Facing relentless encroachment from broadcast feeds from the south, Ireland’s public broadcaster RTE is rallying for a counterstrike. The net is overhauling its entire approach to kids programming on RTE2 (called The Den) this September, refreshing its branding and introducing clearly defined blocks and a slew of new programming targeted specifically to its uniquely Irish audience.
RTE2 currently reels in a healthy 50% to 60% of the nation’s four- to 14-year-olds with its prime-time after-school block and early-evening kids slots. But pay-TV penetration has grown in the last five years to 65% of Irish households, which means dedicated kidnets like Nickelodeon, CBBC and Disney are slowly chipping away at RTE’s share.
‘They’re all taking tiny amounts, but cumulatively,’ says Dermot Horan, director of broadcast and acquisitions. ‘So while we still have the biggest share in Ireland, you have to put your best foot forward in terms of investment and acquisitions, and that is not always easy.’ Especially when you take into account that some of RTE’s most successful shows – its Disney block and Nick’s Rugrats, for example – will also be airing on the digital competition. ‘I try and buy the best stuff there is on the international market, but what makes us unique and different from the U.K. broadcasters is the fact that we’re Irish,’ Horan reasons.
Enter Sheila de Courcy, RTE’s commissioning editor for young people’s programs. Since taking the job eight months ago, de Courcy has forged a brand-new identity for the channel using new content that’s chock-full of localized and interactive elements. In-house productions, interstitials and hosted segments currently account for 20% of RTE’s total kid mix, but that figure shoots up to about 40% during prime time, which means the hunt is on for new show concepts and formats. de Courcy’s commissioning budget has more than doubled to fund the refresh, which will encompass preschool segments co-hosted by Soky the sock monster, a celebrity interview show starring a cheeky turkey named Dustin, and expanding the popular S@titude Saturday morning tween magazine series.
To compete with the high-budget, glitzy fare coming out of London, de Courcy says RTE’s live segments need to be upbeat and appeal to Irish kids’ smart and slightly edgier sense of humor. The net has been exploring a range of interactive initiatives in order to capitalize on its home-field advantage, including The Café, an interview and musical performance show where kids text in all the questions for the guests. She’ll also be testing series created specifically to run daily during school holidays, and is currently looking to commission two 10 x half-hour live-action series themed around Christmas and Halloween that can support promotional elements like contests.
A new block geared to tweens and teens has been added to the Sunday schedule, while weekday slots have been shaken up to jibe with an out-of-the-box demographic strategy. Rather than sticking with the age-old formula of targeting preschoolers in the morning and older kids after school and in the evenings, RTE2 will start its programming day off at 6:30 a.m. with fare for the six to 12 set. The schedule will then move right into preschool shows from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., working its way up to tweens and teens from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. by targeting a slightly older demo every hour. Each block will have its own branding based on a central channel image, and de Courcy is in the process now of choosing an out-of-house graphic design team to tackle the project.
As RTE ages its kid airspace up a bit, Horan is hoping to add more tween dramas to the sked, along the lines of recent pick-up Radio Free Roscoe (Decode), which will air as part of S@titude in the fall. Since live action doesn’t repeat well and tends to have shorter runs, he’s constantly on the lookout for replacements, and says he’d like to add at least two more series in the spring and two in fall 2006. Next year’s lineup has room for three or four new animated series, and while anime still rules with RTE’s four- to eight-year-old fans (Yu-Gi-Oh! is the channel’s top performer), Horan says he’s interested in picking up more girl-skewing toons like DIC’s Trollz, which will launch in the fall.