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HIT’s Orton builds broadcast berth

If you've opened up the business pages recently to read about what's new in the world of kids entertainment, you've undoubtedly come across a story or two in which HIT Entertainment's returning chairman and founder Peter Orton strongly denies a rumor about his company. Ever since CEO Rob Lawes left the company in October, British newspapers have been abuzz with speculation about a takeover bid by Swiss investment firm Mediawin. And when stories about Endemol founder John de Mol swallowing up 5% of HIT's stock hit the broadsheets in December, the gossip mill kicked into high gear again.
January 1, 2005

If you’ve opened up the business pages recently to read about what’s new in the world of kids entertainment, you’ve undoubtedly come across a story or two in which HIT Entertainment’s returning chairman and founder Peter Orton strongly denies a rumor about his company. Ever since CEO Rob Lawes left the company in October, British newspapers have been abuzz with speculation about a takeover bid by Swiss investment firm Mediawin. And when stories about Endemol founder John de Mol swallowing up 5% of HIT’s stock hit the broadsheets in December, the gossip mill kicked into high gear again.

Orton sets the record straight by saying HIT does get offers from time to time, but for now, the rumors of a takeover bid are just that: rumors. ‘If we get an approach, we will always look at it,’ he says. ‘The company is in a great position moving forward.’

HIT’s immediate future, of course, revolves around the launch of its much-touted U.S. diginet in cahoots with Sesame Workshop, PBS and Comcast. And at press time in late December, the company had just chosen Charles Burdick to be its new CEO. With media and cable credentials that include a two-year stint as group managing director or Telewest Communications, Burdick is well equipped to oversee the next phase of HIT’s business.

But COO Charlie Caminada is still working with Sesame, Comcast and PBS to recruit a programming exec to head up the channel. Orton couldn’t go into detail about who’s on the shortlist at press time, but he did say the position will be filled in a matter of weeks, rather than months.

The channel will initially be available on the Comcast platform as a free VOD service beginning April 3. And when the full-on pay-TV net rolls out in September, VOD will still be an option, but only to subscribers. The 24-hour, commercial-free diginet will broadcast the combined catalogues of HIT, Sesame and PBS, bringing together more than 5,000 hours of preschool programming.

But Orton also sees the channel as one way to rejuvenate HIT’s reputation as a creative force in the marketplace. ‘I think there was a misunderstanding over the last two and a half years that HIT wasn’t the place to bring new programming ideas,’ he says. International preschool producers eager to get onto U.S. airwaves can now approach more companies than just Viacom or Disney, and he boasts that HIT can also offer merchandising and video/DVD distribution services.

Within 12 months of the U.S. launch, Orton says he may begin to court partners to discuss rolling out HIT Entertainment channels in major international markets. Although the U.K. won’t be a target region since it’s already flooded with preschool feeds and blocks, Orton is looking to the BBC as a source of inspiration: ‘The success of Cbeebies shows there’s a huge opportunity in the international marketplace for a quality preschool channel,’ he says.

But isn’t HIT looking to broaden its catalogue to include demos beyond the two to five set? Don’t believe the hype. Orton maintains that the company’s strategy is to solidify its position in preschool. HIT currently produces two shows that fall outside of this strict remit with Guinness World Records and Aztec, but every active project on the company’s development slate is pure preschool.

Although he wouldn’t talk in detail about the four shows currently in development at HIT, Orton stresses that from an acquisitions standpoint, he wants to see fresh ideas, rather than rehashed retro properties. HIT already has Pingu, which the team is working hard to place in the U.S. ‘If there was anything else out there that we liked, we would have gone after it already,’ he says.

Orton also wants to lay the groundwork to start exploiting ancillary rights more fully to help refresh HIT’s current catalogue and finance future projects. He’s most excited about telephone applications that let parents set up pre-recorded calls from characters for special events such as kids’ birthdays. (Something akin to the service Nick offers in the U.S. in association with Uvox Networks.)

Luckily, speculation that Orton’s health has improved is confirmed. He says he’s in good shape, feels great, and is very happy to be back with HIT and its ‘talented young people.’

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