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Here’s lookin’ at you, KidScreen!

What a difference a decade makes. When our inaugural issue landed on your doorsteps 10 years ago, the kids TV industry was on the cusp of exploding. The broadcast universe for children's programming had started to expand, with cable and satellite channels dedicated to entertaining kids popping up all around the globe. The internet was becoming a factor in kids lives, interactive gaming was making its presence felt and kids consumer products execs had just glimpsed the tip of the age compression iceberg that's now threatening to sink the toy industry. And the brave new world of emerging media (VOD, wireless, handheld players) that stands to play out as the story of the next five years, wasn't even a glimmer in the biz's collective eye.
January 1, 2006

What a difference a decade makes. When our inaugural issue landed on your doorsteps 10 years ago, the kids TV industry was on the cusp of exploding. The broadcast universe for children’s programming had started to expand, with cable and satellite channels dedicated to entertaining kids popping up all around the globe. The internet was becoming a factor in kids lives, interactive gaming was making its presence felt and kids consumer products execs had just glimpsed the tip of the age compression iceberg that’s now threatening to sink the toy industry. And the brave new world of emerging media (VOD, wireless, handheld players) that stands to play out as the story of the next five years, wasn’t even a glimmer in the biz’s collective eye.

And while we intend to stick around for the another 10 years (at least!), we took the opportunity to dig into the archives and highlight some of the biggest issues covered in the magazine over the years. Enjoy!

Cablenets get rooted in the U.S.

The way industry wags wax poetic about the U.S. broadcast scene in the ’90s, you’d think network execs concluded deals by lighting celebratory stogies with hundred-dollar bills. After all, no one would notice a few greenbacks missing from the giant mounds of cash they had just sitting around their offices. But a comparison of the 1996 and 2005 Up Fronts shows a different picture. The amount spent on advertising on kids nets has remained pretty much stagnant – overall ad sales clocked in at US$725 million in ’96, while ’05′s take hovered at around US$800 million. However, in the late ’90s a seismic shift took place in the kids broadcast landscape, making individual broadcaster’s slices of the Up Front pie a lot smaller.

A cablenet wave crashed onto the kids terrestrial programming mainland in 1997. Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon sat at the top of the ratings heap and drowned the big four nets – CBS alone lost 50% of its kids viewers. Eyeballs were literally shifting from aerial broadcast to satellite during this period, which spurred PBS, Disney, Discovery and Fox Kids to each announce plans for cabsat channels by 1999.

On the demo front, the idea of launching a dedicated preschool cable channel was dismissed in 1997 by many executives as foolhardy. They claimed the age group could not attract ad dollars and even if advertisers bought in, many felt a commercial preschool channel was a political disaster waiting to happen. Refusing to listen to naysayers, Nick took a different tack in 1998 and launched Noggin’s commercial-free preschool block in the U.S. and it wasn’t until 2005 that the first commercially supported 24/7 preschool channel launched. PBS Kids Sprout debuted as an on-demand channel in May of last year before moving to full-fledged broadcast that fall.

As for emerging players on the kids TV horizon, KidScreen wrote about VOD for the first time 2001, when a now-defunct dotcom launched a video download service. Broadband subscribers could buy a TV show outright for US$15 or rent it for US$6. But as there were only 5.7-million households with broadband at the time, the endeavor failed to build a big enough subscriber base to sustain itself. It did, however, lay the groundwork for the future of television watching. Most kidsnets have since invested in the on-demand universe either via on-line (think Turbo Nick) or on cable (PBS Sprout), and a generation of kids will grow up watching what they want, when they want. The question remains as to whether or not adspend will follow.

Game on! Interactive consoles vie for kids attention

As the TV universe expanded, KidScreen also followed the growth of video games, arguably TV’s biggest competitor for kids attention. It’s worth noting that E3′s 1995 launch was the second-largest tradeshow debut in 25 years – an early indication of the impact that gaming would have on the entertainment world over the next decade.

Much of the momentum that year came from the launch of the first big CD-based systems, the Sega Saturn and Sony’s first PlayStation. Ahead of its time perhaps, the Saturn had on-line play capabilities that wouldn’t really take off in the mass market until the 2002 launch of Microsoft’s Xbox Live. Also, industry sales began a meteoric rise, shooting up to US$5.7 billion by 1997, close to doubling 1995′s US$3.3 billion take.

1998 brought the Game Boy Color, further solidifying what would become Nintendo’s chokehold on the handheld games market. The best efforts of competitors such as the NeoGeo Pocket Color, Sega’s Game Gear and the Wonder Swan from Bandai failed to topple the company and Nintendo gained even more ground after its 2000 release of Game Boy Advance.

Sega bit back in 1999 with the launch of Dreamcast, a technically superior system with a 56K modem and a memory card (trust us, it was technically superior at the time), and again tried to create an on-line gaming market with SegaNet. Sony and Nintendo responded by dropping price points below $100.

But it was the launch of the multi-function PlayStation 2 that captured the public’s imagination like no other. Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s GameCube made it to market less than a year later, but neither overtook Sony’s lead. And while media reports buzzed about a new segment of hardcore and mature gamers, this gen pushed the older systems into younger kids hands, expanding the reach of the industry. Additionally, the line between movies and video games continued to blur with film actors, writers and directors getting more involved in the production of licensed games.

By the end of 2002, video game revenues hit an all-time high of US$10.3 billion and a new slew of handhelds such as Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP) and Nintendo’s innovative DS peaked kids interests in 2004. And it certainly seems to be full steam ahead as the industry launches a new wave of next-gen consoles in the coming year.

The business of getting kids active

When KidScreen launched, the biggest social issue facing kids industry creative types and execs was violence on television. However, in the years that followed it became harder to hear its critics over the ruckus being generated by a new and much louder group – those waging the war against childhood obesity.

Over the past five years prodcos, broadcasters, game makers, toycos and their promo partners have had the problem of kids expanding bottoms (particularly in the U.S. and the U.K.) placed squarely in their courts.

We’ve seen entertainment companies come under fire as Warner Bros. did in 2001 when it paired up with Coca-Cola for a Harry Potter promo. The following year, interest groups in Europe and Australia began lobbying to restrict or ban kid-targeted food and drink advertisements. QSR powerhouse McDonald’s eventually acquiesced to the opposition in 2003 and introduced fruits, veggies and yogurt to its menu.

But kids entertainment players have made a concerted effort to help market healthy food items. Sesame Workshop has embarked on a campaign with the Produce for Better Health Foundation to encourage kids to eat veggies, for example. And across the pond, BBC Worldwide has mandated that it will not license its kid-friendly characters to promote unhealthy food.

Production companies have also waded into the war to debunk the notion that watching television is solely a passive activity. Show’s like Boohbah (Ragdoll) and LazyTown (LazyTown) were created to get kids off the couch and moving while others like Planet Cook (FremantleMedia) aim to make cooking a fun activity for older kids.

Not to be left out, toycos and game makers are pitching in too. L.A.-based Sport Fun came out with a line of mini-fitness machines in 2002 and last year, Konami introduced its Dance Dance Revolution video game into U.S. schools.

The din won’t be dying down anytime soon, however. In December, The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies report put the spotlight on the issue once again – making a tenuous link between obesity and using well-known licensed characters to market food and beverages to kids.

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