Girls make the leap to top spot on production slates

Five years ago, the number of tween girl toons could be counted on one hand, leaving girls ages eight to 14 to make do with whatever their kid brother was watching. 'It's always been the adage that you don't create a show directed at girls because boys control the remote,' says Bill Schultz, the Emmy-winning producer of The Simpsons.
September 1, 2001

Five years ago, the number of tween girl toons could be counted on one hand, leaving girls ages eight to 14 to make do with whatever their kid brother was watching. ‘It’s always been the adage that you don’t create a show directed at girls because boys control the remote,’ says Bill Schultz, the Emmy-winning producer of The Simpsons.

Today, however, tween and teen girls are a powerful and coveted demo, wielding considerable purchase power and influence. According to Girl Games, an L.A.-based girl market research firm, there are 18 million girls between the ages of 10 and 19 in the U.S. alone, spending a collective US$67 billion annually. With numbers like that, execs are now racing to create girl toons. Even Schultz is convinced–he’s currently developing a tween girl-targeted series called Troop 318.

While broadcasters and producers are finally warming to the idea of girl toons, they can’t be blamed entirely for the industry’s previous disinterest. In a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum, some would argue that market resistance to girl-targeted toons came from girls themselves. ‘Traditionally, older girls were less interested in animation than virtually anybody–they were going into live action beginning at age nine,’ says Linda Simensky, senior VP of original animation at Cartoon Network. ‘But tween girls are sticking around now because they’re growing up with better animation and better shows.’

The Powerpuff Girls gets much of the credit for exposing the possibilities of the tween girl demo. Launched on Cartoon Network in the fall of ’98, Simensky says the series was originally targeted at ‘pretty much everyone but tween girls.’ Three years later, though, both the series and its related merchandise have won a sizable tween fanbase comprised of both sexes. In July 2001, the series secured a 3.0 rating among kids nine to 14, and year-to-date sales on PPG licensed merch had hit the US$150-million mark at press time, with the highly lucrative back-to-school and holiday seasons yet to come.

In this new tween toon genre, girl heroes are the de facto leads, reflecting the culture of the tween girl audience at large. ‘There’s no ‘getting them empowered;’ they’re already empowered,’ says Joan Lambur, president of on-screen entertainment for The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company, which has a new tween girl-targeted toon on its MIP slate. Produced using Adobe software by Ottawa, Canada-based Atomic Productions at a cost of just over US$65,000 per half hour, Joey (formerly known as Wannabe) focuses on a sarcastic and spirited 15-year-old girl, her friends, her career-obsessed mom and her stay-at-home dad.

Lambur expects an aspirational audience to tune in. ‘An eight- or nine-year-old girl wants nothing more than to be a 12- or 13-year-old girl,’ she says. Asked whether the sarcastic tone of Joey hooks into the tween girl headspace by following a formula proven by Daria, Lambur is adamant that the series is a departure from the usual tween fare–including Daria: ‘The creators’ goal is to be true to tweens by tapping into their humor. We’re just being real.’ Canadian caster YTV is sold on the concept–it has picked up 26 episodes, with the first 13 scheduled for fall 2002 and another 13 for spring 2003. itsy bitsy holds international rights to the series, while Atomic retains Canadian rights.

However, some producers, including Andy Heyward, chairman and CEO of L.A.-based DIC Entertainment, feel that getting girl-skewing fare on the air may not depend so much on the product as it does on the broadcaster. ‘Some networks are more focused on girls and some more on boys. Kids’ WB!, for example, is aimed much more towards boys than girls, while ABC is aimed more towards girls.’

Sabrina the Animated Series, a DIC co-production with Hartbreak Productions targeting girls eight to 14, is enjoying a season-to-date average share of 5.0 on ABC. The show will be joined this fall by DIC’s Mary Kate and Ashley In Action! A co-production with the Dualstar Entertainment Company, the new series, which also targets the eight to 14 set, is a combination of live action and animation starring the eponymous twins.

While girl-friendly nets are helping to fuel the girl toon trend, a pitch-perfect understanding of teens is critical to maintaining the wannabe-teen demo. ‘The real challenge for me is to be competitive with the other things that nine- to 14-year-old girls are watching,’ says Joel Andryc, executive VP of programming and development at Fox Family Channel and Fox Kids Network. ‘They’re watching MTV and shows like Jackass and Real World. One of the favorite shows of [this demo] is Friends. We could never cover much of the subject matter those types of shows do.’

Instead, Andryc has turned to celebrity voices and bolder themes to lure an older audience to shows like Braceface, an animated co-pro targeting eight- to 14-year-olds from Canada’s Nelvana and Hong Kong-based Jade Animation. One episode of the Alicia Silverstone-voiced program features 13-year-old lead character Sharon Spitz getting her period and, in another episode, inadvertently getting drunk. The mature subject matter appears to be working–the series’ June 2001 premiere on Fox Family brought in a 6.2 rating with girls six to 11, and a 5.3 rating with girls nine to 14.

Andryc hopes to repeat Braceface’s success with an animated version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Fox Kids and Totally Spies for Fox Family. Both target the eight to 14 crowd, with a skew toward girls.

Totally Spies, a co-pro between France’s Marathon, French broadcaster TF1, Fox Family Worldwide and Fox Kids Europe, follows the adventures of three Beverly Hills teenagers who become international secret agents. Described by Andryc as a cross between Clueless and Charlie’s Angels, the series is slated to debut next month. ‘It’s tentatively scheduled for Saturday or Sunday morning, and will most likely be coupled with Braceface to get the same tween audience.’

Although the rush to create girl-focused properties may appear to be bandwagon-jumping, some execs maintain they’re following the natural evolution of the aging demo. ‘When the [new baby boomers] were four to six, there was a lot of good preschool programming. Now they’re eight to 10, and broadcasters are looking ahead,’ says Ken Olshansky, senior VP of creative affairs at Sunbow Entertainment, the U.S. subsidiary of Munich-based TV-Loonland.

Sunbow is looking forward with its own girl-hero toon series Skeleton Key. Currently in development, the show–based on the cult comic book by Andy Watson and set in a small town in central Canada–follows the adventures of Tansin, a goth girl who finds a key that allows her to move in and out of a fantasy world. Targeting the eight to 12 set, Skeleton Key will skew younger than its comic book fan base of late teens and early ’20s by emphasizing more comedy and less fantasy. Though targeting girls and boys, Olshansky expects Skeleton Key to skew girl because of its female lead. Produced by TV-Loonland (which holds all international rights), with pre- and post-production done at Nickelodeon (which holds U.S. rights), the 26 half-hour eps are budgeted at roughly US$300,000 each.

Of course evolving along with the target demo are the ever-maturing aesthetics of animation. New techniques, new software and new approaches to design have broadened the animation look beyond traditional cel work. Another migrant from the print medium, Dot’s Bots, the brainchild of comic book artist Dean Olmstead, maps Olmstead’s ‘scrappy texture’ paintings onto 2-D and 3-D backgrounds. In development at Vancouver-based Mainframe Entertainment, the story of a 12-year-old girl who makes a surrogate family from robots has been getting a warm reception lately.

‘People are more accepting of the series now than when we began two years ago because girls’ toys and girls’ play patterns have changed–girls are now much more technology-driven,’ suggests Ian Pearson, chief creative officer and co-founder of Mainframe. Targeting primarily eight- to 14-year-olds, the series’ creators have added humor and action to bring in boys and younger audience members. Dot’s Bots is scheduled for 26 half-hour episodes at between US$325,000 and US$345,000 each.

Canadian animation house Cuppa Coffee is also pushing the aesthetic envelope with Cinema Sue, a series based on the exploits of a tween girl who moves in and out of a cinema-type fantasy world. Adam Shaheen, Cuppa Coffee president and series executive producer, wants to move beyond cel animation–’the only thing on offer for eight- to 12-year-olds.’ Thus Sue moves from a traditional cel-animated world into a cinema-type world of mixed-media animation with elements of photography, digital design and rotoscoped live-action footage.

Since tween girls are exposed to design elements from a variety of sources constantly, Shaheen says ‘it wasn’t a hard choice to design a show that reflects more honestly what girls–and guys–think is hip and that strikes a personal chord.’ With that goal in mind, the look of the series was heavily influenced by ‘contemporary design forms–from rave posters to skateboarding and snowboarding graphics, to CD design, with a little bit of anime.’ With a plan for 26 half-hour episodes budgeted at US$300,000 each, Cuppa Coffee looks set to develop Cinema Sue with Canadian animation channel Teletoon.

Giving anime a much-needed makeover is Robo Rescue, a Wizard of Oz-esque tale of a rag-tag team of robots led by 16-year-old near-genius Lydia. ‘I’ve seen the portrayal of girls in anime and they’re always in miniskirts. It’s kind of disturbing. I just wanted to show Lydia as a hip girl who’s dressed to fight,’ explains Mark Dacus, founder of Houston, Texas-based prodco Just Kids Media.

Describing Lydia’s style as ‘sporty nerd,’ Dacus hopes to connect with today’s tweens by drawing on the past. ‘It’s almost like a throwback to the classic women of cinema, like Lauren Bacall. It’s not a case of adding hats and ribbons–it’s taking a time in history that was empowering and reintroducing it to a new generation.’

And while the series draws on the past, it seeks to tap the present through the lens of the future; a satire of our own media-obsessed culture, Robo Rescue is set in a cynical future world, where superheroes are more concerned with their licensing deals than with saving the world. The tween-targeted series is in development with L.A.-based Jared Entertainment, producer of hit teen film Ten Things I Hate About You.

Adding to the tween toon buzz and hoping to cash in on the girl-turned-secret-agent story line is New York-based Rumpus’s Princess Natasha. With 26 half-hour eps in development, the series centers on Princess Natasha, a foreign exchange student in the Midwest getting an education by day and dishing up secret agent plot twists by night. And this princess won’t tap the royal treasury too heavily–built in Flash, the episodes are estimated at US$185,000 per half hour.

With their half-hour cel-animated series Troop 318, Tyisha Hampton-Mitchell and Kel Mitchell–star of Nickelodeon’s hit series Keenan and Kel–hope to appeal to more of the tween demo by adding an inner-city flavor to the mix. Featuring I’sha and Kyra, 12-year-old girls with attitude, the series is loosely based on the kids Kel knew growing up in urban Chicago. Targeted at eight- to 12-year-olds, with a slight skew to a younger audience, the series is in development at L.A.-based Mike Young Productions and produced by Bill Schultz.

So how do producers and broadcasters satisfy the tween girl, the new moving target of ad and merch dollars? There is no concrete list of magic ingredients, suggests DIC’s Heyward. ‘Every character has got its own appeal. I could tell you it’s being aspirational, I could tell you it’s going very girly-girly, or I could tell you it’s having a strong, empowered role model. But the range is so wide, I don’t think there is a rule of thumb.’

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