While most programmers strive to pack their lineups with shows that tap into kid psychographics, few go to the lengths that Canadian pubcaster the CBC does to understand the formulas that create a kid connection.
‘I try not to be whimsical when selecting shows,’ says Cheryl Hassen, the CBC’s children’s and youth programming head. ‘If I have a great show about dragons, I want to know exactly what it is about it that kids relate to.’
Hassen does more than pay lip service to achieving that goal. After assuming the CBC kids remit in August 2001, she brought in child psychologist Dr. Lynn Oldershaw to help her staff and the producers they work with incorporate kids’ developmental milestones into programming, as well as mapping out the age-appropriate themes that govern each of the net’s three blocks.
The strategy is clearly paying off. For the last two years, the CBC has owned the all-important 8 a.m. to noon weekday window in Canada with its Get Set For Life preschool block, and the channel seems poised to make significant gains with its after-school and youth/teen blocks this year.
Broadcasting 43 hours of mostly non-commercial programming per week, the CBC divides its kids schedule into three day parts. During weekdays between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., it airs strips of Cinar’s Arthur and Pepper’s Ghost/Sesame Workshop’s Tiny Planets, before moving into the Get Set for Life block until noon. Kids programming returns at 4 p.m. with the tween-skewing Infomatrix block, and then an hour-long teen block at 5 p.m. closes out the kids day. The net also airs preschool fare on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Preschool remains the mainstay of the CBC schedule. With powerhouse shows like Scholastic’s Clifford the Big Red Dog and Sesame Workshop’s Dragon Tales in its fold, Get Set For Life drew a 22% share of the two to 11 demo from September to December 2002, during which time the block’s series swept the top-10 TV show list with two- to five-year-olds. The CBC’s next closest competitors, Corus-owned YTV and animation specialty service Teletoon, each managed only a 12% share, followed by Family Channel and PBS (which pipes in from the U.S.) at 10%, and preschool channel Treehouse TV with a 9% share.
Targeting two- to five-year-olds, shows airing in Get Set for Life all adhere to the theme of ‘Explore, Discover, Learn’ since Oldershaw says kids in that demo are enthusiastic explorers who enjoy solving problems. These ideas provide the backbone of Decode Entertainment’s The Save-Ums!, which debuted in the block last November. ‘The characters are completely resilient. Each episode, they try to figure out a problem – and if they fail, they try again,’ says Oldershaw, who has worked closely with Decode on the show since its inception, suggesting ways in which the characters might turn a phrase or react to a situation.
Beyond programming, Oldershaw has been instrumental in raising awareness for the Get Set For Life brand and schedule via a monthly parenting column she writes for Today’s Parent magazine.
Given Get Set For Life’s solid base, Hassen isn’t eager to alter the block’s lineup, and at most envisions adding only one or two shows for next year. Topping her wishlist are story-rich series like Bob the Builder that offer a high episode count and staying power beyond a couple of years. Shows can be live-action or animated, but they don’t necessarily need to be ‘educational.’
One of Hassen’s pet peeves is when producers are too quick to tout their shows’ educational attributes without knowing exactly how or what they teach. ‘Just saying a show will inform kids about the world around them is not good enough for us.’
Though the CBC’s preschool draw remains strong, attracting tweens has been a much bigger challenge. Between September and December 2002, the Infomatrix block averaged a 6% share of the six to 14 age bracket, putting it a distant fifth behind leader YTV, followed by Family Channel, Teletoon and CanWest Global. That position is not surprising considering that prior to Infomatrix’s launch last March, the CBC’s kid offering consisted exclusively of preschool and early elementary shows like Clifford and Arthur – programming that wasn’t likely to pique the interest of tweens arriving home after school.
With ‘See yourself, Be yourself’ as its unofficial moniker, Infomatrix is heavily weighted with reality-based programming that promotes kid involvement. Exemplifying the skew are plenty of in-house interstitials in which kids interview celebrities or debate the merits of a particular music video. More traditional escapist fare that also fits into the tween mandate includes AAC Kids/BBC co-production Ace Lightning and Mainframe’s Reboot. Competency is a major theme for this demo, and showing kids taking charge of life is an element that runs throughout the block, says Oldershaw. Even acquired shows like Ace Lightning, which stars a real kid who has to deal with his own tween issues while playing sidekick to his superhero pal, help promote those values.
But despite the new block, the CBC has yet to see an uptick in its share of the tween audience in the 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. slot. And without the marketing heft of its private-sector competitors, Infomatrix faces an uphill climb. Nonetheless, Hassen is confident new programming initiatives will help realize some ratings hikes. Along with the much-anticipated fall debut of Decode’s Blobheads, the net plans to double its number of in-house produced interstitials to 16 minutes and is also devising an off-channel marketing strategy to boost tween awareness of the block.
On the acquisitions front, Hassen will be looking to pick up at least two new programs for 2004. A live-action series like Disney’s The Amanda Show would be ideal, says Hassen, who is less interested in animated shows for this space unless they’re truly exceptional.
CBC has fared better with its youth/teen block. Anchored by a strip of The Simpsons and a mix of factual shows like the CBC-produced teen consumer advocacy program Streets Cents, the 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. block scored an 11% share with the six- to 14-year-old audience between September and December 2002, placing it third behind YTV and Family Channel.
Officially targeting teens 13 to 18, the unnamed block (Oldershaw feels branding it would be a major teen turnoff) is also poised to change in the fall. The strategy is to introduce programming that is more in tune with teen subculture and humor, with shows like Chilly Beach and Kenny vs. Spenny that, while not quite as vulgar as South Park, are more subversive than what the net has aired to date.
Produced in Flash animation by Sudbury, Canada-based March Entertainment, Chilly Beach is about a group of hockey-loving hosers trying to stay warm and avoid polar bears during the long, cold Canadian winter. Meanwhile, live-actioner Kenny vs. Spenny from Toronto’s Breakthrough Entertainment follows the travails of two dumb-and-dumber teen pals who compete against each other in everything they do, even if it’s a mutually detrimental pastime like a weight-gaining contest.
The CBC will unveil a new branding strategy for its youth and children’s programming this fall – the creative construction of which has been a year in the making. Though the effort could mean name changes for the channel’s three youth blocks, Hassen says it won’t impact her department’s programming philosophy.
As a base line, the CBC currently spends in the neighborhood of US$23,000 for a half hour of live-action or animated programming, though it’s important to note that this figure can rise or fall depending on the number of episodes in a given project. Its schedule is comprised of 70% acquisitions and 30% co-produced/original in-house programming, but Hassen says the net will likely up the level of original production and co-production activity in the coming years.