Canal J diversifies for the future

Bolstered by a new subscription tally pegging its reach at three million households and by the successful launch of a preschool spin-off net called TiJi, France's premier dedicated kids channel Canal J celebrated its 15th birthday in style in December. Above...
March 1, 2001

Bolstered by a new subscription tally pegging its reach at three million households and by the successful launch of a preschool spin-off net called TiJi, France’s premier dedicated kids channel Canal J celebrated its 15th birthday in style in December. Above and beyond its anniversary, Canal J is also celebrating the success of its recent restructuring and rebranding efforts in staving off the threat posed by encroaching global kidnets.

When it launched as France’s first dedicated kids channel in 1985, Canal J barely caused a blip on the radar. Broadcasting out of the small town of Cergy-Pontoise to a mere 300 subscribing households, the net initially aired the same two hours of programming in perpetual reruns. Two years after the launch, subscribing children were tuning into Canal J for 30% of their total time spent watching the tube, and the net was producing 40% of its lineup in-house. Seeking to define its on-air look and develop co-production relationships, Canal J hired Eve Baron as head of programming in 1990. Armed with a budget of US$3.8 million, Baron set out to diversify the channel’s animation-heavy schedule to include a news magazine show called Regarde le Monde (Watch the World) in 1991, as well as more than 150 documentary co-productions and kids magazine shows with Marathon, including Canal J signature series Les Intrepides.

Canal J has come to wield a great deal of influence within the French production community since it first started triggering co-pros in 1991. ‘In terms of co-financing of kids projects, Canal J is a very important partner-far above other dedicated children’s channels,’ says Stephane Le Bars, head of SPFA, a union of French animation producers. ‘The launching of TiJi also opens a new co-production window for preschool series.’ Tele Images head of children’s programs Philippe Alessandri says Canal J’s commitment to local producers extends beyond toons. ‘Canal J has backed a lot of French projects and is now trying to invigorate live-action kids drama production.’

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Despite a comfortable one million subscribing households under its belt by 1994 and a 1996 launch on the CanalSatellite platforms, Canal J was unprepared for the turbulence that played out when new kid cable and satellite outlets threatened to cut into its turf. In 1996 and 1997, four such channels hit the French broadcasting market: Teletoon France, Fox Kids, Cartoon Network and premium Disney Channel. All targeting the same six to 12 core audience with a preponderance of animation, these fledgling players seemed poised to offer Canal J a run for its money, as they came backed by strong libraries, world-renowned kids brands and the ability to acquire original shows by the gallon.

In March 1999, early warning signs of Canal J’s struggle to compete came in the form of an annual Audicabsat dedicated channel survey released by French ratings institute Mediametrie. Besides confirming that French kids are the hottest demo when it comes to cable and satellite, representing a whopping 51.9% of the total audience, the report saw Canal J plummet to third spot after years of number-one finishes. With a 10.6% audience share, Teletoon took the lead, followed by Fox Kids (9.5%), Canal J (8.8%), Disney Channel (7.7%) and Cartoon Network (4.5%). In the four to 14 age bracket, TPS Jeunesse channel Teletoon again won the day with a 7.2% share compared to Canal J’s 6.4%, Disney Channel’s 6.1%, Fox Kids’ 5.8% and Cartoon Network’s 2.8%.

Around the same time, Lagardère group digital services subsidiary Europe 1 Communication acquired a 51% share (49% held by Canal+) in Canal J. Evaluating its new holding, the new owner, which renamed itself Lagardère Active, questioned the efficiency of offering a full slate of programming for such a wide four to 14 demo-particularly with new competition snapping up any and all available original kids shows. The channel’s branding was also on the table for an overhaul in order to connect more effectively with a new generation of kids.

Canal J’s general director Claude-Yves Robin, clearly eager to lighten schedule costs, announced that Canal J would be shifting its focus to concentrate more fully on the core seven to 12 audience, as well as drastically reducing the number of in-house productions undertaken by the channel. Eve Baron left the net shortly after the announcement to join France 3′s youth department.

According to Robin, the idea behind the restructuring was ‘to make the channel’s content seem more dynamic and interactive in order to bring it closer to children. Canal J needed to be a little less general and more specifically focused on kids’ daily lives, especially in the realm of live shows and magazines. Schedules also needed to include more special events.’

In previous years, Canal J’s goal was to be the channel kids grew up with; since 1999, it’s been working to become a channel that empowers kids.

In July 1999, Pierre Belaisch left his consulting post at Canal+ Poland (where he launched the dedicated kids channel Minimax) to join Canal J as director of programs. He immediately set about defining the channel’s new on-air aesthetic. ‘To show children’s daily lives on-screen, the channel had to talk to them directly. It obviously needed a more modern and aggressive design, with a touch of impertinence. I thought that our look should correspond to the mess of their bedrooms,’ he explains. The channel commissioned French design agency So What Now to conjure up a very playful and kid-focused design. The slogan of the channel is changed to ‘C’est toi qui vois’ (It’s you that you see).

Cultivating attachment

Besides the cosmetic makeover, Canal J’s schedule underwent a bit of reform as well. The first step was establishing a more consistent grid so kids could count on their favorite shows airing the same time each week. Columbia TriStar’s do-it-yourself Animax action block, airing on weekends and Wednesdays, helped lend the sked some regularity, at the same time playing to France’s unique grade-school timetable, which lets kids out for a hump day on Wednesdays.

‘Another radical difference under the new plan,’ adds Belaisch, ‘is that shows are separated by genre and aired in unified blocks, especially animation and live action.’ In the new grid, animation still represents roughly 55% of the lineup, although its dominance is shrinking.

As the kid channel marketshare has progressively risen to 15% of the overall French audience (compared to 5% to 6% a few years ago), the networks are increasingly signing exclusive deals with French producers for original animated series that will lure all the kid eyeballs, consequently shutting out dedicated channels like Canal J from chipping in and buying a window. Although this growing trend respresents a boon to local toon studios, which are all developing big-budget projects for the seven to 12 crowd right now, it makes co-production between the networks and terrestrials nearly impossible to negotiate. With many of the prodcos it once dealt with regularly tied up on exclusive network projects, Canal J has had to diversify.

The channel has begun investing more of its development budget into locally-produced live-action series and sitcoms, which had previously been acquired primarily from the U.S. This genre now accounts for a full 20% of Canal J’s sked, with one-shot entertainment formats at 15% and new short live-action series making up 10%.

‘Though we assume that nothing can replace animation, we added new points of attraction. Live-action series and sitcoms feature emblematic heroes that are the same age as our core audience, convey notions of modernity and innovation, and deal with today’s values in children’s daily lives,’ says Belaisch. ‘Kids can identify with the real-world tone of productions such as U.S. series Sister Sister, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. As for the short sequences, they are simply funny and attractive. Shorts never have real legitimacy in schedules, but greatly contribute to convey the channel’s identity. They tend to create proximity and dynamism.’

Events are another way the channel is enhancing its connection with kids. Canal J has partnered with the NBA to organize basketball events in French schools through to April 2001. And for Valentine’s Day, the kidnet launched a love-themed programming marathon.

Off-screen promotion targets action events

To compete with the sophisticated off-channel promotional efforts of rival networks, Canal J has tripled its promotion and brand communication budget to US$2.8 million over the past two years. ‘The notion of self-promotion on-screen is essential so that we’re constantly asserting our identity and informing our audience,’ says Belaisch. ‘It’s no different off-screen. We are always trying to generate deals to get our brand out there, and we have a predilection for places of action.’

Although the channel is present at all French cultural events, partnering with sporting leagues and events is a relatively new focus. In addition to the deal with the NBA, Canal J also has a presence at beaches and ski slopes via partnerships with holiday resorts.

Canal J’s logo was also featured on two million bottles of Pepsi-Cola last year.

An example of successful show-specific promo campaign was based on animated series Marsupilami in March 2000. Besides promoting the toon on-screen, the marketing unit launched an advertising campaign that encompassed urban posters, youth press and radio. ‘Communication around the schedules is very important. We will do the same with Titeuf this spring,’ Belaisch says.

Regaining the lead

So far, the remodeling seems to be paying off. In March 2000, the Audicabsat survey showed that Canal J had regained its lead with the four to 14 demo, finishing up with an 11.5% audience share (+80% in one year). Its nearest competitor, Teletoon, had a 7.2% share. With the four to 10 age range, Canal J garnered a 13.5% share, 8.1% with the 11 to 14 set.

Canal J’s 2000 ratings boost also had an impact on its ad revenues, which registered a 42% growth, passing from 22% of the overall revenue to 27%. However, subscription revenues from cable and satellite operators still count for nearly three-quarters (70%) of the channel’s income.

In December 2000, the channel celebrated its 15th birthday by announcing that it had reached a subscription plateau at three million households (eight million children over the age of four)-half on cable (in France, Belgium and Switzerland), half on satellite platform CanalSatellite. Extending its reach further abroad, on January 7, Canal J’s cultural magazine show Faut que ca Saute began airing in the new kid slot of global French-language channel TV5. Canal J hopes to find other international partners interested in acquiring one- or two-hour blocks of original French kids fare.

Looking forward, Canal J wants to up its level of co-production and pre-buys on series concepts in which kids are the heroes, as well as firmly establishing itself in the new media realm (see sidebar, previous page). Channel execs will also keep a close watch on the development of Canal J’s little sister TiJi, a channel for kids ages two to seven that was launched on December 15. Available to a million families on CanalSatellite and digital cable, TiJi is also intended to further Canal J’s international development. After debuting in Maghreb and Africa early this year, TiJi should launch into Eastern European countries with French-speaking communities sometime in Q2.

With the advent of digital terrestrial channels in France pegged for 2002, Canal J hopes to gain access to this new distribution outlet and bets on turning 20 in 2005 with six million subscribing households.

Canal J’s marketshare of cable and satellite subscribers

11.5% of four- to 14-year-olds

13.5% of four- to 10-year-olds

Total children’s population in France

8.5 million kids ages four to 14

Number of households subscribing to Canal J

Three million-half on cable, half on CanalSatellite

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