With global distribution of kids fare becoming increasingly more sophisticated, international broadcasters and producers are finding greater success these days by going beyond a simple dubbing job to localize their programming, creating new elements and characters and finding regional hosts with whom the audience can easily identify.
Regulations requiring kidnets to air a specified amount of local content have been a boon to the versioning trend. ‘In certain countries, there is legislation for children’s programming that limits the amount of time foreign programs are allowed on,’ says Nicholas James, managing director of Chorion, the London-based production company behind Noddy. A locally-produced live wrap often lends the imported show enough regional flavor to meet government regulations.
Another reason for versioning’s success is that foreign broadcasters are getting high-quality, brand-name programming that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive on a local basis. ‘For a nominal fee, they can have this show and tailor it for their market, compared to the cost of producing a new show themselves,’ says Debbie Back, VP of international program sales for Nickelodeon, which versions Blue’s Clues for the global market.
Blue’s is currently very hot on the international market, and Back is excited about the show’s unique approach to versioning. ‘Broadcasters can take their own host and put them in a studio, with a standard blue screen set-up that most stations use to do their weather report. They can have a host who is familiar to their audience, and we provide the layers of animation, the chair, costumes, props and scripts. They can have a show that looks like it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars-because it does. But the local broadcaster is paying a fraction of our original budget.’ A Blue’s Clues version costs about one-third of the original series production budget. There are currently two versions of Blue’s Clues on Nick UK and Channel 4 in England and on KBS in Korea. Nick is also negotiating for versions in European and Asian outlets where the most interest has been generated.
Some producers offer several different versioning processes so global casters can choose the technique that best works for their market. ‘We would like our characters to seem local in every place,’ says Chorion’s James ‘This is the opposite of the Disney approach, by which I mean that Disney really wants its characters to be universal, the same everywhere. We want ours to be different everywhere.’
‘There are two types of versioning that we’re involved with, one where the basic material is not changed-Noddy is a good example,’ says Chorion’s James. ‘There are 152 episodes (including the 100 new CGI eps) that are dubbed in each territory. What we say to the broadcaster is, `To make this show feel even more local, we encourage you to do an original wrap-around.’ This means they would shoot a little live-action segment that envelops the animation. Generally involving a presenter and a few kids, the wrap might discuss the meaning of the episode; it gets young people, particularly preschool kids, talking about issues that are relevant to them. There is an opportunity in the wrap-around to draw out those elements and to get kids involved.’
To help broadcasters produce these localization segments, Chorion created a do-it-yourself versioning package. James explains: ‘We tell the broadcaster what the essence of the story is and suggest four things they can do in the live-action wrap-around that could relate. Each episode has a song in it, and the words reflect its theme. One of the things we provide is a soundtrack with the words, so if they want to, the live kids audience can sing along. Next, we would give them three examples of discussions or activities that could take place with the kids in the studio, involving some action by costume characters and the presenter to illustrate the point. How broadcasters decide to [implement these suggestions] is up to them. They can do one or all four. Whether this is a two-minute wrap, or in the case of KBS in Korea, a twelve-minute wrap, it’s entirely up to them. It depends on how much they want to spend and how much of a gap in the schedule they want to fill.
‘What we don’t give them is a script, because if I’ve got a moral issue, the way I would describe that using a U.S. perspective would be very different than how I’d describe it in a Korean family context. They have to work out how to tell it effectively using their own culture and their own language.’
But can cash-strapped casters afford to do a wrap? ‘We have a separate localization budget,’ says James. ‘We estimate, for the year, how many territories are likely to do this and whether or not they would need any support. There are two kinds of investments we make. One is investing in the basic materials that we can give them, which is a tax write-off cost. Then we might join with the broadcaster and perhaps a local licensee, like a publisher, and create a little pool of money that helps the broadcaster to shoot the extra segments. We would regard that as marketing dollars because it lifts the show’s profile in that country, which helps us to sell more books and licensed product.
‘In the end, you’ve broken your character into a new country, and you’ve got to spend some money doing that. But what better way then to spend it by improving your television window, which is your biggest public exposure.’
In the U.S., Noddy in Toyland airs daily on PBS and racks up a 2.3 average rating. Hi, Noddy on KBS in Korea is the number-one preschool show in the country, and the net is interested in airing Chorion’s 100 new CGI episodes when they’re ready later this year.
While Chorion leaves much of the versioning decisions up to the broadcaster, Gullane takes a more hands-on approach with Art Attack. ‘We have a relationship with the Disney Channel around the world that involves seven different versions. All of these are produced in England, with hosts flown in from the different markets, using the same expertise, the same artform and the same studio. It’s very cost-effective,’ explains Charles Falzon, president of Gullane, since development, research, conceptualizing and actual testing of the artform itself are already done.
Art Attack first aired in England in 1990. Prodco Media Merchants initially sold it around the world as a finished show, but realized, in conjunction with a Disney Channel sale in 1998, that it could work on a market-by-market basis as a local show. Gullane expanded upon the original Disney Channel commitment when Media Merchants became part of its group last year, co-producing versions with Disney, which retains exclusive rights to those episodes.
Art Attack’s success on the Disney Channel is impressive. An initial commission of 104 shows has grown to a total of 324 versioned episodes to date, airing in 24 different territories. Three seasons have been produced for Spain and France, where it is the most popular series on the channels. In Spain, Art Attack is the number-one rated children’s show nationwide.
Sesame Workshop has been in the versioning game for decades with 30-year-old franchise Sesame Street. ‘We’ve actually done 20 version co-productions of Sesame Street around the world,’ says Martha Van Gelder, Sesame Workshop’s group VP of products and international television. ‘Traditionally, we take footage from our library, chosen by our partners, and then set up and develop a curriculum that’s right for the regional point of view. We consult with educators and child development experts on how to make it relevent in that country.’
Jennifer Chrein, Sesame’s VP of international television distribution, adds, ‘The segments we give from our library are usually the animation and muppet segments. Those are dubbed, and the live action is what gets done on a local level, so the kids can relate to settings they’re used to seeing.’
Van Gelder and Chrein work with the local broadcasters to achieve a versioned Sesame Street that lives up to their well-known high standards. ‘We establish how many episodes and what length they want, and decide how much of our library they can use,’ says Van Gelder. ‘Our production team puts a budget together and gets rights clearances. We look at our budget and name a fee for licensing the show. The broadcaster creates a budget that entails what set costs will be, and then we incorporate the two. We usually hold a writing seminar to teach writers how muppets would react in certain situations, techniques for writing short-form comedy for our muppet skits, and how to incorporate curriculum. We have a senior producer assigned to each co-production who travels to that country while the show is in production and pre-production.’
A non-profit organization, Sesame Workshop relies on public contributions, corporate sponsors and government grants to fund all of its ventures. To version Sesame Street for South Africa, one of the more expensive projects the Workshop has undertaken, US$4 million in funding from U.S.A.I.D. (United States Agency of Independent Development) was combined with US$3 million from South African corporate sponsor Sanlam. The money covered a five-year operation and included the creation of a Sesame Street radio component and an outreach program that gave local teachers and caregivers additional educational support materials.
Adds Chrein: ‘We also work with the Jim Henson Company to develop puppets specifically for those countries. For example in South Africa, we just did one of the characters as a meerkat because that’s a common animal South African kids can relate to. In China, we did a blue pig because pigs are very popular there.’
Another plus for Sesame Workshop is the possibility of gaining additional library assets. ‘A benefit of localization is finding local talent,’ says Van Gelder. ‘We are uncovering all these very talented foreign animation houses, and we are adding some of those local pieces of animation to our international library. Hopefully, we will be able to incorporate segments that were made in South Africa and Mexico into the U.S. show.’
Preschool is clearly the largest market for versioning series, and the biggest names in the field have all localized their shows. Most North Americans do not realize that Shining Time Station on PBS is a version of the U.K.’s Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends. ‘Thomas was the first English children’s property to make it in the U.S., and the same thing happened in Japan, where Thomas is considered to be Japanese,’ says Gullane’s Falzon. ‘Thomas is considered to be a local property everywhere.’
Ragdoll’s Teletubbies is dubbed into 36 languages for 90 casters, but most markets opt for local versioning. ‘On the show, we have insert films of real-world children that appear on the Teletubbies’ tummies,’ explains Ragdoll’s head of international, Nick Kirkpatrick. ‘We encourage broadcasters to replace these with local films.’ To date, 18 have localized the Teletubbies tummy cams.
Kirkpatrick points out that once the program is sold, Ragdoll provides the broadcaster with a fairly comprehensive adaptation guide, or ‘localization kit,’ which gives them detailed information the nature of the preschool audience. ‘Teletubbies is for a very young audience, and the dubbing has to be done very carefully to ensure a two-year-old can get the maximum benefit from the program,’ notes Kirkpatrick. ‘In addition to the versioning kit, sometimes I’ll actually go to the country and work with the broadcaster or dubbing house, answering questions and giving them advice and guidance. Some countries tend to take ownership of it, for instance in Korea (on KBS), they dub all the characters, make their own films and have arranged to have a Korean Sun-baby, as opposed to the U.K. one.’
Ragdoll’s Tots TV works foreign language into its basic premise by introducing the concept of a second language to young children. ‘We did this by having the girl character Tilly speak French,’ explains Nick Kirkpatrick. ‘Two boys, Tom and Tiny, speak English and translate what Tilly says.’
Tots TV is shown 10 countries, and Ragdoll claims the program is custom-made for every territory it’s sold into. ‘We’ll always suggest the two main characters speak in the mother tongue of that country, and Tilly will speak in the language that is most commonly taught in schools,’ says Kirkpatrick. ‘We’re not trying to teach kids to speak another language, but to introduce them to the concept that other people do speak other languages, and that it doesn’t get in the way of relationships.’
The show is designed for international play, but without extensive versioning. Simple dubbing, sometimes only of Tilly, is all that’s required in some territories. Others require more extensive translation. ‘When the series got sold to PBS in the U.S., we found it was more appropriate for Tilly to speak Spanish,’ notes Kirkpatrick. ‘She’s translated into Portuguese in Brazil (TV Cultura), and in Sweden, the two male characters speak Swedish and Tilly speaks English.’
Lyrick/HIT’s Barney and Friends has been a dub smash in over 100 countries, but so far only one local version has been produced for Israel. ‘Roll, the Israeli production partner, came to the U.S. to train under the American counterparts and learned about the character, the program and the production,’ recalls Carla Stock, Lyrick’s senior VP of international. ‘The costumes were produced here and sent to Israel. Roll built its own set and adapted our scripts to add more local content and flavor. They did 52 episodes over a two-year period. Roll licensed Barney and paid for production.’
The experience was a great one, and Stock plans to do it again. ‘We are in discussions with other countries about local productions. We want to pursue versions in markets where there are content regulations, where broadcasters really need localized programming.’