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Got it, Need it: Disney UK grows new local roots

For Disney UK these days, home is where the ratings are - or so it hopes. In a bid to grow the audience base for its three U.K. nets (Toon Disney, Disney Channel and Playhouse Disney), the company is boosting its commitment to local content. 'We've got some fantastic U.S. shows, but to appeal to the U.K. market, we've found that you have to complement them with indigenous programming,' says Disney UK director of programming and commissions James Neal.
October 1, 2003

For Disney UK these days, home is where the ratings are – or so it hopes. In a bid to grow the audience base for its three U.K. nets (Toon Disney, Disney Channel and Playhouse Disney), the company is boosting its commitment to local content. ‘We’ve got some fantastic U.S. shows, but to appeal to the U.K. market, we’ve found that you have to complement them with indigenous programming,’ says Disney UK director of programming and commissions James Neal.

Disney came to this realization by conducting its own market research, which was buttressed by the phenomenal ratings growth and positive viewer feedback for Studio Disney on Disney Channel. The locally produced live show, which includes games and call-in segments, experienced year-on-year ratings growth of 40% with the four to 15 demo.

Over the next year, Disney will add six new U.K.-produced shows from two different sources – outside production partners and an innovative internal commissioning process it launched last year that allows Disney staff to pitch show ideas. ‘You could be the cleaner or the senior VP of programming – everyone gets a chance to present their ideas,’ says Neal.

For the inaugural run of the process, Disney received 32 submissions, and it greenlit five, including: the Flash-animated Spooky Sisters (12 x five minutes), which features the X-Files-esque adventures of two siblings; Bus Life, a live-action sketch comedy set on a school bus; and MadAbout (13 x three minutes), a nonfiction series that spotlights various kid interests from sports to animals. Spooky and MadAbout began airing in September on Toon Disney and Disney Channel, with Bus Life debuting on Disney Channel last month.

As for commissions, Disney has three series in the works: an as-yet-unnamed game show that’s in development with Talent Productions and features families competing on sets resembling parts of the human body; an untitled preschool puppet show; and The Raoul Show (Jim Henson Company and Dandy Productions), a live-action/puppet series about a Mexican dinosaur who has his own TV show. Neal says he’s looking for programming in genres that Disney is not typically active in.

With the new six-pack, roughly 26% of Disney’s 2003/2004 programming will be comprised of locally produced fare (up 5% from last year), half of which will come from outside producers. Though Neal would like to increase the amount of Disney’s local programming, he’s wary of changing the schedule’s composition too much. ‘I have to balance local series with Disney U.S. shows because ultimately, that’s the programming that people are tuning in for,’ he explains.

That said, Neal is betting that Disney’s new emphasis on local fare will help bolster performance. For Q3, Disney Channel came out on top in terms of share among U.K. kidnets with 3.1% of the four to 15 demo. Toon Disney was ranked fourth (2.4%), and preschool channel Playhouse Disney finished in seventh (1%).

Though he’s bullish on U.K.-produced fare, that doesn’t mean Neal isn’t still looking to acquire new programming. In addition to high-quality family movies, Disney would like to pick up at least eight new shows for 2004 – with a minimum of two preschool, two live-action and one animated series in the mix.

The biggest holes for Disney right now are in the eight to 12 market, says Neal, who adds that live-action sitcoms and factual formats like Discovery’s Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls top his must-have list. Ideally, series should have a minimum of 26 half-hour episodes, and Disney currently pays between US$8,000 and US$15,000 for a half hour of animated or live-action programming.

Citing The Simpsons and The Wild Thornberrys as two series that he’d love to pick up, Neal says he’s interested in shows with storytelling or animation styles that complement Disney’s existing programming and that are consistent with its family-friendly values.

Producers wishing to pitch or sell their shows to Disney UK should contact Zoe Scurfield, senior manager of aquisitions and commissioning.

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