TV specials: Steady business in a shaky kids entertainment market

While competition for kids slots is always fierce, the balance of power tends to shift in the production community's favor for major holidays. Broadcasters typically fall into repeat patterns with their year-long programming around Christmas, Easter and Halloween, and end up actively seeking specials to spike ratings and audience levels - which translates into a solid annual business for entertainment companies with healthy holiday programming portfolios.
January 8, 2003

While competition for kids slots is always fierce, the balance of power tends to shift in the production community’s favor for major holidays. Broadcasters typically fall into repeat patterns with their year-long programming around Christmas, Easter and Halloween, and end up actively seeking specials to spike ratings and audience levels – which translates into a solid annual business for entertainment companies with healthy holiday programming portfolios.

And with new independent outfits strategizing for market survival (see ‘The indie influx,’ page 52), the focus on specials has intensified. To wit: With sale and leaseback financing (a tax break used to fund original productions) nixed on series production in the U.K. last April, Brit producers are looking to theatrical productions and specials, for which such funding is still available.

London-based indie studio BA20 is breaking into specials with the half-hour family concept Jack Frost, based on a book by children’s author David Melling that will be published this November. The 2-D special follows the story of a little boy whose arrival in an enchanted forest opens the supernatural gates to goblins that have long coveted the forest’s magic. It’s up to the boy – dubbed Jack Frost because everything he touches freezes – to save the day. At press time, BA20 founder Alastair Swinnerton had three financing options for Jack Frost: giving it over to a broadcaster, going the U.K./France/Canada co-pro route, or taking it theatrical and applying for Film Council funding. Whichever way it shakes out, Swinnerton expects production on the special (budgeted at US$1.5 million) to begin later this year for delivery in 2004, and he recently signed executive producer John Coates (The Snowman) and U.K. studio Stardust to the project.

Jack Frost’s key selling point is that it isn’t thematically tied to a holiday. ‘One of the drawbacks to holiday-specific programming is that it really limits our scheduling flexibility,’ notes Terry Kalagian, VP of programming for Cartoon Network in the U.S. For less consumer-driven holidays such as Thanksgiving, ‘if you can pull together [regular] episodes that have to do with food and getting together, you can create an event, which makes more sense than acquiring or producing a special to fit that holiday.’

ABC Kids employs a similar strategy for Down Under holidays such as Australia Day and the Queen’s Birthday. ‘In 2002, we programmed a ‘Royal Rumble’ festival on the Queen’s Birthday with shows about kings and queens,’ says ABC Kids programmer Deirdre Brennan. What’s more, one of Brennan’s favorite ABC-aired specials of 2002 was Hamilton Mattress. ‘One-off specials work really well for us and can be used throughout the calendar year,’ she says.

For some broadcasters, scheduling generic specials around specific holidays is a matter of market supply. ‘We don’t have the tradition the U.S. has with Halloween, but it is becoming more important in Germany,’ says Super RTL acquisitions and co-productions executive Oliver Schablitski. ‘We try to find programs for it, but get the feeling there isn’t much out there.’

Even in the U.S., where Halloween is the number-two holiday in terms of consumer spending, ‘there’s not much attention paid to it on TV,’ says Bob Higgins, Classic Media’s senior VP of production and creative. Maureen Smith, a partner at L.A.-based TLC Entertainment, offers an explanation: ‘Halloween is really tricky – it’s hard to do it and be family. When you think about the theatrical releases around Halloween, they’re mostly slasher films.’

Going forward, Halloween specials will be a focus for both companies. Of the four specials TLC currently has in active development, one is for Halloween. At press time, Classic Media was awaiting a broadcast offer for a new half-hour special focused on Casper the Friendly Ghost and a host of other Harvey characters.

Producers with completed Halloween specials in their distribution goody bags may be in for a treat in Australia. ‘We will be exploring more opportunities for holiday-based programming events in 2003/2004,’ says ABC Kids’ Brennan. ‘While Easter and Christmas are traditionally important, we will also consider other calendar events such as Halloween.’

Easter is another holiday for which broadcasters often air generic specials. In the U.K., ‘Easter tends to be more about spring specials,’ says former HIT senior VP of international television and home entertainment John Morris. ‘HIT releases them around Easter because many people are on holiday – they get out to retail, and broadcasters have a holiday schedule.’ The company is offering a Bob the Builder special this Easter – tentatively titled The Knights of Can-A-Lot – that finds Bob having to reconstruct a castle ruin.

In the U.S., Easter doesn’t have the programming thrust it once did. ‘Years ago, there was a lot of animation around Q2 to try to bring in retail dollars,’ says Terry Botwick, president of Lombard, Illinois-based Big Idea Productions. ‘That kind of faded away, but broadcasters may be looking at that time of year again to bring fresh dollars into the network during a repeat cycle.’ That’s what Botwick and Big Idea are banking on as they wrap production on a new VeggieTales musical special entitled An Easter Carol for delivery next spring.

Of course, Christmas remains the one holiday around which competition escalates for both established classics and new programming that has the potential to become a channel signature. U.S. network CBS, which has aired Rankin/Bass classics such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns for years, acquired BBC stop-motion specials Robbie the Reindeer in Hooves of Fire and its sequel Legend of the Lost Tribe for Christmas 2002. To make the Brit imports more palatable for potential U.S. buyers, BBC re-voiced them using celebrity talent including Ben Stiller (as Robbie), Britney Spears and James Woods.

Broadcasters remain committed to Christmas for a number of reasons: to serve their current audience, to broaden their audience base, to improve ratings, and to attract Q4 advertisers. Christmas specials allow ‘us to program the network in a way that connects with our viewers’ lives,’ says Cartoon Network’s Kalagian. ‘This is what is going on in their world, and in order to continue to be a part of their world, we have to program accordingly.’

Of course, there are some economic factors behind that rather altruistic programming strategy – in Q4, advertisers are looking to piggy-back their messages on the feel-good bubble of holiday specials. ‘Specials are a great way to involve your customers,’ says Corus president of television Paul Robertson. ‘On YTV, we’ve always programmed several hours of Christmas specials, and they get well supported through sponsorship.’ They also boost viewership: ‘Christmas is a time when you see kids and adults co-viewing,’ says TLC’s Smith. ‘Many people say they would like to achieve that with their programming, but it’s very rare.’ Formerly president of Fox Family Channel (now ABC Family), Smith says December was always the channel’s highest-rated month of the year, thanks to an annual programming stunt called The 25 Days of Christmas (which ABC Family continued in 2002).

Drawing on the 2002 sales success of its movie package, DIC Entertainment has culled its library to create a syndicated holiday package for 2003 encompassing Halloween (Monster Mash and Archie’s Halloween Mysteries), Christmas (A Christmas Carol and Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas) and Martin Luther King Day (Our Friend Martin). Targeted at local U.S. stations, the animated package is set to premiere this Halloween, and the plan is to sell it on an advertiser-supported basis. ‘The package will be sold to all of the stations where we each retain seven [advertising] minutes per hour – so there’ll be no license fee,’ says DIC senior VP of domestic television David Ozer.

DIC is also looking at the possibility of a network package, and if it decides to offer its holiday bundle internationally, some tweaking may be required. Martin Luther King may be globally revered, but placing a special on him during a peak holiday programming period could prove difficult for many kidnets outside the U.S. ‘A lot of specials get made for the American market, and the rest of the world is an afterthought,’ says TV-Loonland COO David Ferguson, whose company’s holiday portfolio includes Donner, Santa’s Special Delivery and Timothy Tweedle. ‘If you do a Christmas special with elements like snow, you exclude half the world because they don’t want specials with no relevance to their geography.’ On the flip side, you risk alienating the all-important U.S. market by going too generic. ‘While Europeans will create themed events around specials that are not necessarily Christmas-tagged, we have more limitations here,’ says Alex Drosin, president of New York-based Broadway Video Enterprises (BVE), distributor of A Freezerburnt Christmas. ‘U.S. broadcasters are reluctant to air a special without the traditional elements.’

That said, all of the broadcasters interviewed for this piece expressed interest in the package concept, provided that the in-package quality is consistently high and that the content suits both the local market and the channel. Super RTL recently picked up A Christmas Carol for broadcast this year, and other producers are taking note: ‘I think it’s a viable idea, though hardly new,’ says Big Idea’s Botwick. ‘CGI [Big Idea's forte] takes a healthy amount of time to produce, but we could probably work with somebody and contribute some shows into a package.’

But recouping production costs is the most pressing issue for producers of holiday specials. Depending on production value and style, a half-hour special can run between US$700,000 and US$1.75 million, though most come in around the US$1-million mark. ‘You shouldn’t try to cheap out with a special because you’re depending on it to come back every year,’ cautions Classic Media’s Higgins. One way to reduce upfront costs is to produce a special as part of a series. ‘If you’re producing 13 episodes, you can keep the crew on and essentially do episode 14 as a special,’ says Higgins. ‘Whereas if you went out of production and six months later decided to do a special, it would cost more because you’d have to ramp up charges again.’

According to Morris, who claims that Bob the Builder specials cost approximately 25% more per minute to produce than a typical Bob episode, the extra costs are more about what goes into specials. ‘We have to make special sets since the stories take place in a different time and place narratively, whereas in a series you can reuse sets.’ Even so, TV-L’s Ferguson says that going forward, he’ll only be producing specials within a series: ‘I’d probably make a movie out of a few episodes with some bridge animation sequences. Making a special without a series or movie attached to it is difficult to justify economically.’

A producer’s initial recoup options are basically the same as on a series – license fees, sponsorship and international distribution. But ‘broadcasters will only put up a small percentage of the budget these days, and specials travel only so far,’ says BVE’s Drosin. ‘You really have to rely upon a strong retail presence, tying in some licensing if you can and, most importantly, a properly marketed home video campaign.’

When it comes to launching a holiday special, the question of whether to go broadcast or home video sparks debate. If you’re producing a special based on a series or character, it may make sense to go the home video route. HIT typically does this in the U.S. and U.K. markets, where ‘video retailers like to have material that hasn’t been shown on TV,’ says Morris. ‘And it doesn’t seem to bother the TV side at all – it actually helps broadcasters because the year before there’s a lot of promotion around the video, so it’s a ready-made audience for them.’

For other producers, financing dictates the direction of a special’s debut. ‘We typically go broadcast first, in part because we’re often accessing Canadian funding, but also because if you can get it on air first, you can build up a market for it and then make it a renewable resource on video,’ says Nelvana’s executive VP of production Scott Dyer. Classic’s Higgins concurs: ‘When a special has a broadcast home, it helps with the after-video market – you tend to get higher sell-in at retail, and you’ll also sell through more because there’s a recognition factor.’

Still others claim that the video/broadcast question is simply a chicken-and-egg situation – both are a concurrent part of the overall strategy. ‘There was a time when broadcast was reluctant to air something that was in video first [and vice versa on the vid retailer side],’ says Big Idea’s Botwick. ‘But those walls have been broken down, and if a street date happens to precede a broadcast airing, it’s not really relevant for perennial product.’

Editor’s note: The electronic version of this article has been edited from the original print version in order to correct or clarify some information that it contained.

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