These past two years have been the toughest I have ever seen in my 25-plus years in children’s entertainment. The entire industry has been in a crisis that is only just beginning to ease. Like a late spring after a particularly brutal winter, we look for signs of renewal everywhere. Are we there yet? Have we finally come through the slough of despond? When we walk down the Croissette and are asked, ‘How’s business?’ can we at last say ‘Fine’ without crossing our fingers behind our backs?
We still face serious challenges, and our ability to navigate past them and prepare for better times is constantly being put to the test. In charting a course for survival and growth, it helps to understand why we are here. Was it our fault? Is it something the industry did wrong? Bad planning? No planning?
We owe these hard times in part to the tech boom of the ’90s and the ‘irrational exuberance’ of the stock market that caused a tidal wave of investment to wash over any company that had even a casual acquaintance with the media world. Stock valuations soared, market caps reached unheard-of levels, and the prospect of catching this investment wave pushed many production companies to expand their slates – after all, content was king (ah, the good old days). Easy cash from the banks, backed by high stock valuations, made companies fearless in their pursuit of debt – the heady times led to over-production and over-supply.
When the tech bubble burst, it left companies saddled with debt and angry shareholders, and debt reduction strategies replaced expansion dreams. This debt, like an elephant swallowed by a snake, is slowly working its way through the system, causing havoc as it passes.
In Canada, we have the added disadvantage of an unresponsive government that slashed production subsidies at the very time when the industry needed them most. We are living through the fall-out: TV companies have restricted their buying, production slates are shrinking, and smaller companies are barely surviving.
Not entirely our fault, this was a global event and affected more than just the kids TV industry after all, but there is a cautionary tale to be told. From an industry perspective, this is bad enough. But the collateral damage to the creative community, and by extension to the audience of kids, is where the lasting damage may be done.
Children’s programming is distinct within the television industry; it alone has the potential to create social capital. Like many other countries, Canada is a nation of immigrants. There is a diversity of language and experience here that comprises our unique culture; and for our kids, TV is often their first experience of the world outside their immediate families and neighborhoods. From this perspective, TV has the potential to become an instrument of social binding and cohesion. By watching, our children learn the behavioral aspects of our culture – how people treat each other, how they interact. Kids programs are often the way new immigrants learn to speak English – surely we want them to learn the language and the social constructs that apply to our own culture. It is this fundamental aspect of being a cultural building block that sets the kids sector of the TV business apart.
The Canadian TV landscape has been a model of public/private partnership. Enlightened public policy has set goals and conditions, and within this framework entrepreneurial private enterprise has established a successful industry. The late ’90s was a period of growth (one of the positive legacies of the tech boom), and great programs were created by independent producers for Canadian broadcasters.
But the Canadian TV industry is currently suffering. It’s not large enough or robust enough to self-correct. The market has not stabilized, and businesses are just trying to survive. They cannot be tasked with strategic long-term investments at this time. The clear solution for the survival of the public/private partnership is that public money must be brought to bear on this issue.
During a production downturn, government cannot be expected to support everything, but it should focus on future growth and on building audiences for homegrown programs. Clearly, kids audiences are the ones to focus on. However, kids will only become future audiences if they are treated with respect while they are current audiences. It’s crucial that children’s programming be valued and supported through these lean times.
We need, now more than ever, to hold onto the inspiration and idealism that first led us to consider children an important and legitimate audience. We have spent many years developing an idea of quality children’s programming and creating a focus of attention within the broadcast universe. This attention to quality from our industry has been rewarded generously – by the kids who pay us with their time and attention, by parents who want the best for their kids, and by companies who advertise on our channels.
As we keep providing the best, our industry will survive. As we recognize the desires and appetites of our audience for quality experiences, our industry will flourish.
Peter Moss is executive VP of TV programming and development at Toronto-based Corus Entertainment, which owns and runs kidnets YTV, Treehouse TV and Discovery Kids Canada, as well as animation studio Nelvana.