Shorts pick up steam as kidcasters seek to build stronger brand identities

Though common sense would seem to dictate that shorts may not be the best way to spend precious development dollars - they can't be tracked in the ratings, they're more expensive to make, and there's no market for them in the U.S. with its dogged adherence to the half-hour format - many broadcasters are nevertheless ramping up their shorts portfolios of late. The kids TV universe is overcrowded in most international territories, and broadcasters are finding that the expense of running shorts is eclipsed by the benefits - namely stronger brand identities, more fluid programming schedules and launchpads for new talent.
October 1, 2003

Though common sense would seem to dictate that shorts may not be the best way to spend precious development dollars – they can’t be tracked in the ratings, they’re more expensive to make, and there’s no market for them in the U.S. with its dogged adherence to the half-hour format – many broadcasters are nevertheless ramping up their shorts portfolios of late. The kids TV universe is overcrowded in most international territories, and broadcasters are finding that the expense of running shorts is eclipsed by the benefits – namely stronger brand identities, more fluid programming schedules and launchpads for new talent.

For the past three years, Fox Kids Europe has been producing its own low-budget interstitials (short skits using anything from hand puppets to vegetables) as a segue tool in the absence of on-air hosts. ‘We would use anything that would create a little story, be the voice of the channel and get viewers involved,’ says Benoit Runel, FKE’s senior VP of programming.

Because the net’s programming budget increased this year, it has been able to start acquiring and commissioning short series. In the last year, the channel has picked up three new animated shorts and will likely take on at least five more in 2004. The first to debut was Camera Crack Ups, a 100 x two-minute Flash series starring two toon characters who watch live-action video bloopers on TV. The co-production with Bristol animation studio Flip Flop Films that features clips from Danish prodco Media Entertainment started airing on Fox Kids UK in September, and will roll out to other Euro territories this month. Camera Crack Ups’ animated hosts appear across a number of other FKE platforms, including the company’s websites, where kids can watch past episodes and submit their own bloopers tapes.

FKE also plans to promote one of its shorts with the same gusto it would give to a full-length series. The pan-Euro kidcaster is currently sealing a deal for the TV rights to a Korean web property that it hopes to launch next year as a series of shorts varying in length from 1.5 to two minutes. FKE will promote the series the same way it would a movie, advertising the air time and date, and then peppering each week’s episode throughout the schedule. ‘We’re seeing this as a series with legs in its own right,’ says Michael Lekes, director of creative and development. Though Lekes could not confirm which property it’s picking up, FKE recently acquired the European and Middle Eastern merchandising rights to Soeul, Korea-based Vooz’s Flash-animated on-line greeting card property Pucca.

Nickelodeon UK also touts shorts as the path to good branding, upping its shorts content from zilch to 10% of its schedule over the past five years. ‘Branding is really taking off in the kids area,’ says Debbie Macdonald, head of acquisitions and co-productions. ‘With 18 kids channels in the U.K. right now, it’s very important to create your own identity.’ To that end, Nick UK commissions about half of the shorts that run on its three channels (Nick, Nick Jr. and Nick Toon TV), and Macdonald says she is always on the lookout for new ideas. ‘We stopped buying [shorts] because even though they sat nicely on the channel, they weren’t specifically branded Nickelodeon,’ she says. ‘Now we will usually pay for a short series 100% and then work with the production company from the beginning to the end of delivery. There is definitely a market for production companies that want to do shorts, if they’re willing to be flexible and take creative direction and if they’re not too precious about making sure everything is done in-house by their own team.’

Nick UK has commissioned two new shorts for 2004, with several more in the pipeline. The first is Fit Files, a five x one-minute, 2-D animated co-pro with Australia’s Drawing Room One that uses humorous skits to encourage kids to get up and exercise. Nick also greenlit two seasons of a five x one-minute, model-animated short called Presentators from Aardman Animation that’s a spoof about running a kids TV channel .

MacDonald adds that Nick UK sees shorts as a great way to scout talent, and she regularly puts out feelers for new short-form concepts at animation schools and trade shows. Shorts are also a good way to test new series potential, which is exactly what she hopes will happen with a 10 x one-minute interstitial that began airing on Nick Toon in late July. Meet the Moores is an in-house production based around an actual family that was deemed the U.K.’s most dysfunctional by a contest Nick ran last September, and Macdonald says it has been getting a ton of positive viewer feedback.

Non-commercial broadcasters have long been big fans of shorts as a means of filling not only the gaps between longer-format shows, but in the case of Canuck broadcaster TVOntario, gaps in curriculum as well. While the channel usually runs seven or eight shorts a year, it has upped its stake to 10 this year, or 20% of its schedule. Pat Ellingson, TVO’s creative head of children’s, youth and life skills, says the net buys about 60% of its shorts, and she’s aiming to grow that figure. There’s a lot of educational content TVO would like to include in its schedule that’s not available in the market, she says, which forces the channel to create its own programming. ‘If more [shorts] were available, and if they were entertaining and had the educational content we need, I would replace a lot of what we’re running now. I’d definitely buy a lot more,’ she says.

For example, TVO couldn’t find a full-length show on basic music skills, so it created Open Your Ears, a 16 x one- to three-minute live-action series geared to the six to 10 set. Ellingson says there simply isn’t enough shorts programming in the market for school-aged kids.

Preschool fare seems easier to find, since one school of industry thought holds that toddlers lack the attention span to sit through a full half hour. This year, TVO acquired three new short series for preschoolers: Yoko! Jakamoko! Toto! (52 x 10 minutes) from Collingwood O’Hare Entertainment; Oobi (52 x 13 minutes) from Noggin, a minimalist series featuring hands with eyes on them; and Les Films de la Perrine’s Milo (52 x six minutes), a 2-D adaptation of an Italian preschool book of the same name about a young bunny’s adventures in everyday life. This US$1.7-million series is a co-pro with Italy’s RAI (which is new to shorts commissioning), France 5, French distributor Carrere, Italian prodco Gertie and Canada’s Tooncan.

Dominique Boischot, president of Les Films de la Perrine, says shorts were very difficult to sell on the international market as recently as three or four years ago, but that has been changing lately, with broadcasters in France and Italy commissioning more short-format programming. In addition to Milo, Les Films de la Perrine is working on Blanche (26 x six minutes), a 2-D animated co-pro with France 5, RAI, Italian prodco Graphism and London’s VGI Entertainment. (See ‘UpNext’ on page 39 for more details.)

French broadcaster Canal J has also been ramping up on shorts lately, and began airing five new ones last month – three more than it aired in all of 2002. Canal J deputy managing director Pierre Belaisch says shorts are, in a way, more important than long-format series when it comes to establishing a channel’s identity.

On tap is Zzzzgarbucksplitzz! (50 x 1.5 minutes), a model animation co-production with Paris-based Grosse Boite Américaine featuring fruits and vegetables synced to an audio track of real kids; and Ralph the Record Rat (104 x one minutes) from Alphanim and Vancouver, Canada’s Ocean Sounds Studios (in association with AGOGO), starring a rat who’s obsessed with breaking records. Canal J is also aiming to get enough feedback from viewers to determine whether London, England-based Pesky’s Flash series The Amazing Adrenalini Brothers, which documents the mishaps of three inept circus performers, rates a full-length series treatment.

Toronto, Canada’s Nelvana is hoping that a half-hour series made up of shorts developed by its in-house animators will give birth to several longer series and keep its creative team’s juices flowing. Budgeted at between US$175,000 and US$225,000 per half-hour package, FunPak (52 x five minutes) will air on YTV in fall 2004. The series is aimed at the seven- to 15-year-old demo, and its 52 shorts feature many different animation styles. Sidekick tells the story of an adolescent sidekick searching for the superhero who deserted him, while Zombie Dog is about a 10-year-old boy who befriends a zombie and her equally undead dog.

Nelvana’s VP of production Jocelyn Hamilton says the show is meant to highlight work that wouldn’t normally see the light of day in today’s risk-averse broadcast climate. Much of Nelvana’s production slate is attached to books or properties that have already established footholds because a lot of broadcasters wouldn’t look at them otherwise. ‘First and foremost, this series is intended to support our internal creative people, and it’s not our intent to make money off it,’ she says. ‘That said, it is how a lot of hits get started. It’s the thing you take a chance on like The Simpsons or SpongeBob SquarePants, which both started as shorts.’

Fred Seibert knows all about cultivating hits from shorts. His What a Cartoon! show, which launched on Cartoon Network in 1995, gave birth to blockbuster series like Dexter’s Lab and PowerPuff Girls. Seibert brought the concept to Nickelodeon in 1997 through his prodco Frederator, and Oh Yeah! Cartoons debuted in June 1998, spawning such Nick staples as Fairly Odd Parents and ChalkZone. Not only does Seibert believe there’s more traction in Oh Yeah!, he also has plans for another shorts program for Nick and is currently scouting out 39 shorts for the as-yet-untitled series set to air in either 2005 or 2006.

Price is one of the biggest factors deterring companies from producing shorts, with Seibert estimating that their per-minute cost is about 25% higher than a regular-length series. ‘However, the result is that you get volume, in our case 50 at a time,’ he says. ‘If you figure you’re making good choices, your success ratio for those shorts becoming series can be as high as one in 10, and any one of [the shorts that have been turned into series at Cartoon and Nick] have paid off the extra expense many times over.’

AAC Kids VP of programming and distribution Ken Faier says that the business model for developing and selling shorts on their own is difficult to sustain, unless you’re tying the project in with something else that drives the property. One of the most obvious examples is Disney’s success with the animated shorts in Lizzie McGuire.

However, it doesn’t always have to be another show, Faier says. It can be anything that helps break through the clutter, such as a website with a built-in community, or a toy line that’s already established. ‘As a straight investor, it’s hard to line it up because you can’t really rely on merch revenue until it becomes a cult hit, and you can’t rely on that. It’s too hard to justify,’ he says. ‘If you’re starting from scratch and only looking at TV to drive it, you’re not going to make a profit. Look for a brand to associate it with.’ Faier cites Fido Dido as a good example of a property that tied to a brand, in this case 7-Up, and became immensely popular.

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