In today’s broadcast climate, it’s no longer enough to simply have good programs in your schedule. Competition is so intense in the digital age that a network can live or die by the quality of the editorial and marketing support it gives headline properties. Although few would admit it openly, signposting shows is often more important than promoting generic channel brands.
According to Benoit Runel, senior VP of programming and acquisitions at Fox Kids Europe, ‘helping audiences find your best shows is one of the most important jobs a channel has.’ In a gracious nod towards the competition, he says: ‘The kids sector learned a lot from Cartoon Network. It proved you could build strong shows like Powerpuff Girls from scratch with clever promotions.’
On-screen support for shows often sits on the cusp between programming and promotion. If your show contains songs or recognizable comic themes, it’s possible to edit out such elements to make stand-alone, short-form fillers that entertain audiences and promote the show. Even a short teaser or single frame can provide an editorial bridge that prevents young viewers from zapping out during schedule junctures. Good broadcasters know this, says Finn Arnesen, head of program production for Cartoon Network International, which is why they seek to inject an entertaining spin wherever possible. ‘The most important job for a promo is to get its message across in a simple, clear way. But there’s no doubt that the best way to keep kids watching a network like Cartoon is to build continuity around funny clips.’
Certainly animation is endlessly manipulable, but the same holds true for live action. Behind-the-scenes interviews, gossip and bloopers involving on-screen talent are used to build awareness and signpost shows – but they are also fun. There’s no question that franchises like S Club 7, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Lizzie McGuire have brought added value to channels because of the meticulous attention paid to maximizing the spell that their celebrity stars’ real-life doings hold over kids.
Of course, helping viewers find a show is just one dimension of on-screen promotion. The viewer must also feel brand electricity between the show and the network. Mick Elliott, acting creative director at Nickelodeon Australia, oversees a team that produces all promos and interstitials for the channel. He says: ‘The whole on-screen marketing effort needs to get across the idea that your network is the only place for kids to watch their favorite show. In Australia, Rugrats airs on both ABC and Nick. But it’s our job to put together stunts, marathons and promos that reinforce the close connection between our channel brand and the show.’
If done properly, show-based support is a win-win scenario. For the broadcaster, it helps boost ratings, which in turn drives advertising and subscription revenues. For the producer, it can provide a merchandise program launchpad.
Given that both broadcasters and producers have a vested interest in getting the overall on-screen strategy right, the big question is: What exactly is the division of labor between buyer and seller? How much should a producer be willing to provide when they pitch their show at a network? And just as importantly, who pays? If the ultimate beneficiary of a network’s promotion is the producer’s merch strategy, should they split the bill?
Sesame Workshop’s VP of global television distribution Jennifer Monier-Williams says the rules of engagement change all the time. ‘Both sides want a show to do the best possible job, but every deal is different. Because no two broadcasters and producers are the same, you find different expectations attached to every project.’
Take a preschool property like Sesame Street. Aside from an array of localized versions of the show, there are also branded spin-offs like Elmo’s World. It’s a vast operation that requires support to sustain it, leverage it and maximize its value to the Workshop.
There are basic marketing deliverables – images, logos, style guides and graphics – that act as the tool-kit for a range of cross-platform promotional activities. More interestingly, however, SW has set up a digital bank of on-air elements that licensed broadcasters can download. ‘We provide the raw materials a network might want to use to support a Sesame show. We have guidelines they have to stick to, but beyond that, they can use what we provide in a way that fits their network.’
Other innovations include the provision of an Elmo’s World segment shot on blue screen so that broadcasters can insert custom backgrounds. There’s also interactive content like games for broadcasters’ websites. Like on-screen material, this provides a promotional boost, but also acts as a hook to keep kids within the channel space.
All of this is available for free. SW sees it as part of the service it needs to provide broadcasters, but also as a way of ‘keeping control of the brand,’ says Monier-Williams. ‘Through our digital delivery system, we can make sure the elements we provide are refreshed so they are always in line with our overall brand strategy.’
Providing this kind of service is viable since its cost can be amortized across a global matrix of on-air and off-air TV deals. But what about new properties that don’t yet have a proven commercial model?
Like SW, Decode Entertainment’s director of international sales Dominique Bazay says there are standard deliverables. Beyond that, the service provided depends on the relationship between the broadcaster and the producer. ‘There’s a big difference between a commission – where you’re in constant dialogue with the broadcaster during production – and a post-production sale where a network enters the story when you have a completed show.’
For commissions, the on-screen promotional strategy is a collaborative process devised in parallel with the production, says Bazay. ‘We’ll work with networks on promos, electronic press kits, interactive content, photo shoots, sourcing voice artists – whatever it takes to create added value.’
This is particularly the case when working with broadcasters that kneel before the god of branding. Recent Decode projects have included: live-action teen drama Radio Free Roscoe for Nick-backed Noggin, about four friends who set up a radio station in their hometown; and Undergrads, a 2-D animated co-pro with MTV about four male pals struggling at separate colleges who keep connected via the Internet. ‘Viacom looks at everything as a 360-degree proposition,’ says Bazay. ‘From the start, they talk to you about brand position and promotion.’
For Radio Free Roscoe, Decode is working with Viacom’s on-air promo department to produce on-set promos with the cast and crew; creating behind-the-scenes footage to be played as a ‘making of’ segment; and recording the show’s theme song with up-and-coming artist Skye Sweetnam to promote the series launch. Decode and Noggin are also building a website component that allows fans to tune into a web show the same way that tweens in Roscoe tune into the radio broadcast.
Pierre Belaisch, deputy managing director of French kidnet Canal J, confirms that the promo conversation gets wrapped up with the wider production dialogue. ‘[At press time], we sat down with Marathon to discuss a new series coming up called Martin Mystery. We talked about what they can provide and how we might share costs.’ The job can vary according to the life stage of a show. There’s a trend for material to be made available in the run up to a show’s full debut – something he calls pirating the schedule. ‘Kid Paddle from Dupuis won’t air on Canal J until fall 2004. But we’ll have a whole year of on-air and on-line teasers [produced by Dupuis and Spectra under Canal J's supervision] so viewers can get used to the look and the voices.’
At the same time, tailored promotions around mature shows provide a different kind of boost, says Belaisch. In the case of Titeuf (one of France’s top kids shows), ‘we asked France Animation to deliver a 15 x 30-second package using the voice of Titeuf to talk about the channel.’ Echoing Nick Australia’s Elliott, Belaisch says the aim is to emphasize a special relationship between channel and show.
Unless a network asks for something outrageously expensive or that requires special production set-ups, these kinds of activities are probably going to be absorbed into the budget, says Decode’s Bazay. ‘A producer’s goal is to get a re-commission. If you can provide anything that helps your show stand out from the crowd, it makes sense to do it.’
Of course it does, because massive U.S. studios dominate network shelf space and some producers/distributors accept a nominal rights fee to secure exposure on the best platform. If your long-term business model depends on a broadcast run to drive licensing and merchandising activity, are you going to quibble about production add-ons or take the view that any incremental on-screen activity is, in effect, above-the-line advertising?
The dynamics differ when it comes to acquisitions because the broadcaster is not involved in the earliest stages of development and is unable to amortize promotions against production. Nevertheless, says Bazay, it’s still important to deliver whatever’s available. ‘If you sell a show to Super RTL, you know the team there will do everything they can to make it work across TV, publishing and licensing and merchandising in Germany. With that kind of on-the-ground support, you do your best to make them happy.’
Monier-Williams says Sesame Workshop has worked hard to provide a support structure for tween drama Out There (a co-pro with Blink Films, Noggin, CBBC and ABC Australia). In addition to a website with a chat room, gossip and inside info about the characters, there are on-air promos that can be dubbed by licensed broadcasters. ‘Noggin uses a lot of chat with the lead characters to promote the show. I think broadcasters have every right to expect that kind of backup. What they pay for and what we deliver free really depends on the production cost to us and the position of the network in question.’
While broadcasters increasingly expect producers to provide them with support materials, it would be a mistake to run away with the idea that producers are carrying a huge extra cost burden. Nickelodeon’s Elliott and Fox Kids’ Runel both say existing episodes provide enough in terms of raw materials for most promotional activity. In the case of additional materials, producers have often put these together for a dual purpose. ‘You might get a situation where we create marketing materials for a retail presentation or extra footage for a Postman Pat DVD,’ says Entertainment Rights sales director Chloe van den Berg, ‘That material might be of use to our broadcast partners without representing an extra cost to us.’
This multi-purposing of content is much more manageable now that digital has become both a production standard and a consumer channel. In recent weeks, for example, BBC Worldwide and Decode have both signed distribution deals with AOL to supply interactive content for broadband based on their major kids properties.
For rights holders, the backroom investment involved in creating a digital bank of images can be offset against the revenue streams that might flow from new media. BBC Worldwide, for example, is creating 50 Teletubbies video-on-demand segments for broadband – a process not dissimilar to creating the basic content required for on-air promos.
Despite this outpouring of ancillary material, there’s no support for the view that producers are replacing in-house creative functions at networks – a kind of outsourcing of the channel branding and promotional function. France Animation managing director Maia Tubiana says, ‘It makes sense for us to set up style guides for our shows and to discuss how the network wants to use the brand. But you need people on both sides. We provide what they want, but they devise the channel brand strategy.’
This is the network view as well. As Mary Bredin, director of acquisitions and programming at Walt Disney Television International, says: ‘We see a lot more coming from producers, and we’re thrilled when we get good material. But we still need someone to ensure that it’s in sync with the channel. France 3 cuts promos for Lizzie McGuire, but you’d never see Disney Channel using the same material.’
Cartoon’s Arnesen is equally adamant on this point. ‘We want producers to concentrate on making their programs. If they came to us with reels of promo material, we wouldn’t be interested because we have an in-house style and tone that you couldn’t expect a producer to replicate.’
This isn’t just a question of channel brand control; it’s also about specific campaign execution. On Nick Jr. in the U.K., for example, headline shows such as Dora the Explorer, Blue’s Clues and Little Bill are backed up by brief live-action sequences featuring small children singing short songs in outdoor locations. This execution links the shows to each other, to the audience and to the Nick brand with no recourse to the on-screen look of the shows. It’s made in-house by the U.K. promo team and has developed an editorial equity all of its own.
There are also territorial issues, says Elliot. ‘I got some beautiful Jimmy Neutron materials from the U.S. last year that were totally Nick in character. But they still needed to be adapted to have a voice and style that spoke to Australian kids.’ At Nick UK, a similar issue has been brought up by focus groups, which reveal that parents don’t want to hear American accents in the connecting tissues between kids programs.
Sebastian Debertin, head of acquisitions and co-productions at German kids channel KI.KA, makes a similar point. ‘The promotional side is of great importance, so we like it when producers supply materials. But our on-air and design department knows exactly how to reach German kids. We’re in a position to build on a producer’s ideas to create a fresh and innovative look.’
Brand integrity is the paramount reason for keeping control in-house. But there are also practical considerations, says Cartoon’s Arnesen. ‘Our in-house team has an inside track on scheduling plans. They make decisions about how to position a show and how it might relate to other titles in a prime-time block. Add in the complexity of cross-promoting between our channels and it’s clear that we can react quickly and intuitively in a way producers can’t.’
Timing is also an issue. While it’s possible to build some promo content during production, the time-lapse between delivery and transmission means that most producers will be focused on another project by the time promos need to be slotted into the schedule. Having an in-house team manage this process is far more sensible than relying on pre-packaged promos or going back to a producer to add them onto the brand management function.
Furthermore, says Julien Borde, head of programming at Disney Channel France, ‘the fact that a producer can make a good half-hour show doesn’t mean they know how to produce a promo. Companies like Marathon have very clever ideas for shows like Totally Spies! [such as amusing one-frame shots that link episode scenes but can also be dotted throughout the sked], but that doesn’t replace the job of building a channel brand.’
To underline his point, Borde says Disney has just created a new look for its French channel using outside help – but not from producers. ‘When we want help in branding and promotions, we go to specialist agencies like Razorfish and Feedme, whose expertise is in branding, not production.’
Besides, says KI.KA’s Debertin, it’s important to remember that not all producers have grasped the significance of on-air support. ‘Many producers, whether in Europe, North America, Asia or Australia, do not even deliver the basics. How can we create awareness for a 52-episode show if we just get a dozen color slides?’
Runel concurs, stressing that ‘Marathon’s work is very clever, but you don’t see much of that from producers or distributors.’ Arnesen adds that ‘a CD-ROM of marketing materials would be great, but sometimes we just get handed a crumpled-up press flyer.’
Although no one seriously suggests that producers can replicate the promotional function, Debertin thinks improvements in this arena are necessary. ‘We have the number-one kids website in Germany, so there is an opportunity to enhance the awareness of shows on-line. I think both sides would benefit if producers delivered enough color slides or PC files (jpegs preferred) to build the best promotion on this platform.’
Of course, the whole debate about promotions has the most resonance among the big kids broadcasters. Outside this select group, it’s fair to say that smaller networks in poorer territories where budgets only allow for very basic branding would find the cost of running a sophisticated in-house brand and promotions team prohibitive. In this kind of situation, news, sports, kids and entertainment content is often put up on-air without any kind of tailoring.
If producers are being expected to do more for their money, is there any evidence that their effort can pay off? ER’s van den Berg thinks so. ‘If a broadcaster has two shows of similar appeal, I think the level of support you provide can tip the balance. Networks want to know what your plans are for stage shows, videos, websites – anything that can feed back into the show and boost its ratings performance.’