If you had any doubts about males ages six to 11 being the demo du jour for U.S. networks, you need look no further than Nickelodeon to quell them. The net that proudly rode the gender-neutral comedy (see Rugrats and Hey Arnold!) to the top of the kids cable heap took the unprecedented move of launching its first boys block last month. Of course, Nick is not alone in trying to beef up its boys action schedule. Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! distributor 4Kids Entertainment will also come out swinging with a boys-heavy lineup when the curtain rises on Fox Box, its four-hour Saturday morning window that’s set to debut September 14 on Fox. Other indications of this boys action bonanza: In the last eight months, both Cartoon Network and Disney’s ABC Family have significantly upped their draw of boy-centric shows.
So, what gives? Why have kidcasters suddenly gone boy crazy–or have they? As is commonly the case with programming trends, if you follow the money, you’ll find the source of the momentum. In this instance, the catalyst appears to have been Disney’s July 2001 purchase of Fox Family, which left sister channels Cartoon Network and Kids’ WB! as the only dedicated boys platforms in the U.S. and reduced the number of channels through which typical boys advertisers (i.e. toycos and video game studios) could reach their target.
‘That presents a challenging environment if you’re an advertiser looking for boys and have only one ad sales department to call,’ says Toper Taylor, president of international distribution, marketing and consumer products at Canadian prodco Nelvana. In Taylor’s view, by skewing boy, Nick, Disney and 4Kids are merely trying to grab the potential ad inventory that was lost through the Fox Family sale.
While it’s difficult to minimize the role that advertising is playing in the current boys action ramp-up, it’s not the only factor. The genre’s licensing prospects are a further consideration. ‘Generally, boys properties are more merchandisable in terms of the number of licenses you can apply to them,’ says 4Kids chairman and CEO Al Kahn. With the company hoping to establish itself out of the gate with the Fox Box block, having shows that yield strong merch programs will help to generate ancillary revenue and increase off-screen property awareness, says Kahn.
Boys shows also pull in bigger audiences. Whereas a girl will watch a boy-targeted show, Kahn says it’s very rare that a boy will watch a girls show. Of the programs 4Kids selected for Fox Box, only one–Kirby: Right Back at You!, which is based on Nintendo’s same-name video game series that stars a cute, bulbous alien–could be considered gender-neutral. The rest of the shows, whether it’s the wrestling-themed Ultimate Muscle: The Kinnikuman Legacy, sci-fi superhero show Ultraman Tiga or the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (slated to debut in Q1 ’03), all are full-on boys action. However, Kahn is wary of characterizing them as such, noting that each contains solid female characters and comedic elements that elevate them above the conventional superhero vehicle.
Even at Kids’ WB!, which has ridden kick-ass boys fare like Jackie Chan Adventures to the perch of top cable channel for boys six to 11, execs are wary of pigeonholing their flagship shows as boys action. Executive VP Donna Friedman eschews the ‘A’ word altogether, favoring the term ‘high adventure.’ While on the surface Kids’ WB! shows like X-Men: Evolution and Static Shock may seem like standard superhero shows, at their core, Friedman says they’re about kids and teens and what they’re going through.
‘Every one of our story meetings starts out asking the question, ‘What’s going on in the main characters’ lives?” says Friedman. The superheroes-with-issues formula signifies a departure from the crash and bash of shows like Power Rangers, says Kids’ WB! VP of programming and development John Hardman, and is consistent with the type of programs he anticipates other nets will run this fall.
Cartoon Network VP of programming Terry Kalagian agrees that an evolution in storytelling is partially responsible for raising the profile of boys action State-side. She credits this shift to the popularity of anime and its use of the serialization device, in which story arcs for shows like Dragon Ball Z often play out over six or seven episodes. That kind of narrative approach, which Kalagian says Cartoon has incorporated into many of its own shows (like Justice League), encourages kids to invest more in the characters and stories than the self-contained 30-minute packages they’re used to digesting.
Though the type of boys action kidnets desire varies depending on their brand positioning, the message that boys are today’s prime flavor is clearly registering with producers and distributors. And in the case of Ace Lightning co-producer/distributor AAC Kids, the timing couldn’t be better. About a year ago, the company identified boys action as one of its three main areas of focus for show development and acquisition. Unlike tween comedies (which AAC Kids had been co-producing but has since jettisoned from its production slate), action offers a better risk-versus-reward ratio in terms of longevity and licensing opportunities, says Faier. And Nick and Disney getting into boys action represents a selling opportunity for AAC Kids, since neither net has historically produced that type of product internally.
Initially, Faier believes that network demand for boys action will be filled by anime since it’s the product that’s currently available. Development cycle lag time may mean that new projects won’t hit the market for another year. Faier says he’s looking for action-adventure shows that feature strong protagonists with whom kids can easily identify. And like many other execs, he says he isn’t interested in partnering on shows that feature a lot of hard-core battling.
As the testosterone level rises, there’s a palpable sense that many industry execs are still wary of endorsing boys action product that’s too edgy, lest they get mired in an action backlash like Fox/Saban experienced with Power Rangers in the mid-’90s. In the post-Columbine TV universe, in which many parents see a causal link between violent programming and kid/teen aggression, producers have been grappling with market sensitivities while trying to remain true to the genre’s dramatic rules.
‘It’s really hard,’ says Scholastic senior VP of television programming Ken Olshansky, previously senior VP of creative affairs at Sunbow, which produced G.I. Joe and Transformers. ‘For years, these broadcasters have been looking for action without violence and heroes without weapons.’
While that situation hasn’t changed much, Olshansky says producers can and have successfully delivered action by compartmentalizing it. In shows like Pokémon, for example, all of the action takes place within the context of sport. ‘You have these monster characters who are trained to fight and who have respect for the rules of the sport and their competition’s abilities. It’s not just blow ‘em up sequences,’ he says.
Kevin Mowrer, CEO and co-founder of Rhode Island-based prodco The Story Hat, agrees that locating the proper context for action is the key to making responsible shows that can be placed on a network. Whereas in the ’80s and mid-’90s (the genre’s last golden era) action took precedence over story, today’s more responsible approach is to have such sequences flow naturally from what the characters are doing.
Along with placing a greater emphasis on story, The Story Hat is careful to avoid the loaded symbolism of guns or massive explosions in its shows. ‘The goal is to reach a certain level of action and emotional intensity. It’s harder to do, but when you achieve it, it can be much more rewarding,’ says Mowrer. Indeed, futuristic racing concept Dragon Booster (which Story Hat is developing with Digital Assets and AAC Kids) places all of the action in race sequences. Similarly, in Finster the Monster Truck–about a boy who discovers and befriends a sentient monster truck–the action takes place in mystery-solving expeditions. (For more on The Story Hat’s slate, see ‘Shaking up the rules of property development’ on page 26.)
The increasing importance of the international market–especially Western Europe, which has historically demonstrated a lower threshold for violent kids fare–is another reason for prodcos to tone down the karate chops. Five or 10 years ago, a U.S. network would cover most of your production costs, so it didn’t matter if you got overseas broadcast commitments, says Mike Young, CEO and namesake of Mike Young Productions. ‘Nowadays, if you can’t sell your show around the world,’ he says, ‘in the words of the Bard, ‘You’re screwed.”
In developing a new version of He-Man, which began airing on Cartoon Network last month, the violence/action quotient is more subtly inserted–implied rather than overt. To achieve that, MYP borrowed heavily from anime–using strong posing, plot lines, and Byzantine back stories for each of the characters.
Though Richard Morss, a managing director at U.K. prodco Banjax, recognizes why broadcasters and parents have concerns about violence, he thinks forcing producers to ostensibly sanitize it through race sequences and other symbolic devices is ludicrous. ‘The more we back away from that, the more dishonest we’re being as human beings. And if the networks don’t want it, then they’re wrong,’ says Morss.
In 3-D CGI sci-fi series Gene-Fusion, which Banjax is co-developing with Dallas-based Beckett Publishing, Morss hasn’t ruled out the possibility of characters dying. ‘I’m not encouraging gratuitous violence, but I think you have to show that people can get hurt–that there are consequences to actions,’ says Morss. Originally launched as a comic book with plans for a video game in development, Banjax and Beckett will be shopping the show–set on a post-apocalyptic Earth following nuclear holocaust and targeting kids nine to 14–at MIPCOM for the first time this fall.
Though he’s willing to work within network confines, Story Hat’s Mowrer agrees with Morss about the societal value boys action offers. Says Mowrer: ‘I think that boys action shows are really all about an exploration of the target demo’s emerging feelings of aggression. They need a venue that lets them know what it’s like to feel upset, angry, aggressive, heroic–male. As long as a show wraps appropriate action in a moral context, includes a consequence and a choice, and offers some resolution for those feelings, then that gets us to a healthy place for kids.’