Uncertain kids advertising outlook keeps Canada’s youth nets on tenterhooks

Being a media buyer in the Canadian kids TV market can't be all that different from having the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song stuck in your head. It's fun for awhile, but then it gets a bit repetitive.
September 1, 2004

Being a media buyer in the Canadian kids TV market can’t be all that different from having the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song stuck in your head. It’s fun for awhile, but then it gets a bit repetitive.

How many times can something be replicated – in this case, buys onto Corus platforms – before dropping on the deck and flopping like a fish sounds like a good idea, just to break the monotony?

‘We’re invulnerable,’ quips Peter Moss, executive VP of programming and development for Corus, under whose umbrella YTV, Treehouse TV and Discovery Kids operate. He’s obviously being glib, but Moss is also making a point. Corus’s premier kids channel YTV – boasting eight of the 10 top-ranked shows with kids two to 11 in fall 2003 (one of which was SpongeBob, incidentally) – has led the kids market for several years running. The net had nabbed a 14% share of kids two to 11 at this time last year, according to the BBM People Meter measurement. And Corus’s preschool channel Treehouse TV had increased its average draw of two- to 11-year-olds by 29%, jumping up from third to become the second-most-watched Canadian kids channel with a 13.2% share.

‘The dominance of the Corus platforms makes them the only choice for kids advertisers,’ says Sunni Boot, president of Toronto-based media buying agency ZenithOptimedia. She says buyers had more selection for their clients’ dollars a decade ago, when Canada had a stronger conventional kids TV market. But since most networks cut way back on content for the under-12 set in the late ’90s, it’s cable or bust for kids buyers these days. And the top cable player is YTV.

That’s not to say that Teletoon isn’t a worthwhile option. In fact, the animation destination managed to make significant gains last fall over 2002, growing its share from 9.3% to 11.6% (a 26% increase) and moving up from fourth place to rank third behind YTV and Treehouse.

‘YTV is stronger against boys, and Teletoon is stronger against little kids,’ says Cindy Drown, VP and associate media director of Toronto’s Cossette Media. Teletoon has also made great strides with its teen/adult toons – particularly in late-night weekend block Detour – and it gets plenty of ad support for this stream of programming. According to Carole Bonneau, the channel’s VP of programming, Detour has helped Teletoon become the number-two English-language specialty net with teens 12 to 17 during the 9 p.m. to midnight time period.

Family (which is considered pseudo-commercial because it offers promotional opportunities like contests, rather than flat-out ads) has great pull with the girls demo by virtue of its Disney shows, including Lizzie McGuire and That’s So Raven. In fact, fall ’03 data shows that the net aired 16 of the top-20 programs for girls two to 11 – clearly making it the place to be for kids advertisers intent on targeting the fairer sex.

If the TV platforms are clear-cut for buyers, their media programs are not – and that leaves room for interesting opportunities like promos. ‘Instead of trying to evaluate all your audiences, as you would with an adult buy, you know where you want to be in kids,’ says Drown. ‘You just have to decide what to do with the space.’

This year, that’s difficult to predict. Marketers are grappling with the public’s perception of kids advertising right now, and the issue is having the biggest impact on top-spending food marketers because of the spotlight on childhood obesity.

Cossette, which handled advertising for McDonald’s before a worldwide realignment cut the agency out of the fast-food chain’s media-buying circle, has noted that at least one of its current clients is paring down its kid advertising.

Uncertainty about the ad market’s future could be behind a season that’s best described as a hold-steady environment for the major broadcast players. While there’s plenty of new programming, none of the kidnets are coming out with mold-breaking blocks, and there isn’t one genre or target demo that seems to stand out as an obvious focus. The most significant move seems to be an emphasis on co-viewing, particularly at YTV. ZenithOptimedia’s Boot is optimistic about this move because advertisers are keen to tap into opportunities that draw in more than one demo, she says.

So what is happening on the Canadian airwaves for kids? Read on for the full scoop.

Corus beefs up co-viewing opps

According to YTV’s fall 2003 Nielsen Media research, 60% of all TV viewing by kids two to 11 happens with a parent present. So to facilitate more family viewing, the net’s Three Hairy Thumbs Up Saturday movie block has been moved from afternoons to 8 p.m., when kids and parents are more likely to be watching TV together.

YTV is also using its weekday prime-time block to showcase live-action properties that jibe with the co-viewing mandate. 15/Love (26 x half hours, Marathon and Galafilm) is an edgy teen drama set at a tennis camp in Quebec. VP of programming Joanna Webb says it’s the kind of show older kids and parents will gravitate towards, much like the 44 eps of Gilmore Girls she’s acquired.

The net is relying on Shaftesbury Films’ Dark Oracle to grab a greater share of the older 10 to 17 demo. The 13 x half-hour show features a hybrid live-action/comic-style animation aesthetic and is about fraternal twins who find themselves trapped inside a cursed comic book. For a slightly younger demo – think nine to 14 – there’s Drake & Josh (20 x half hours, Nickelodeon), a sitcom about two boys with night-and-day personalities who are forced to get along as stepbrothers when they find out their parents are marrying.

To address its viewers’ yen for reality (and to stop them from migrating to terrestrial net Global), YTV is launching Spy Academy (13 x half hours, Chalk Media), a game show that goes along with three teams of kids on spy missions, while viewers participate on-line.

On the animation side of its schedule, YTV continues to maximize its Nickelodeon programming connection with the launch of Danny Phantom, starring a half-ghost/half-human ghoul-fighter in ninth grade. The 13 x half-hour show comes from the mind of Butch Hartman, the creator behind animated hit toon The Fairly OddParents.

In preschool news, Treehouse TV is all about being true to its audience’s voice this year – sometimes literally, as is the case with Farzzle’s World (26 x 15 minutes, My Dog Entertainment/Brown Bag Pictures), a 2-D series in which the recorded voice of an actual two-year-old underscores the baby star’s point-of-view as he explores his sometimes surprising world.

On the live-action front, the channel is launching This is Daniel Cook, which will run in five-minute interstitials (65 eps) Monday to Friday and in 13 half-hour episodes over the weekend. The show, produced by marblemedia and Sinking Ship Productions, is hosted by a six-year-old who explores new situations from visiting a chocolatier to talking to firefighters, asking the kind of direct questions that are only dreamed up by first-graders along the way.

Teletoon’s teen and action blocks hit their stride

After a few years of dramatic repositioning – ramping up its teen/adult strategy and adding its first action block last year – Teletoon is holding steady this season with a strong roster of original and acquired programming. Adopting a spread-the-wealth strategy to build up its various blocks, the net is hoping to continue drawing in kids of all ages. ‘We’re just building on what we have,’ says Carole Bonneau, VP of programming.

Bonneau has particularly high expectations for animated sitcom Zeroman (13 x half hours, Amberwood Productions), running Saturdays and Sundays at 7 p.m. and again at 11 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. The show revolves around a 64-year-old postal carrier who’s an incompetent possessor of superpowers and lives in his mother’s backyard. Bonneau expects the shows all-star voice cast – Leslie Neilsen takes the lead, with support from Canadian hockey hosts Don Cherry and Ron MacLean – to give it an edge.

Bonneau is also chuffed to have landed Atomic Betty, the much sought-after co-pro from Atomic Cartoons, Breakthrough Animation and Tele Images Kids that has now been presold into 55 countries.

For the teen-strong Detour block on late-night weekends, Teletoon is introducing Delta State (26 x half hours, Nelvana/

Alphanim), based on a comic book about four 20-something antiheroes who have no memory of their identities. The show uses a unique animation technique to ‘colorize’ live action with computer graphics, and the resulting style should make it stand out.

In November, Teletoon is extending its year-old weekend Kapow! block by an extra half hour (it will run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.) to showcase The Batman, a darker prequel featuring the hero in his 20s. According to Bonneau, Kapow! – which also runs weekdays during the lunch hour – was enjoying awareness levels close to 80% with its target demo of boys ages six to nine in February and March (after just six months on-air). Bonneau also credits the block with having helped grow Teletoon’s overall audience on weekends, with viewership by kids two to 11 during these slots up by 17% for the first 41 weeks of the 2003/2004 season, as measured by NMR, Media Advisor.

CBC anchors its after-school space and taste-tests a new game show format

The country’s public broadcaster is looking to beef up its credibility with the eight to 12 demo this year by offering something special in its after-school block. Enter Dragon Booster (26 x half hours, AAC Kids/The Story Hat), a 2-D animated good vs. evil series set in a world where humans and dragons co-exist. It also happens to be the CBC’s first exclusive animated series and is expected to provide a solid action-adventure anchor for the block, which also features Shoebox Zoo, a BBC Scotland/CBC co-pro that fuses live action and CGI to tell the story of a young girl on a quest with a set of magical carved animals that come to life.

CBC is also getting wise to the draw of reality and is hoping its new game show Surprise! It’s Edible Incredible! will satisfy kids’ cravings. The half-hour series, produced by Quebec’s Apartment 11 Productions in association with CBC Television, features two kids who have been set up for a surprise party/game show. The contestants are whisked away to a Montreal studio to compete in front of their schoolmates. Unbeknownst to them, the show hosts have pre-taped visits to the kids’ bedrooms and looked through their refrigerators to gauge what foods they like and loathe.

While food plays a central role in the series – contestants have to race against the clock to produce the best meal and dessert they can – there are other challenges that factor into determining the winner. In the Grossery, for example, kids are forced to eat (hands-free) a food they detest. Prizes are tailored to the winner’s interests and can include anything from a year of free hip-hop lessons, to a week at soccer camp.

Family targets more tweens

The ‘Never a Dull Moment’ branding that’s defined Family for the last two years has lent the airspace a high-energy, contemporary feel that is starting to capture the attention of older kids, according to VP of programming Kevin Wright. ‘More tweens are watching Family than any other network in Canada,’ he says. ‘Season-to-date, Family is now the number-one network in Canada with kids ages nine to 14, and we’re up 28% with the demo over last year.’

Family plans to stick with its existing lineup of live-action sitcoms to keep tweens tuned in, with new seasons of Disney faves Lizzie McGuire and That’s So Raven, as well as 26 new eps of Decode’s Radio Free Roscoe. The net has high expectations for this returning Canadian drama, which Wright says ‘started out of the gate like a thoroughbred.’ RFR made it onto the net’s list of top-20 programs almost immediately after launching in January 2004 – a particularly impressive feat given that it only had two weeks of pre-promotion working in its favor. To tease the upcoming season, Family aired a special RFR week this summer featuring two new eps.

Family’s Nonstop Weekend block, which features live-action comedies That’s So Raven and Lizzie McGuire, will also remain intact given that it has drawn in 41.5% more tween viewers since its launch in fall 2002.

For preschoolers, Family still looks for programming featuring strong characters with story lines that are relevant to preschoolers. Fresh, original designs and a unique perspective on reality are also part of Wright’s criteria for this demo. Decode’s Franny’s Feet (13 x 22 minutes, with 26 more eps already acquired for fall 2005) is a charming, 2-D animated addition about a little girl who has adventures revolving around whatever type of shoe she puts on in her grandfather’s shoe-repair shop.

Another new original, The Secret World of Benjamin Bear (26 x 22 minutes, Amberwood) is about two stuffed bears – one old-timer and one rookie – who do their best to help two children through daily life in their charmingly chaotic household. The bears must always be careful to follow the ‘Rules for Teddies,’ boundaries that preschoolers can identify with.

From ABC Family’s library, the net gets 30 eps of Knock First, a half-hour Trading Spaces-style show produced by Scout Productions. Airing on Saturdays and Sundays at 7:50 p.m., the series charges two contestants with transforming their outdated rooms during a two-day, all-night party with their best friends, a designer and two carpenters. ‘It has humor and tension,’ says Wright. ‘Kids are going to find this pretty hilarious.’ The show also offers up some significant contest opportunities for sponsors, he adds.

TVO’s curriculum needs keep things status quo

For the last four years or so, TVO Kids has tackled a very specific strategy to offer viewers commercial-free, educational programming that’s intrinsically linked to the province of Ontario’s school curriculum, according to Pat Ellingson, creative head of the channel’s children’s, youth and daytime programming. But because of budget constraints – and the fact that there’s a dearth of sound educational shows in the market, particularly for six- to nine-year-olds – TVO has only a few new original shows to launch this year.

Ellingson did manage to secure hot preschool show The Koala Brothers (52 x 10 minutes, Spellbound Entertainment/

Famous Flying Films) for TVO’s morning preschool block, which the channel doesn’t tend to ever really overhaul since kids and parents come to rely on certain shows airing at certain times. The stop-frame toon about two koala bears who head to the Australian Outback to help friends in need will also run in the after-school block (3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.), alongside Lilly, a 2-D animated series produced by Vivatoon about a young witch who travels through history.

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