U.K. kidnets compete to make the biggest fall splash in a crowded pool

Although the BBC and ITV enjoy a clear domination in the U.K. kids production market, the battle for ratings with U.S.-owned, acquisition-driven thematic channels on cable and satellite is getting increasingly hotter as all the Brit kidcasters gear up for fall....
August 1, 2001

Although the BBC and ITV enjoy a clear domination in the U.K. kids production market, the battle for ratings with U.S.-owned, acquisition-driven thematic channels on cable and satellite is getting increasingly hotter as all the Brit kidcasters gear up for fall. The toughest competition for kids comes in digital homes, which now number around seven million out of a total U.K. market of 20 million.

In this environment, most major players have launched spin-off nets to complement their core offering. Kids with SkyDigital service can currently choose from between 14 dedicated kids channels (mostly operated by Nick, Disney, Cartoon Network and Fox), as well as six general entertainment channels with kids content (BBC 1 and 2, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky One). The ease of hopping between channels has also encouraged kids to spend more time at destinations like MTV (which has its own bouquet) and Flextech-owned teen net Trouble.

As heavy competition makes it more difficult to keep loyal kid viewers, the pressure is on the Beeb and ITV to deliver fall skeds that break through the clutter and really connect with kids.

The BBC’s kids controller Nigel Pickard, who quit free-to-air commercial network ITV last fall to join its publicly funded rival, has made a variety of changes in his first year. Most notably, he extended the BBC’s flagship magazine show Blue Peter into the summer schedule and shifted its children’s news bulletin Newsround from 5 p.m. to 5:25 p.m.-making it the last program in the weekday afternoon block.

But fall 2001 will see Pickard tackle the BBC’s biggest problem area-Saturday mornings. Though details were still underwraps at press time, Pickard has devised a new magazine show that he hopes will claw back some of the ground lost to ITV’s SMTV:Live (Zenith) over the last two years.

Aside from Saturday mornings, the BBC’s kids output has generally performed quite well against ITV and the various other nets serving the U.K. children’s market, with BBC 1 and 2 netting a combined 20% share of kids ages four to 15 in June. As a result, Pickard is staying faithful to returning shows like preschool hits Bob the Builder (HIT Entertainment) and Tweenies (Tell-Tale Productions), as well as live action for six- to 10-year-olds such as The Queen’s Nose (Film & General), Byker Grove (Zenith) and Smart (BBC).

Among the new shows for fall, the pick of the bunch is 13-part drama Oscar Charlie (BBC), which is about a boy who discovers his batty Grandad is really a secret agent feigning senility. Apart from the show’s editorial concept, the most interesting thing about Oscar Charlie is the Beeb’s commitment to 13 episodes in one season-a shift away from the seven-ep runs that used to dominate U.K. kids drama.

Other new titles produced in-house include fly-on-the-wall factual series DIYTV, which follows a group of 12 kids as they make their own TV show. There is also a third outing of S Club 7 (in Hollywood) and a new entertainment series called Bring it On, in which two BBC continuity presenters are set a wide range of entertaining challenges.

While Pickard was at ITV, he commissioned series further ahead than was previously the norm and committed to much longer runs. As a result, his replacement, Janie Grace, has been forced to work with many of the shows that he selected.

In some cases, that is a good thing. Aside from winning Saturday mornings, ITV also has a strong drama slate led by titles such as BAFTA-winning My Parents are Aliens and The Worst Witch (both Granada shows). In other cases, it is restricting. Perhaps the biggest headache Pickard left Grace was a raft of long-running preschool shows that were unable to compete with Tweenies and Teletubbies.

According to Grace, one of the major changes she has made since arriving is the introduction of a stripped schedule at the start of 2001, which has helped trigger a 6% children’s share increase overall, bringing the total take for June up to 11%. Individual program highlights to date have included make & do show Fingertips, science series The Big Bang and magic show The Quick Trick Show, which returns with an extended run during the fall.

Looking ahead, Grace is in the process of broadening the youth demo that ITV serves, seeking to reach the complete four to 15 age range. For fall, she has committed to some new series, but is placing emphasis on proven shows like Mopatop’s Shop (Henson/Carlton), Zzzap! (funded by the EBU), Art Attack (Gullane), My Parents are Aliens, The Worst Witch and Fetch the Vet (Cosgrove Hall).

New titles include HIT’s 2-D animated series Angelina Ballerina and Entertainment Rights’ 3-D offering Merlin. Grace acknowledges that much of fall was already ordered before Pickard left, but says that she still has one or two surprises up her sleeve.

Still on terrestrial networks, Channel 4, with a 4% kids marketshare, has made a deeper foray into the demo with Henson preschool show The Hoobs and teen acquisitions like Dawson’s Creek. But it has not sought to build a consistent kids block in the way RTL-owned Channel 5 has done in the 7 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. weekday slot.

Looking to build on its 3% share, Channel 5 has lined up new episodes of Henson’s Bear in the Big Blue House (a schedule mainstay) for fall 2001. It will also air titles like Nelvana’s Rolie Polie Olie and Cartoon Network’s The Powerpuff Girls, which have already built a following on pay-TV networks. Other weekday titles include Jay Jay the Jet Plane (Portfolio Entertainment) and the return of animation series Redwall (Nelvana).

Channel 5 is also targeting older kids on the weekend with docusoaps like School (6th Sense Productions), The Academy (Granada Sport) and Newquay (TwofourTV), which looks at surfing sub-culture in Britain. Fall on C5 also sees the launch of Agrippine, an animated teen comedy co-production with Canal+ and Ellipsanime in France; and Atlantis High, a ‘teen spoof comedy’ series from Cloud 9, producer of Channel 5 hit The Tribe.

Among the thematics, Nick UK is doing well with a 7% share, powered by shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Kenan & Kel and Sister, Sister. In the fall, Nick channel chief Howard Litton plans to make the most of Sabrina’s popularity by airing a month of themed shows using new episodes and the U.K. premiere of TV movie Sabrina Down Under as his hook.

Litton says the growing competition to acquire top U.S. kids shows led him to visit L.A. Screenings for the first time this year. His main pick-up was a 13-episode run of Nickelodeon’s live-action series Taina. Another key title lined up for fall is Klasky Csupo’s As Told by Ginger.

Nick UK is also making a decent stab at original production. In the fall, it will expand its interactive music magazine N-List to 10 episodes and start the search for a new 26-part live-action offering-probably in the comedy/adventure genre with a budget of between US$115,000 and US$140,000 per hour. If there is a criticism, it is that Nick has veered too much towards shows with girl protagonists. So Litton is also looking to increase his commitment to adventure/fantasy properties that appeal to boys.

The reverse is true at Fox Kids, which has a predominantly four- to nine-year-old boy audience thanks to shows like Power Rangers and Digimon. Starting this fall, channel editor Tim Patterson wants to beef up the channel’s low 2% share by pulling in more girls and growing its target age range up to 11. This fall, he debuts Nelvana’s Alicia Silverstone-backed project Braceface, which centers on the antics of 13-year-old high-school queen Sharon Spitz. Other new shows with girl protagonists include Marathon/TF1/Fox Kids Europe co-pro Totally Spies and live-action series So Little Time (Saban), also set to appear on the BBC.

While Patterson is keen to attract girls, he does not want to lose his core boy audience, so he is also introducing Nascar Racers (Saban) and Heavy Gear (Mainframe Entertainment). He also has high hopes for Power Rangers Timeforce, which features a strong female lead and thus could potentially reach both sexes.

Among the other thematics, Cartoon Network UK heads its fall lineup with new episodes of The Powerpuff Girls, which is set for a big push on- and off-screen in 2002, when the franchise’s first feature debuts. The channel, which netted a 6% kid share in June, is also bowing The Cramp Twins (TV-Loonland/Sunbow), based on Brian Wood’s stories about a pair of twins who don’t like each other. Other titles underline a growing emphasis on action/adventure at Cartoon Network. Dragonball Z and X-Men: Evolution both occupy feature slots in the channel’s popular anime block Toonami.

At this stage, there is still little progress on BBC plans to launch two new kids channels as the corporation waits for government approval. However, ITV is now publicly committed to a dedicated children’s network. When all three are on-air (probably by fall 2002), though, the pressure on ratings will further intensify-particularly in preschool, where BBC and ITV are strongest.

Stay tuned for more fall launch strategies next month, when we take a look at what kidnets in Canada and France have in their blueprints.

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