Seeking to capitalize on the tween population boom in a way that sets it apart from the competition, New York-based Noggin is taking the educon route with this tricky target audience. ‘The nine to 14 demo is a group that has really been ignored by both television and on-line groups in an educational capacity,’ says Noggin’s VP of programming and production Sarah Tomassi-Lindman. ‘It’s a tremendously volatile time in a kid’s life–a period when they can use a helping hand.’
Until a year ago, the net’s programming focus centered squarely on kids up to age 12, with a particular emphasis on the preschool set. The 24-hour daily schedule was split into four blocks–preschool in the morning, all-ages during the day, and six to 12 after school and in the evenings. This tack netted Noggin a draw of 16 million subscribing households in the U.S. out of a total 75 million. But with on-line research firm MarketResearch.com putting the State-side tween population at 27 million, this hefty kid audience subset seemed to offer a natural expansion opportunity.
So starting April 1, Noggin is planning to shift its schedule structure to two blocks, with preschool the target from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and tween fare taking over the airwaves from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The best and newest offerings in the channel’s tween lineup will be showcased in a two-hour Monday night block, running from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., that’s designed to serve as a weekly programming spike. ‘The weekends are very crowded for kids and tweens,’ Tomassi-Lindman reasons. ‘There’s a lot going on for them, with a lot of nets trying to serve them. We felt that Monday nights had a lot of kids watching TV, but with very little going on.’
Educon for tweens is a very slippery buying remit. In Tomassi-Lindman’s opinion, an educational mandate tends to imply math, geography and history, ‘but also that we’re very serious and dull.’ So she specifically precludes programming that is tied to a school curriculum. ‘I’ve had lots of shows pitched about kids traveling back in time through history, but at this point, it’s not even a consideration. It smells too much like school.’ What she wants instead are shows that deal with growing up.
Degrassi: The Next Generation from Toronto-based AAC Kids fits the bill exactly, along with New York-based Bullfrog Productions’ A Walk In Your Shoes, which Tomassi-Lindman has signed for a third season. Like its low-budget Canadiana precursor, Degrassi: The Next Generation is a half-hour live-action drama dealing with sticky issues like teen pregnancy, drug use and suicide. Originally targeting eight- to 12-year-olds, A Walk In Your Shoes makes two kids with completely different lifestyles trade places. The channel has aged this half-hour concept up to the nine to 14 bracket so that it jibes with the new focus by addressing more cutting-edge issues like racism and teen pregnancy; for example, one new episode may switch two teens–one’s a mom, the other isn’t.
Along with two other pick-ups for which deals were still being hammered out at press time, Degrassi and A Walk In Your Shoes will anchor the new channel on Monday nights, and then re-run individually throughout the rest of the week. The two-hour block will also repeat on Sunday nights at 8 p.m.
The rest of the tween sked will comprise a combination of Noggin shows that skew old enough to fit the new mandate (such as Sesame Workshop’s Ghostwriter and Sponk!); select Noggin originals like Big Kids and On The Team; a couple of signature Nick series that are no longer airing; and international acquisitions.
Tomassi-Lindman is still looking for other life-affirming/learning half-hour shows with lots of episodes in the can. ‘Monday night is a big focus for us, but for the rest of the week we’re hoping to strip stuff as much as we can.’ Series with more than 65 eps are ideal because they allow for consistency in the schedule across the rest of the week.
Tomassi-Lindman doesn’t have a live action/animation mandate, although she tends to pick up more of the former. ‘What prevents us from acquiring animated shows most of the time, to be honest, is budgets. But if and when we can afford it, [animation] is definitely something we look for.’ As far as license fees for acquisitions go, Tomassi-Lindman goes into negotiations expecting to pay between 5% and 10% of the series budget.
At NATPE, Tomassi-Lindman will also be scouting hard for co-pro partners since Noggin plugs 40% of its budget into original productions. Included on the current project slate is an interactive game show in which tweens compete over the Internet, as well as several live-action reality shows, fictional dramas and comedies.
Tomassi-Lindman lists Disney Channel, ABC Family and WAM! as the primary competition for her new channel, and there’s also some crossover with Noggin’s parentco Nickelodeon. However, she suggests that while they definitely share some of the same eyeballs, Nick’s in solidly with the six to 11 crowd. ‘We felt that by letting Nickelodeon continue to super-serve that group, we can expand the demographics that MTV Networks as a whole is reaching by trying to move forward with these older kids.’
A name change that will help distance and distinguish the tween programming from the preschool fare is also in the works, but nothing has successfully passed through the legal department yet.
As Noggin already had a lot of preschool shows in its arsenal, Tomassi-Lindman doesn’t really need anything else to fill the expanded block. The newest addition to that sked is Noggin-produced series Play With Me Sesame. The first new Sesame Street-related show to hit the North American market in 33 years, the series marks the first time a State-side entity other than Sesame Workshop has been given permission by Henson to use the Sesame Street Muppets. The new version retains much of the old Sesame vibe, but adds more interactive elements.