists of original productions (such as returning series Dans un galaxie près de chez vous and Opération Caméléon), sitcoms (Clueless and Sabrina the Teenage Witch), animation (like Weird-Ohs, Rugrats and Batman Beyond) and drama (Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Specifically, the channel is broken up into Vrak.TV and Vrak.TV Jr., the latter being a preschool block that airs from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., featuring shows like Bear in the Big Blue House and Blue’s Clues. .