Canuck channels aim to

Budget constraints, increased competition and scheduling gaps give Canadian kids programmers the same headaches every year. But this year has seemed particularly rough with a so-called digital revolution that's been slow in coming to fruition, and programmers struggling with drops in both production and funding levels.
September 1, 2002

Budget constraints, increased competition and scheduling gaps give Canadian kids programmers the same headaches every year. But this year has seemed particularly rough with a so-called digital revolution that’s been slow in coming to fruition, and programmers struggling with drops in both production and funding levels.

‘There are peaks and valleys in broadcasting,’ says Pat Ellingson, creative head of children’s, youth and daytime programming for TVO. ‘Right now, two valleys have hit at the same time.’ Of course, with the fall season approaching and audiences expecting refreshed programming, no one can afford to wait out these dips. So, what can be done?

While not all Canadian programmers face the exact same challenges–diginets have penetration issues that broadcasters don’t have to consider, for example–all seem to be taking the same tack this year. Whether it’s retrenching or expanding, every channel is striving to further define its brand against its competitors.

Family Channel–which has enjoyed healthy growth this past year with its audience share of kids two to 11 (9.5%) up over 13% from last year–is adopting a new brand strategy this fall. Encapsulated in the tag ‘Never a Dull Moment,’ the new positioning is more in tune with how its core audience (kids ages eight to 11) experiences family life, says director of marketing Russell Ward.

The plan is to reinforce that concept at every turn. For example, Family’s after-school block, which will start an hour earlier at 3 p.m. and run until 6 p.m., will be called Mad Dash. Taking advantage of the channel’s commercial-free status, the block will be packed with seven back-to-back shows, leaving little opportunity for kids to change channels, says Ward.

Family will introduce nine new shows for fall, many of which are as close to sure things as you can get. Nickelodeon sketch comedy mainstay All That will be paired with The Amanda Show to build up the genre, says manager of programming Donna Dos Reis. Since launching in March 2002, The Amanda Show has become the network’s top-rated series, netting 11% more viewers ages two to 11 in its weekday slot than its nearest competitor Lizzie McGuire does on the weekend.

Less a sure thing is Henry’s World, which hasn’t aired anywhere yet and didn’t have a U.S. broadcaster lined up at press time. An AAC Kids co-production with Loonland UK, in association with Cuppa Coffee Animation and Family, Henry’s World–the first stop-motion animated series produced entirely in Canada–features an eight-year-old boy who gains extraordinary powers when he eats his mother’s overcooked carrots.

Rounding out Family’s new show slate are Disney’s Kim Possible and Teamo Supremo, Power Rangers Wild Force, Boy Meets World, You Wish, Teen Angel and Nowhere Man.

Last March, Family launched the Sunday Pick Double Flick noon block featuring two back-to-back movies. Audience numbers for the noon time slot increased by 56% with kids two to 11, while the proceeding 1:30 p.m. slot saw a 17% jump with the same demo. The success prompted the channel to add Saturday afternoon and Friday night movies to its schedule for this fall.

Tagged Non-Stop Weekend Double Pix, the matinee block will run two movies in a row, while the Friday night Popcorn Pix block will just feature one. Many of the flicks will be supplied by Disney (including new originals like Soul Patrol, a Halloween comedy starring Monty Python’s Eric Idle), with third-party films including Look Who’s Talking Too and The Freshman filling in the gaps.

Family is not the only specialty channel that plans to fully tap into the apparently insatiable demand for good family movies. A key component to YTV’s fall strategy is the expansion of its Three Hairy Thumbs Up weekend movie block.

With eyeballs up 30% over fall 2000 numbers for the same time-slots, YTV has decided to make the block a mainstay of its schedule. Close to 900,000 Canadians tuned into the weekend block each week last season–and they weren’t all kids. In fact, Three Hairy Thumbs Up boosted the channel’s adult-to-kid ratio from 1:3 in fall 2000 to 1:2 after its launch last fall. ‘There seems to be a return to the family tradition of sitting down together and watching TV,’ says Corus VP of children’s television Susan Ross.

This year, THTU will be expanded to run throughout the entire year, airing movies like Sabrina The Teenage Witch: Forever Friends, Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

YTV is also growing and shifting its tween/teen fright block The Dark Corner–featuring shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dead Last–to air later on both Friday and Saturday nights in order to net more older viewers. New older-skewing additions to the YTV sked at large include What I Like About You, an Amanda Bynes sitcom about a rambunctious teen who moves in with her uptight older sister; and Decode’s Girlstuff/Boystuff, an animated Friends for early teens.

Last year, Teletoon put forth a concerted effort to branch out into adult realms with the launch of two not-for-kids blocks called Retro and Unleashed. In addition to doing well with their primary adult target, these new offerings racked up a substantial teen draw, helping to bump Teletoon up from the number-five to number-three specialty channel with the 12 to 17 set. Aiming to build on these results, Teletoon is setting its crosshairs directly on teens with a new daily block called The Detour, which will air from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Top-lining The Detour’s sked will be Cartoon Network pick-ups Time Squad and Grim and Evil, CinéGroupe’s Flash-animated sitcom Daft Planet and existing series like Ren & Stimpy and Spy Groove.

Teletoon VP of programming Carole Bonneau claims that the new focus on teens doesn’t mean the channel’s core audience of kids two to 11 will be neglected. With only a 60% penetration, Teletoon managed to increase its share of that demo to 13.9% last year. To keep the momentum up, Teletoon will add the internationally hot Totally Spies!, Scooby revamp What’s New Scooby-Doo? and Sony’s stop-motion mystery series Phantom Investigators to its roster this fall.

Meanwhile, Teletoon’s preschool audience can tune into new series Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings (Cinar), along with new episodes of Nelvana’s Maggie and the Ferocious Beast, Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse and Pecola.

On the digital front, things aren’t as sunny. The so-called digital revolution, while not exactly a bust, hasn’t lived up to expectations. Corus’s Discovery Kids, for example, has a household penetration of just 15%. ‘Like all digital channels, we’re not where we first projected we’d be,’ says Ross. To drum up interest for the net, Corus is currently nesting a one-hour DK block on YTV at 2 p.m. on Sundays, with a view towards driving viewers between the two nets.

In the meantime, because its audience level isn’t yet at its peak, DK has only four new shows for the fall season–and only one of these is an original production. Produced by Apartment 11 in association with Discovery Networks International, Mystery Hunters is a live-action series (26 x half hour) that follows two teenage investigative reporters bent on solving the world’s greatest mysteries. Ross is optimistic that DK’s audience will grow, which would give it more financial leeway for co-pros and commissions. ‘It’s a gem just waiting for penetration,’ she says.

Provincial broadcaster TVO, long a bastion of preschool programming, is looking to secure a stronger teen audience for its Sunday night VOX TV teen block that launched last year. ‘It’s been doing quite well–better than I expected in year one,’ says Ellingson. Half-hour magazine show VOX, which airs smack in the middle of the block, was reaching 18% of Ontario’s 700,000 kids ages 10 to 14 at last count and will return this year.

New additions to VOX include the first season of It’s a Living (a CBC-produced series that explores an array of different jobs across Canada) and U.K. reality show Trex, which follows six British teenagers as they work their way around the world. If the shows seem somewhat similar–in that they both deal with the career choices a young person makes when leaving high school–it’s because TVO has formalized its education mandate, reporting to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities with a business plan that aims to link each program to the provincial K-12 curriculum.

One of the channel’s younger-skewing shows that most excites children’s and youth acquisitions officer Frances James is The Way Things Work, a classic 2-D series based on the best-selling book by David Macaulay that explains how different machines work. Produced by Millimages, the 26 x 15-minute series took more than four years to complete, as the producers tried various formats and animation styles during development to make sure they were capturing the essence of the book.

TVO’s preschool block The Nook is still going strong on weekday mornings, with June 2002 ratings results giving it a 14% share of two- to 11-year-olds and a third-place ranking with that demo behind Teletoon (15.4%) and YTV (14.3%). The block will continue to serve preschool and early-grade viewers with four new fall series including Merlin, the Magical Puppy, a stop-frame animated series produced by Little Entertainment Company; and The Wheels on the Bus, a 3-D CGI series produced by Winchester Television, 3D Films and CYP Creations Limited.

Giving The Nook a run for its money, Corus’s Treehouse TV will add Max & Ruby (Nelvana/Silver Lining Productions), The Mole Sisters (Funbag Animation/Screentiger Ltd.), The Berenstain Bears (Nelvana) and Tipi Tales (Eagle Vision Productions Inc.) to its sked.

CBC Kids’ Get Set for Life preschool block, meanwhile, has increased the channel’s weekday morning rating by 60% since 1999 and now holds the top Canadian morning spot, according to creative head of children’s and youth programming Cheryl Hassen. She says this growth is a direct result of a strategic shift to embrace high-quality programming and a hosted on-air structure in an effort to combat the audience erosion that ensued when specialty channels were introduced eight years ago.

The block is forgoing a fall launch this year, but will be introducing two new shows–Me, Too (Zone Three) and The Save-Ums! (Decode/The Dan Clark Company)–in January.

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