Broadband or Bust – Canuck nets ramp up non-linear strategies

Broadcasters want to be wherever kids are in order to survive in the ever-evolving multi-platform universe and Canada's children's TV players are taking efforts to a new level for the 2006/07 season. Just as kids squeezed in as much fun as they could over the last few days of summer, the country's kidcasters kept their demos tuned in with supporting websites and teasers from the September linear sked - one even launched a whole new platform.
September 1, 2006

Broadcasters want to be wherever kids are in order to survive in the ever-evolving multi-platform universe and Canada’s children’s TV players are taking efforts to a new level for the 2006/07 season. Just as kids squeezed in as much fun as they could over the last few days of summer, the country’s kidcasters kept their demos tuned in with supporting websites and teasers from the September linear sked – one even launched a whole new platform.

Treehouse is set to make waves in the way Canadian viewers consume preschool programming. Parentco Corus (which also owns prodco Nelvana) unveiled Treehouse Direct, a download-to-own initiative last month. Augmenting its 18-month-old Treehouse On Demand service, Treehouse Direct lets parents permanently purchase individual episodes of their preschoolers’ fave shows rather than ‘rent’ them for a limited period, as is the practice with VOD. Selling titles for US$1.35 apiece, it is the first initiative of its kind in Canada.

Meanwhile, the other Canadian nets are focusing on broadband strategies. In August, weeks before its linear TV debut, Corus’ tween targeted YTV offered a sneak-peek at new co-pro Erky Perky (with Toronto’s CCI Entertainment) via its website, powered by a revamped on-line video player. The 24/7 net also slotted in some web games and teasers centered on another fall launch, Team Galaxy from co-producer, Paris, France’s Marathon.

Teletoon (now owned 50/50 by Corus and Astral Media) took a similar tack, creating immersive gaming components for some shows in its lineup, such as Cookie Jar’s Spider Riders. The net also has an on-line initiative called Zimmer Twins through which Teletoon offers kids an opportunity to have their work appear on air. The net provides users with on-line tools to produce short movies featuring its characters and other elements, and films finished before the July deadline had an opportunity to land one of 20 Zimmer Twins Telepicks interstitial spots on Teletoon.

Over at pubcaster CBC, the on-line route is more directional than promotional. Kim Wilson, CBC’s head of children’s and youth programming, says she’s anticipating moving the youth focus from on air to on-line. Since the broadcaster is competing with 24-hour nets such as YTV and Teletoon, she feels broadband can help alleviate the linear channel’s handicap of being available only a few hours per day. Some plans are still being hammered out, but Wilson hints at an expanded on-line presence featuring some user-generated content and exclusive programming. ‘The web and on air are equally important content streams,’ Wilson says.

Family Channel stays the course

Commercial-free premium cablenet Family Channel has stripped some of its content on-line in advance of the first telecast, such as Life with Derek, but it’s taking a wait-and-see approach before delving further into the non-linear environment. Fortunately its owner, Astral Media, has experience with VOD from operating its Movie Network channels. But Kevin Wright, senior VP of programming at the net, says his team is closely monitoring what’s happening in the States with on-demand, and it’s looking at possibilities that include paid-for or commercially supported content. ‘We’re very sensitive to a retail fee for VOD when it comes to kids. But because it is premium product, it’s hard to give away for free,’ he says.

In the meantime, his focus is on the linear net. Over the last 18 months, the channel has introduced new programming almost every month to keep audiences on their toes. However, there is a bigger wave of premieres this month. For example, new episodes of its top-rated Friday early evening shows Life With Derek and Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide will appear along side Hanna Montana and Zoey 101 in the Get Schooled block. And Disney will be delivering the brand-new That’s So Raven spin-off, Corey in the House, in January. Wright says this series is getting the most buzz, and he anticipates Jetix’s Oban Star Racers will attract the action-adventure fans in the new year too.

Although there is room for more animation on the net, he says his strategy to highlight live action appears to be working. ‘We try to emphasize real entertainment and programming that reflects kids’ lives.’ He admits these sitcom shows aren’t exactly realistic, but viewers ages eight to 14 are tuning in.

TVO Kids takes over daytime airwaves

TV Ontario’s Kids takes over the provincial pubcaster’s daytime sked this month, adding 13 new hours of kid-targeted programming each week. It’s a challenge Pat Ellingson, creative head of children’s, youth and daytime, is ready to take on thanks to the net’s healthy inventory.

Last year Ellingson’s preschool slate was full, but now that the Gisele’s Big Backyard preschool block runs an extra hour each day from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. she has a renewed interest in ferreting out unique and innovative concepts to fill future skeds. Ellingson says the new slate of preschool properties exemplifies the kind of shows needed for this youngest demo. This fall, she’s most excited about Bali, a co-pro between Paris, France’s Planet Nemo and Montreal’s Subsequence Entertainment. The little puppy protagonist, who lives in a high rise, uses the city as his backyard to play – speaking to a generation of kids growing up in apartments and condos.

Ellingson’s new educational focus includes music theory. Jack’s Big Music Show from Spiffy Pictures explores different types of songs from across the globe, and Cuppa Coffee’s Tigga and Togga is a dialogue-free, short-form series where kids can explore communicating through music. Wee ones first got a taste for the series through TVO’s website this past August. Viewers and their parents could hit the Tigga link and work together on-line to create new music using sounds such as kitchen plates rattling and those emitted by traditional instruments.

Additionally, co-viewing opportunities are present in two new series entering the pubcaster’s lineup. Sesame Workshop’s The Upside Down Show is pure preschool, but Ellingson says adults will get a kick out of the hosts’ comic stylings (the duo previously worked as adult-targeted comedians in Australia). And Ellingson says the new Daniel Cook-hosted I Dare You from Toronto’s Sinking Ship will play to both preschoolers and the after-school crowd; it fits right into the network’s Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies initiative as the live-action show encourages youngsters to get moving.

For the six to nine year old set that tunes in late afternoon, Ellingson says she’s most intrigued by Spellz (26 x 11 minutes). Produced by Ottawa, Canada’s GAPC Broadcasting, the show looks at the history of magic and demonstrates how to perform tricks using basic math and science theories. ‘A big win for us is a show that’s what I call make-and-do,’ she explains. ‘Kids can watch and be entertained, but also work to create something.’ This style of engaging programming is difficult to suss out, she says. ‘Our mandate is to find something educational, and not action-adventure plastic comedy without educational nutrition.’

YTV emphasizes Saturdays for kids

Over at 24/7 cablenet YTV, Saturday mornings are getting re-animated. The block’s action-adventure, ‘toy-related shows’ will move to the afternoon, making room for gender-neutral comedies. ‘The line up is all about our biggest hitters,’ Phil Piazza, VP of programming, says.

Starting at 7 a.m., the newly christened CRUNCH block will include classics such as SpongeBob SquarePants, The Fairly OddParents, and Teen Titans. New shows are set to launch, including a pre-release of Viva Pinata (a 26 x half hour co-pro with Vancouver’s Bardel and 4Kids Entertainment) before it launches on 4Kids Television in the U.S. Marathon’s Team Galaxy will also bow on the kid block along with Xilam’s action-comedy Shuriken School.

CRUNCH has a new host who’ll film interstitials during road trips, asking kids across the country what Saturday morning means to them. Breaking up the programming with hosted segments is an important element of YTV’s overall branding. Most blocks feature a live, usually teenage or young adult, presenter that allows for an opportunity to speak to kids on their own level, while simultaneously working with advertising partners to showcase different on-screen contests.

In the highly competitive 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. slot, The Zone has two hosts presenting gender-neutral fare. It will share programming such as Viva Pinata with the new Saturday morning stream, and Paris, France-based Alphanim’s Robot Boy is a new acquisition aiming for the funny bones of school-aged kids.

For the 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. co-viewing evening block, YTV picked up all 151 half hours of Malcolm in the Middle. Piazza calls the family sitcom a crown jewel, and on Monday’s it will lead into in-house co-pro Weird Years (26 x 30 minutes). Premiering in November, the series takes a look at the funny transitions an immigrant family experiences, which Piazza says will speak to Canada’s multicultural population.

Treehouse adds action and exploration

To highlight the network’s new Treehouse Direct initiative, the focus is on the This Is Daniel Cook spin-off, This Is Emily Yeung (65 x six minutes). From marblemedia and Sinking Ship Productions (in association with Treehouse), this series was one of the first made available on the download-to-own service last month. And prior to that, the first episode was streamed for download on mobile devices and then on Treehouse On Demand to get parents and kids attention as early as possible.

A second co-pro, also from Toronto’s Sinking Ship, is Roll Play (52 x four minutes). It’s all about getting kids active by imitating the movements of animals.

And speaking of animals, a straightforward acquisition starting this month is Wonder Pets! (22 x half hours) from Nickelodeon. Answering the calls of baby animals in distress, the heroic duck, guinea pig and turtle trio work as a team, traveling through space and across oceans to come to the rescue.

CBC monkeys around and gains a super hero

Animals are also a focus for the pubcaster’s preschool block. Riding on the coattails of the cinematic release, the new animated TV series Curious George (Imagine Entertainment, WGBH Boston, Universal Studios Family Productions) will launch on the weekday morning slot. ‘Parents remember it, the movie was cute, and there’s a lot of build up around it,’ CBC’s Wilson says.

Shifting focus from the jungle to the farm, Wilson is also looking to set up a chunk of air time dedicated to depicting rural life. CBC plans to spark interest in the barnyard early on by pairing Contender’s Tractor Tom and new episodes of Cheeky Animation’s Slim Pig with new co-pro Wilbur (Mercury Filmworks and Chilco). The pre-literacy series stars a 2-D storytelling cow whose friends come to life in 3-D (using Shadowmation) as he tells a tale from a book.

In terms of branding, CBC puts a new twist on its interstitials with the informative super hero, Kid Canada! Via the animated character, viewers will learn the basics of what it means to be a Canadian. ‘We have a responsibility around diversity to introduce kids to a variety of faces and backgrounds,’ Wilson says. To educate the net’s youngest audience, Kid Canada! will encourage and demonstrate the country’s propensity for politeness and tolerance, among other things, and children will have an opportunity to interact by submitting their photos.

For The Void block, which runs from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., Wilson is bringing in two new Canadian co-pros meant to appeal to kids six to 11. Sharing the title with a book by the late Canadian author Pierre Berton that Wilson thinks every kid in the country has read is The Secret World of Og, and 2-D toon My Goldfish is Evil from Montreal’s Sardine Productions follows up.

Teletoon resurrects its first co-pro hit

With broadcasters required to devote 60% of their 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. airtime to Canadian content, the animation network has committed itself to two new co-pros to pump up its library. Eighteen months after the last episode was delivered, the cablenet is set to bring back What’s With Andy. VP of programming Carole Bonneau says she’s confident the audience will still be drawn to the 2-D comedy.

Nelvana’s Di-Gata Defenders is the net’s second original program. The series tips its hat to boys eight-to-12-years-old with its action-adventure and fantasy-based storylines, but Bonneau is convinced girls will tune in for the humor and the powerful protagonists. ‘Di-gata has really strong female characters, and just like Totally Spies!, even though that has three female characters, it appeals to boys too,’ she says. Bonneau says kids started calling and writing the station asking when the series was expected to launch shortly after Di-Gata teasers began airing during the net’s summertime Camp Teletoon block in mid-July.

The series bowed in August, but Teletoon decided to turn its debut into event programming, packaging it as a 70-minute feature for the Saturday afternoon CineToon time slot. Bonneau says this tactic made sense in order to get kids hyped about the show while giving them the background they might need to understand the plot’s multiple layers.

Two other shows teased to the audience as early as July were the Nicktoons/Animation Collective co-pro, Kappa Mikey and Ben 10 (Cartoon Network). She says both series have the required action elements to pull in the boy demo, balanced by a strong sense of humor, which should draw in the girls. As for scheduling, the blocks will remain the same, with a little more action-adventure featured on Saturday mornings.

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