Cresting the wave in a flood of preschool

Ever since Anne Wood hit the jackpot with her multi-colored, money-making Teletubbies, preschool has proven to be fertile ground for hits - just ask Bob the Builder and Dora the Explorer! But it's a tricky world to navigate. Producers must meet the challenge of creating fun, appealing content for kids that also addresses parental concerns and educational requirements. And then balancing the whole ball of wax on a shaky foundation of shrinking license fees, an extreme oversupply of product and shifting broadcast needs is no mean feat either.
April 1, 2005

Ever since Anne Wood hit the jackpot with her multi-colored, money-making Teletubbies, preschool has proven to be fertile ground for hits – just ask Bob the Builder and Dora the Explorer! But it’s a tricky world to navigate. Producers must meet the challenge of creating fun, appealing content for kids that also addresses parental concerns and educational requirements. And then balancing the whole ball of wax on a shaky foundation of shrinking license fees, an extreme oversupply of product and shifting broadcast needs is no mean feat either.

The good news is that the number of broadcast slots for preschool fare have increased significantly over the past few years, and that growth doesn’t appear to be slowing down, particularly in the U.S. Cartoon Network will jump into the fray in August with its new preschool block Tickle U (see ‘Cartoon pioneers a giggle-based preschool curriculum’ on page 48 to find out more), and HIT Entertainment, Sesame Workshop, PBS and Comcast are joining forces to launch a digital channel in September.

But increased competition in the U.S. market has made the numbers game harder for producers, says Brown Johnson, executive creative director of preschool television for Nickelodeon. She explains that the kids broadcast market still contains the same amount of programming money, but these dollars have been spread more thinly of late, pushing license fees down significantly. Johnson estimates that as recently as six years ago, license fees were two or three times what they are now. And since much of the revenue from preschool properties comes in through back-end ancillary streams, more and more producers are willing to take a reduced fee to place their shows on a good channel in order to get product into stores.

In the U.K. meanwhile, CBBC’s Michael Carrington says license fees for preschool fare have only dropped by 10% to 15% over the last five years. And that’s despite a digital channel explosion that has made the country’s children’s broadcast landscape extremely crowded.

It’s also cramped on the supply side of the equation, with way too many developing preschool projects looking for deals. Carrington, for one, has enough preschool shows to keep his airtime fresh into 2006.

But even so, the Beeb’s head of animation and program acquisitions says there’s always room in the schedule for a really original concept, and every now and then, something pops up that’s a perfect fit. For Carrington, that something was Charlie & Lola, a unique mixed-media project from London’s Tiger Aspect that first caught his eye at Cartoon Forum 2003. The series’ style, tone and approach are like nothing CBBC currently airs. ‘It’s completely visually stimulating, and the production company behind it has a lot of integrity and the resources to produce it. And you just say to yourself, ‘Yes, I’ve got to make space for this.” Scripts are almost finalized, and production is underway for an ’06 launch.

Carrington was also swayed by stop-motion series Lunar Jim, a Canadian co-production from AAC Kids and Halifax Film Company that CBeebies will debut at the end of next year. The 52 x 11-minute show is about the adventures space explorer Jim and his dog Rover have on the moon, and Carrington says it stood out because the look was distinctive, and the story and setting were completely original.

Ken Faier, VP of programming and distribution for AAC Kids, says adding a gentle action-adventure component was also a key point of difference. So why’s it so crucial to be original? Isn’t everything pretty much new to kids at this age? Faier says preschool programming tends have greater longevity than trend-driven genres like boys action. So down the road, shows will have to compete with both new programming and a tremendous amount of library fare.

It’s equally important to study what’s lacking in the local market and show some understanding of what broadcasters are looking for, says Cathy Laughton, who was recently brought in by London’s Celador International to head up kids programming.

Laughton’s first project will be a revamp of classic British series Tales of the Riverbank, a live-actioner from the ’70s starring a hamster, a rat and a guinea pig. She plans to update the look and feel of the show by tightening up the stories and adding some mild suspense to the plot lines. Laughton says the broadcasters she’s targeting are looking for themes that their target demo can relate to, like nurturing and imagination. Plus, using animals in a live-action vehicle should make the show stand out in schedules that are dominated by animation and puppets.

Nick’s Johnson says knowing your target audience is an essential ingredient for success, and that means understanding how young children comprehend what’s happening on-screen and the rate at which they can make sense of and react to it. ‘But it can’t be patronizing,’ she warns. ‘Kids need to be at the center of the solutions and the action.’

Interactivity has served Nick well in perennial favorites like Dora and Blue’s Clues, and Johnson is sticking to what works with the net’s most recent addition Lazytown (40 x half hours). This live-action comedy stresses physical fitness by encouraging kids to get active. Johnson says the combination of playful superhero characters, a healthy lifestyle message, acrobatics and great music make for a ‘wonderful, bright, sparkly package’ that she couldn’t resist.

Johnson also stresses the importance of beautiful design combined with strong characters and narratives. Nick’s latest pick-up, Little Airplane’s The Wonder Pets, uses real photographs as a foundation for after-effects animation, and the technique gives the show a really crisp look that stands out in the market. The series centers on a team of pets, led by Linny the guinea pig, that travels the globe in search of other animals who need rescuing. And did we mention that they belt out opera arias as they go?

Little Airplane president Josh Selig says Nick Jr. was looking for a superhero series, and the idea of animals saving animals in distress was more compelling for the preschool demo than battling villains. The combination of learning points built around international travel and pet care with music and comedy was also a unique selling feature.

Each show in the New York-based studio’s repertoire is very different in terms of design – from Oobie’s hand puppets to stop-motion/CGI Nick Jr. host Piper O’Possum. But writing is just as important. It’s not uncommon for TV writers to start out in preschool and then leave it behind, because it tends to pay less than bigger-budget genres like sitcoms. Selig is inclined to pull from a core group of writers who have been working in the field for some time and are used to its vagaries and complexities.

Irene Weibel, VP of educational development at Toronto, Canada’s Nelvana, agrees that the writing has to be fun and, more importantly, relevant to the audience. That’s why Nelvana mines much of its material from the publishing arena, working with experienced kids authors who know their audience’s needs and wants very well. The latest book-based project in development at Nelvana is Willa’s Wild World (52 x 11 minutes), which stems from a book penned by Oswald author Dan Yaccarino about a young girl who brings home stray giraffes and hippos instead of cats and dogs.

Strong writing and original design will get you a long way with most broadcasters. Bonita Siegel, director of original productions for Canada’s dedicated preschool channel Treehouse TV, points to the 2-D animated series Grandpa’s Garden as a good example. The co-production between Toronto’s PTV Productions and TVOntario joined her schedule late last year, and it follows a pair of four-year-old twins as they make new discoveries about plants and animals with every visit to grandpa’s garden. The series looks like it was drawn by a child, and it’s presented very simply with a calming, soothing voiceover. Its eight-minute episodes can be bunched together to make a half hour, and there are also little music videos that can run independently as shorts. Given that Treehouse is an ad-free channel, Siegel really appreciates this kind of versatility.

Siegel also expects producers to stay on top of how entertainment and information are being presented to kids. Many preschool shows used to feature an adult-led teaching-type structure (à la Romper Room), but modern programming is all about empowering kids. ‘There are always shifts in how we speak to preschoolers, which is one reason we can still pick up shows even though there is a market glut,’ she says.

Many of the projects Siegel is pitched work on the basic premise of learning a lesson or fixing a problem; an example might be a parrot who wants to try living on a more exotic island, until his friends teach him to appreciate his natural habitat. This is a common structure, but Siegel would rather see something that starts off on a more positive note and doesn’t try to convince kids that one way of thinking is bad. She adds that it’s a tricky balance to strike because television writing as a whole often hinges on dramatic framing and characterization built through conflict.

Parents and caregivers are generally much more involved in what kids are watching at this age, so there’s a lot of pressure to create programming with a positive influence. But while many successful preschool shows have a strong curriculum base, their focus is often broader and encompasses all elements of learning and exploration, not necessarily just the three Rs.

The idea of empowering kids and developing their creativity is a central focus in Paris-based France Animation/

Moonscoop’s latest offering, Lamimila. The 52 x six-minute show is based on a series of collage books with removable stickers that let kids create art to go along with the story. In the TV concept, voiceovers make kids feel like they’re driving the creation of the backdrops. For example, if the story starts out by the sea, kids are encouraged to call out for seagulls, which then appear in the scene.

Moonscoop VP and executive producer Maia Tubiana says the company wanted to focus on developing kids’ observational skills and liked the fact that viewers could use the books to follow along at home and make their own designs.

AAC Kids’ Faier says when his team was developing Lunar Jim, it was a challenge to include the amount of curriculum North American broadcasters expect in an organic way. Channels such as PBS and Noggin are particularly interested in academic programming that covers early-learning concepts like numbers and letters, he says.

The North American market demands much more in the way of edu-content than Europe, and since Lunar Jim had commitments from eight international broadcasters, AAC was faced with the daunting task of balancing German, Australian, British, Latin American and Canadian curriculum needs in one show.

In the end, Faier decided against a straight-up science theme, choosing instead to focus on exploration and the scientific method of problem-solving – testing a theory and then retooling it until it works. ‘It freed us up a bit in terms of story. Now it’s all about exploring the world around you and trying to figure out how to live there, which is exactly what preschool is all about.’

Johnson says that Nick and its sister station Noggin are happy to work with producers to add educational elements to a series, but she prefers to come in really early to ensure that the curriculum fits her channels’ mandates. On acquisitions, it’s possible to retrofit curriculum if the original idea is strong, taking footage and reshaping it into educational interstitials and shorts that will be used to package the show.

Finding the right broadcast home for a property is even more crucial in preschool than in other kids programming genres because kids in this age group will not seek out new shows on their own or generate buzz about the ones they like amongst their friends. Usually it’s up to parents to find a block or channel they trust and stay there.

Then there’s the backend to consider. ‘When it comes down to making a property work, there are only so many platforms that can deliver enough eyeballs to excite retailers,’ says Faier, adding that locking in a sale to Nickelodeon or PBS will pique the most retail interest, with Cartoon Network and Disney coming in very closely behind.

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