U.K. kidnets bank on stunts and strong fall commissions

This fall, four free-to-air broadcasters and 17 kids channels will scrap it out for a share of the three main kid zones on British TV--weekday mornings (6 a.m. to 10 a.m.), weekday afternoons (3:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.) and weekend pre-lunch viewing. It should be a hell of a fight.
September 1, 2002

This fall, four free-to-air broadcasters and 17 kids channels will scrap it out for a share of the three main kid zones on British TV–weekday mornings (6 a.m. to 10 a.m.), weekday afternoons (3:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.) and weekend pre-lunch viewing. It should be a hell of a fight.

Six million of the U.K.’s 20 million-plus homes subscribe to leading pay-TV platform SkyDigital, which carries the full complement of kids networks. But weekday afternoons are still dominated by the big free-to-air broadcasters the BBC and CiTV, which have the competitive advantage of being available to all U.K. homes. In addition, the BBC and CiTV have well-established programming brands and big budgets for original production–factors that keep them well ahead of the pack.

At the BBC, which has US$700 million earmarked for kids programming this season, magazine show Blue Peter and news bulletin Newsround are hardy perennials that always land at the top of the weekly ratings and are currently attracting between 700,000 and 800,000 viewers each.

In terms of original output, the Beeb’s fall lineup is headed up by two major preschool shows. Produced by Novel Entertainment, Fimbles follows the adventures of Fimbo, Florrie and Baby Pom, who live in an enchanted valley where they find everyday objects that act as the starting point for storytelling, songs, learning and humor. With the Beeb and distribution arm BBC Worldwide investing US$6.3 million in the show, the hope is that Fimbles will emerge as a successor to Teletubbies and Tweenies. The other new preschool show is Balamory (produced by BBC Scotland), a daily live-action series set on the small (fictitious) Scottish island of Mull. The cast is a mixture of kids and adults–led by nursery school teacher Ms. Hoolie, PC Plum and Edie McCready the bus driver.

Topping the BBC’s tween/teen drama slate is Cavegirl (produced by Two Hats), a comedy about a 15-year-old girl growing up in prehistoric times and facing issues familiar to a contemporary teen.

With the exception of CGI/live-action series Ace Lightning (currently in production), the BBC tends to rely on acquisitions for animation targeting older kids. For fall, key titles include Cubix (4Kids) and Fairly Odd Parents (Nick). Further down the line are CGI/live-action series Galidor (Lego and CinéGroupe, with Tom Lynch) and fast-paced European toon comedies for the eight to 12 set like Lily the Witch (Magma of Ireland) and Zombie Hotel (Alphanim).

At advertiser-funded rival CiTV, it’s been a torrid year of savage cuts imposed in response to the global economic downturn. But the storm clouds seem to be clearing, and CiTV controller Janie Grace is anticipating a financial boost in 2003, when ITV plans to pad programming budgets for all departments. Among highlights for spring ’03 is the new 104 x 20-minute Ragdoll preschool series Boobah, which has been commissioned jointly with CiTV’s breakfast-time broadcaster GMTV.

Unfortunately, this blue-sky outlook comes too late for fall 2002. CiTV’s priority this season will be to survive the inevitable BBC onslaught with a view to fighting back in 2003. To this end, it should be helped by a new pact with Nick UK that will enable it to debut toons like The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron and SpongeBob SquarePants–in return for sub-licensing preschool series Kipper and Maisy.

ITV should also maintain its grip on Saturday mornings, thanks to magazine show SMTV:Live, which managed to fend off the BBC’s own revamped weekend flagship The Saturday Show last fall, netting 34.2% of kids ages four to 15 from September to December 2001 compared to The Saturday Show’s 22.7% (Source: BARB/TN Sofres). Of course, the channel won’t be able to rest on its ratings success for long with BBC kids supremo Nigel Pickard making Saturday a priority and relying on a new presenting team to claw back some share.

For the other free-to-air networks, kids are a lesser focus. Channel 4, like CiTV, has been hit hard by the recession. Chief executive Mark Thompson recently axed 200 jobs and reorganized his commissioning structure. Current priorities include acquisitions targeted at older teens/young adults–notably Dawson’s Creek and Angel. In preschool, C4 will still air The Hoobs this season, as well as continuing to make the inclusion of educational programming part of its public remit.

Channel 5′s emphasis is on younger children, who are targeted during the weekday morning slot. Over the summer, C5 acquired 100 episodes of Chorion’s new CGI series Make Way for Noddy, which it adds to a preschool slate anchored by Barney and Bear in the Big Blue House. That said, C5 does pursue older kids with teen soap The Tribe, which is stripped at 9 a.m. on weekdays. It also picked up terrestrial rights to Columbia TriStar’s CGI-enhanced series Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future (26 x half hour).

While the BBC and ITV’s universal distribution means they get top-rated shows, the market levels out dramatically within digital homes (see chart). This relentless erosion of network audiences explains why the BBC was anxious to launch its own thematic offerings–CBBC (older kids) and Cbeebies (preschool). These join a battle for digital viewers dominated by Cartoon Network (Turner), Nickelodeon, Disney and Fox Kids (which still operates independently despite being Disney-owned).

The only other dedicated kids channels are Discovery Kids and teen channel Trouble–though it’s important not to forget pay-TV entertainment network Sky One, which strips Batman, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon as a morning block. Women’s channel Living also has a preschool block called Tiny Living, for which it recently acquired HIT’s Oswald and Southern Star magazine show Hi-5.

All four of the big kids diginets run the same schedule as their flagship networks on a one-hour delay. In addition, most have spin-offs that target sub-groups within the kids demo. The exception is Fox Kids, which is focusing its efforts on stretching its audience profile beyond boys ages four to nine. Although new toons like CinéGroupe’s Pig City (52 x half hour) and returning titles such as Digimon and Shin Chan are intended to appeal to the core Fox demo, Medabots was acquired to help up-age the profile. Likewise, FKN’s new anime acquisition Hamtaro is viewed as a hook for girls. Says marketing chief Allan Stenhouse: ‘It’s a softer show that should build on the work we’ve done by adding Totally Spies! and Braceface to the schedule.’

At Turner, Boomerang is a vehicle for classic Hanna-Barbera toons like Scooby-Doo, while Cartoon Network concentrates on anime and U.S. originals. Top toons like Samurai Jack and The Powerpuff Girls are complemented by two new shows this fall: Time Squad and Grim & Evil. Time Squad follows the adventures of an eight-year-old orphan who travels through time to ensure history keeps happening the way it’s supposed to. Grim & Evil is two toons in one–The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, about two kids who befriend the Grim Reaper; and Evil Con Carne, which kicks off with the brain and stomach of a human playboy being implanted in a trained bear.

With Fox Kids and Cartoon placing so much emphasis on animation, it’s perhaps no surprise that Nickelodeon has decided to enter the fray with a dedicated network called Nicktoons TV that launched in July. Nick UK chief executive Howard Litton says Nicktoons has been in gestation for some time. ‘With Nick Jr. hitting the zero to four audience and the main Nick channel settling on kids ages eight to 13, we saw an opportunity to use our library of animation to bridge the gap. We have great toons like Real Monsters, Rocko’s Modern Life, The Wild Thornberrys and SpongeBob SquarePants, which haven’t had the airplay they deserve in the U.K.’ And with The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron debuting in the fall, Litton expects this momentum to be maintained.

Nick also faces tough competition in preschool, where it competes with Playhouse Disney and Cbeebies–the latter thriving on Teletubbies and Tweenies. Nevertheless, Litton is confident that recent additions like Dora the Explorer and U.K.-produced magazine show You Do Too (a low-budget arts & craft series set in a fictional Nick Jr. post-room) stand the channel in good stead.

While critics complain that the BBC diginets have an unfair advantage in being able to cross-promote with the free-to-air networks, the U.S.-backed kids networks have promotional advantages of their own. Last fall, Nick marketed its flagship show Sabrina heavily to coincide with the debut of made-for-TV movie Sabrina in Paris. Litton says this strategy will be reprised this fall with the arrival of a new Sabrina season. All 140 episodes of the show will be aired back-to-back–a stunt expected to result in a huge draw.

As for Disney, the priority will be to steal some of the tween girl thunder away from Sabrina. According to Mary Bredin, director of acquisitions and programming at Walt Disney Television International, Disney Channel fall launches include the Olsen Twin series So Little Time, a new season of Lizzie McGuire and a Nelvana Christmas special called Santa Claus Brothers.

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