We all know that the U.K. kids programming landscape is as crowded as the Palais bunker on the first day of MIPCOM. And in their ongoing struggle to achieve a programming edge and stand out on the dial, broadcasters have started to get involved in show development much earlier than ever before.
Even though co-producing is still a key strategy at both nets, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have implemented piloting programs that allow them to steer the content creation process from the outset, as well as providing them a guaranteed first crack at the contract if a pilot proves successful with the audience.
About three years ago, Nick UK starting upping its production budget by 12.5% per year, reckoning it needed more original content to stay strong in the market (which will offer 23 different kid destinations when ITV’s new Freeview channel debuts within the next five months). Over the last year, Nickelodeon has plugged roughly US$450,000 into pilots for two live-action series and US$180,000 into tests of two preschool shows. All four pilots were shown to kid focus groups, and based on the results, one in each genre is now in development. ‘Piloting is expensive, but it does allow you to test the concepts with kids before commissioning an entire series,’ explains Howard Litton, Nick’s program director.
Finn Arnesen, senior VP of programming and original animation at Cartoon, also sees the benefit of piloting and admits he’s looking to ramp up this strategy in Q4. But rather than leaving it up to the viewers to decide the fate of shows, Cartoon’s global programming strategy team reviews the pilots, each of which is accompanied by a bible, an animatic and at least two scripts, before deciding whether to greenlight or not.
Piloting hasn’t hit the terrestrials yet, but most of them are more active in co-production this year. Of Five’s 11 new series this season, only Cookie Jar’s Gerald McBoing Boing is an acquisition. And controller of children’s programming Nick Wilson says the channel has committed its expertise and money to a further nine projects currently in development or production. At CiTV, editor Estelle Hughes says she’s increasingly looking beyond U.K. borders for co-pro opportunities, and although CBBC’s Alison Sharman is waiting for the government to beef up her budget, she expects a cash injection to come through in 2006 or 2007 and is exploring new opportunities in the meantime.
But the future is entirely dependent on whether kids tune in this year, and every kidnet in the country is jockeying for a better connection with viewers.
Nickelodeon puts the faves on repeat
Litton says his biggest challenge when it comes to scheduling is the Nick Jr. preschool channel because there are so many U.K. nets vying for these viewers. But in-house research indicates that the key to drawing this audience lies in showing their favorites and showing them often, rather than running 35 to 40 different shows a week. ‘At the moment, we are probably playing Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues three or four times a day,’ he says. To shake things up a bit, Litton is introducing a new acquisition this season with Nelvana’s The Backyardigans, which he thinks could be the new Dora. But Nick is hardly turning its back on veteran performers; in fact, November is Dora Month at the net, with consumer products tie-ins and new interstitials in the planning stages.
On Nick proper, there’s a definite move away from positioning that Litton refers to as ‘MTV Junior.’ Instead of weighing the lineup in favor of live-action dramas for girls, the goal this year is to serve up more animation and bring in a great enough number of seven- to 11-year-old boys to break a stalemate with Cartoon in the ratings race. (The two channels wound up tied at 11.5% for the year in 2004, according to BARB.) ‘We felt that Nick was skewing too female, so we want to bring back more animation to adjust the balance,’ says Litton, who expects the November launch of Nick co-pro Avatar to help achieve this goal.
Girl viewers can still get their live-action fix with Darcy’s Wild Life (Discovery Kids/Temple Street Productions) and Complete Savages (NBC Universal), which should toe the gender-neutral programming line by virtue of the fact that it’s about a single dad raising five boys. The series aired in prime time on NBC last year, but was cancelled after one season.
Will homework suffer as Cartoon focuses on late-afternoon prime time?
At rival cabsat operator Cartoon, Arnesen’s focus this year is a matter of perception: He needs to make his audience realize that Cartoon is about more than just comedy. With Toonami seen as the Turner family’s action-adventure destination, and Boomerang as the home for retro toons, he’s now looking to turn Cartoon Network into a flagship channel with more action programming after school and a younger skew during the day.
Cartoon Network Norway and Pogo in India have been trying out preschool block strategies, and some Euro Boomerang channels have picked up local shows targeting the demo. But there aren’t any immediate plans to implement the U.S. channel’s Tickle U block in Europe. Having said that, Arnesen admits the possibility has come up for discussion in internal strategy meetings.
Arnesen’s hardest block to schedule is between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. because rivals Nick, Disney and Jetix all play their best shows in these prime-time slots to grab the coveted after-school advertising dollars. To attract the widest possible audience to the block, Arnesen wants to boost its 35% girl draw. He says Cartoon’s last great gender-neutral show was Dexter’s Laboratory, but hopes are high for Juniper Lee this year. There’s already an order for 13 more episodes, and although girls will identify most closely with the toon’s female protagonist, her helpful younger brother Ray Ray should appeal to boys.
Super-serving boys in the after-school block is Robotboy, a 26 x half-hour co-pro with French toon machine Alphanim that Arnesen calls ‘Terminator meets Pinocchio.’ The lead character is a cute toy robot who longs to be a real boy and struggles to stay out of his evil scientist creator’s quest to overpower world armies.. Arnesen says the show is pitch-perfect for after school because it mixes action, adventure and comedy with sweet and relatable tales about the nature of childhood.
Also popping up in the block is Da Boom Crew, an acquisition from Germany’s Berliner Film Companie that originally aired on Kids’ WB! in the U.S. This 13 x half-hour series tells the story of a group of kid video game junkies who get sucked into the on-screen action and must play to survive. ‘Every kid plays video games…so it’s easy for them to relate to this premise,’ says Arnesen, who’s very pleased with the show’s results so far. Since launching in early September, Da Boom Crew has consistently been amongst the channel’s top five shows.
Looking ahead to the 2006/2007 season, Arnesen and his team will be trolling for comedy series, but he admits he’s having difficulty finding solid concepts on the market. No matter though, because the Euro office has become adept at making do in-house and has really stepped up its original programming output over the past few years. To keep that momentum up, Arnesen anticipates getting involved in two or three new co-pros over an 18-month cycle in the coming year.
Jetix launches ambitious campaign for A.T.O.M.
Following the channel’s brand reinvention from Fox Kids to Jetix in January 2005, change is almost entirely centered around programming this year. And director of creative development Michael Lekes is concentrating on a prime-time and weekend block called Jetix Max to appeal to the older end of his boys target.
Airing weeknights from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to noon, Max will bring together classics such as Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with SIP Animation co-pro A.T.O.M., which launched in August. The series is about a cool group of urban teens who work with an inventor to create weapon prototypes that will fight off an evil crime lord and his team of bandits.
In tandem with the series debut, Jetix held a party at London’s Trocadero, complete with red-carpet celebrities such as English rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio, actor Celia Imirie and comedian Linda Robson. Starting this month, Jetix will hit 12 schools countrywide on a ‘Mr. Lee Needs You’ tour, featuring an inventor who talks to kids about how to create new gadgets like the teen team does in the show. As well, five of the U.K.’s largest shopping centers will be visited by an A.T.O.M. roadshow this month.
CBBC works for the weekend
The kidnet’s new controller, Alison Sharman, points to Saturday mornings as especially challenging to schedule, given the fact that her two diginets and a CBBC Zones block (which runs Saturday mornings on BBC1) are all competing for viewers in the country’s 10.6 million cabsat homes during that daypart.
Escapism and adventure are at the heart of a new Saturday morning block Sharman hopes will gain traction with her audience, and it includes a revamp of one of the BBC’s very first children’s series, Muffin the Mule, which originally debuted in 1946. Reversioning the classic for a new generation was a no-brainer for the Beeb because of its strong co-viewing potential, given that so many parents and grandparents remember it fondly. Balancing that pedigree is Charlie and Lola, a 26 x half-hour preschool series from Tiger Aspect that features a unique and edgy graphic style.
Last year, the CBBC One terrestrial block averaged a 22.6% share, while in the digital realm, Cbeebies pulled in a 6.1% and CBBC a 4.9%. Amongst the shows that were particularly popular, Sharman points to its co-pro with Entertainment Rights, The Story of Tracy Beaker (averaging a 30% share in its weekday afternoon slot) and Indie Kids/
Galafilm special Fungus the Bogeyman (which pulled in a 28% share of children on Sunday afternoons).
Next year, comedy for six- to nine-year-olds and tweens will be a big programming focus, and head of CBBC animation and acquisitions Michael Carrington is buying in this genre right now.
Five goes back in time for a Milkshake refresh
Hoping to maintain the 18.4% share of kids four to six Five averaged in 2004, Wilson is hoping that everything old is new again. Given that Milkshake’s top series last year was reversioned classic Make Way For Noddy, which averaged a 17.9% share of four- to nine-year-olds, Wilson is confident this modernization strategy will also resonate with this year’s preschool viewers.
But in Wilson’s mind, it’s not about the popularity or cult status these programs have acquired since they aired 30-odd years ago. ‘I always ask myself, if the show had never existed and I was seeing it for the first time, would I go for it?’ he says.
The answer was yes for Roobarb and Custard Too, an A&B Productions and Monster Animation remake that kicked things off in August. Wilson adds that the earlier launch date helped Five net more viewers because kids were still on summer holidays.
As for new series, Wilson is most excited by Five’s co-pro with Southern Star, Bottle Top Bill, whose strong story and environmental message (characters and backdrops are constructed out of recyclable items such as cardboard, paperclips and tape) suits his programming goal to find properties with warmth and magic to them, and the show’s unique animation style combining 2-D, CGI, modeling and collage will be sure to catch the eye of his audience.
Co-pros are a major focus at Five, as Wilson prefers to have input on series from the development stage in order to give them a distinctly British feel. (Because the channel partnered on Bottle Top Bill, for example, Wilson was able to lock in British actor Miranda Richardson to voice the U.K. version of the series.) He says it’s not difficult to acquire programming, but Five gets better value and higher quality out of co-produced or commissioned programming.
CiTV desperately seeking homegrown live action
Although preschool remains a major priority for CiTV, daypart changes made earlier this year on ITV1 took 15 minutes away from CiTV’s morning block, leaving the lineup short a slot. But Pocoyo, a co-pro with Granada, Zinkia and Cosgrove Hall, made the cut, and Hughes is really looking forward to seeing how U.K. kids respond to its clean design, visual humor and strong music component.
In terms of what she needs for next season and beyond, Hughes is after a Brit-bred live-action series in the same vein as Lizzie McGuire or Drake and Josh. And she anticipates that CiTV will get involved in more foreign co-pros since its experience with Pocoyo was such a positive one.
With files from Lianne Stewart