Hard times – Kids programming in the U.K. faces an uncertain future

There's no doubt that there are turbulent times ahead for commercial kids programming in the U.K. Not only is the region's broadcast and production community anxiously awaiting word on Ofcom's decision about junkfood advertising and on ITV's definitive plans for its terrestrial kids programming, rumors that the BBC may be shuttering its kids block on BBC1 have also surfaced in recent weeks.
October 1, 2006

There’s no doubt that there are turbulent times ahead for commercial kids programming in the U.K. Not only is the region’s broadcast and production community anxiously awaiting word on Ofcom’s decision about junkfood advertising and on ITV’s definitive plans for its terrestrial kids programming, rumors that the BBC may be shuttering its kids block on BBC1 have also surfaced in recent weeks.

As the situation stood at press time, the one thing that has been established is CiTV’s commissioning plans are on hold for the moment. Outgoing CiTV programming controller Estelle Hughes confirmed changes are coming as to how the network will generate funds, affecting the US$35 million ITV currently spends in the independent community.

And as we noted in the September 2006 feature ‘Bracing for Battle’, not all U.K. broadcasters foresee major cutbacks resulting from Ofcom’s upcoming decision. Terrestrial net Five kids controller Nick Wilson says most of the broadcasters and the advertisers involved began enacting a form of self-regulation when these concerns about childhood obesity first started to bubble to the surface a few years ago. ‘A lot of the advertising revenue that will disappear under this new regulation has disappeared already,’ he says. That said, the full impact of the junkfood ad/ITV double whammy won’t be realized until both organizations make their decisions public sometime this fall. In the meantime, the British nets are forging ahead with their new skeds.

CiTV soldiers on

Despite the bad news on the terrestrial side, it’s business as usual at the new 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. diginet. For the younger set, a second season of co-pro Pokoyo bowed last month, along with the costume-character show created by the minds behind the Tweenies and produced by Entertainment Rights called Jim Jam and Sunny. Hughes was drawn to the series because it provides ‘an intelligent look at play patterns, and how brothers and sisters play with their own toys.’

A rare show in the preschool block is straight acquisition, Curious George. Hughes says it’s not difficult to find strong series for this youngest set made locally, and she didn’t think she’d ever acquire a show that wasn’t U.K.-voiced. However, she says this series was too sweet to pass up. The toon also appears in the ITV terrestrial block.

Heading into the older kids blocks, Hughes was particularly chuffed about two new series. The first is the animated Horrid Henry (Novel Entertainment), based on the books that have proven quite successful in the U.K. She says one in three kids in the U.K. has Henry licensed merch already, and this show just adds to the brand. ‘It’s been so fun to work on because he’s so naughty. You really do laugh out loud,’ she says.

The second series is a live actioner from Northern Ireland. From the production house behind S Club, Bel’s Boys (Granada) follows the adventures of a nine-year-old girl who ends up managing a boy band. Hughes points to the slick production style, quick 11-minute scripts and the addictive music as extra draws for kids’ eyeballs. But it’s also important that this 26-ep series comes from Northern Ireland, a production area Hughes says the U.K. has yet to fully tap.

Shake changes up its recipe on Five

Terrestrial net Five tips the scales in Milkshake’s favor this year, opting to focus its production funds on preschool programming while turning to acquisitions for its older-skewing Shake block. ‘In this multi-channel world, with a programming block that’s only on two days a week, it’s difficult to maintain visibility,’ Wilson says. Five is sticking with Shake because of its public broadcasting commitment, but it didn’t make sense to split production-spend equally between the two blocks; Milkshake has the most broadcasting hours and visibility.

That doesn’t mean production levels are about to go down for Shake. Wilson wants to bump up the block’s ratings, and will be on the lookout for live action, action-adventure and high-quality factual dramas to make up its weekend morning hours. On Saturdays, he’s going for commercial acquisitions. On Sundays, action is the name of the game with shows such as Hercules and Sinbad in the lineup.

‘The numbers wouldn’t be bad if we were Disney or Jetix, but we’re not happy with getting just over 150,000 [viewers].’ Two years ago, these same programs would have brought in 400,000 sets of eyeballs per airing, Wilson says, adding the ever-splintering broadcast landscape, and lack of visibility are to blame.

But preschool block Milkshake is set to provide even more opportunities to grab viewers for the net. Five is launching two new digital channels in the middle of the month, and Wilson will oversee another six hours of preschool programming for the Milkshake block airing on Five Life. He’ll initially cherrypick programs from his library to fill the sked and see how it goes.

As for the established 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Milkshake block on Five’s terrestrial channel, a number of new co-pros are set to bow. Wilson reckons the strong protagonist in TV Loonland’s Little Princess will appeal to both young girls and boys equally. ‘She has a penchant for digging in her heels to get her own way, which is what four- and five-year- olds are particularly good at,’ he says. Another potential hit comes by way of Rupert the Bear, which Wilson likens to Noddy in its new 3-D treatment – it’s new to the wee ones and very familiar to their parents. ‘I think Rupert will be the preschool hit of this autumn,’ he says.

Looking ahead to 2007, Wilson says there are a number of shows on the horizon, including The Beeps produced with Brighton, U.K.’s Impossible Animation. Set to launch in January, the show is about a group of egg-like characters living on an island and learning about teamwork. Chapman’s Rory the Racing Car will also bow this spring for the youngest viewers.

BBC raises the age on CBeebies TO HELP

keep older preschoolers brand loyal

Michael Carrington, creative director for kids at the BBC, may be responsible for redefining the term tween. He’s aging it down from the traditional 10 to 12 set and applying it to the five- to six-year-old demo. It seems kids falling into this age bracket were too old for the preschool shows on Cbeebies, but too young for CBBC. ‘They were looking for programming targeted to them, and started to go off to Boomerang. We weren’t nurturing them,’ Carrington explains. Upon further examination, he reckoned the preschool net would be the best platform to serve these newschoolers. ‘We all know the problems in aging down – you alienate your older audience.’ And he didn’t want to do that to CBBC viewers.

To help kids bridge the gap between Cbeebies and CBBC, Carrington began scheduling series such as Charlie and Lola, Lunar Jim and LazyTown last year. Already, he says the five- and six- year-olds are returning, particularly boys, which is helping the net achieve a more balanced gender skew. To keep momentum going, a new series called Me Too! from Scotland’s Tattiemoon, will launch this autumn. From the producer of Balamory, it takes a parallel look at a day in the life of a preschooler and his/her parents, juxtaposing time spent at playschool with time spent at the workplace.

Of course, Cbeebies will still look to serve its youngest audiences, and set to debut early next year is National Geographic Kids’ Entertainment’s Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies. The series uses animated characters to introduce classic live-action scenes populated by exotic animals. Carrington says the series’ warm and engaging characters will help preschoolers connect with live action, to which they’re not normally drawn. ‘The fact that it’s natural history is a bonus for me, and kids love animals, especially exotic ones,’ he says.

On the older-skewed CBBC, Carrington says the big launch in September was Collingwood O’Hare’s The Secret Show. Pointing to the importance of comedy, he’s certain seven- to 11-year- olds will giggle along to the adventures in what he calls this ‘Get Smart meets James Bond meets Austin Powers’ series. Comedy is very important to keep the girls tuned in, while boys latch on to adventures peppered with laughs.

Nickelodeon stays on course

‘It’s so competitive in the U.K.’ Debbie MacDonald, VP and programming director, says. Although her cablenet is number one on digital as it enters its 13th year on air across the pond, it doesn’t mean the Nickelodeon team is resting on its laurels. MacDonald admits a lot of the new series launching in autumn for kids six and up are programs already on the sked getting a refresh with new eps, such as Genie in the House. Genie is the first original production realized through Nickelodeon UK’s piloting scheme, and it rocketed to the top of the cablenet’s live-action offerings when it debuted in May. Another 13 eps are on the way, as well as the second season of Southern Star’s Sleepover Club and 4Kids’ Yu-Gi-Oh! GX (which MacDonald says is slightly funnier and skews younger than the brand’s first incarnation).

For Nick Jr., Little Airplane’s Wonder Pets! will bow this season, but with young British voices singing the operatic refrains of the lead characters. ‘It’s a bit of a challenge, especially because the original show from the U.S. is so cute and gorgeous, and the U.S. voices are so outstanding, you don’t want to lose that quality,’ she says. However, Nick Jr. reversions most of its shows simply because it’s what mothers expect. ‘Preschoolers are just learning to read and speak, and they don’t want their kids calling biscuits cookies,’ she says.

An acquisition that originally took MacDonald off guard is ABC Australia’s The Fairies. ‘I’m going to get shot for saying this, but I’d describe it like the The Wiggles, but with fairies,’ she says. The music and magical storyline will be a huge preschool draw, as well as the dancing Fairies and activities designed to get the kids off the couch.

Next season is already planned out, but Macdonald still has some shopping to do. Of particular interest is finding more preschool shows that encourage activity as well as ‘the next hot live-action comedy program’ for Nick. Of course, MacDonald says it’s difficult to be precise about what she’s looking for because sometimes programs just come out of the blue. She points to Fairies as an example. ‘I wasn’t sure if it would work, but then we saw an episode and we went for it.’

Cartoon Net boosts its preschool block

CNs four-channel remit, Toonami, Boomerang and Cartoon Network Too, has shifted in the past few months, with all of the supporting nets now working to complement main channel, Cartoon Network. Cartoon Network Too was the last to launch this past April and it’s aiming to etch out its own identity by reaching TV’s youngest viewers. The daily Cartoonito block takes on the challenge of getting preschoolers to both laugh and learn with acquisitions such as Fluffy Gardens (Monster Animation), Caillou (Cookie Jar) and Animal Stories (from Collingwood O’Hare and Foothill Entertainment). ‘We know there’s huge competition, but there’s this feeling we need to capture the youngest audience and introduce it to the brand,’ Cecelia Persson, VP of programming, acquisitions and presentation at Cartoon Network EMEA, says.

One twist that might set it apart from its many preschool competitors is Cartoonito’s planned introduction of French language skills to the U.K.’s youngest set. CN’s research found parents named French as the most desired second language for their kids. Channel interstitials will teach simple French phrases kids could use on the other side of the Chunnel. After the block ends at 3 p.m., the channel will shift gears and feature CN show staples such as Johnny Bravo.

For supporting net, Toonami, live actioner Life with Derek bows this autumn. It’s a strategy Persson says helps clarify each channel’s brand. Cartoon will continue to focus only on animation, while introducing live action on Toonami will help serve all kids’ viewing habits.

At the mother ship, Cartoon Network UK is set to strip Ben 10 (which has been transmitting on the weekends over the summer), and the net’s original goofball comedy My Gym Partner is a Monkey. Each program received a big two- to three-week lead in, which used on-line and on-air marketing to get the kids excited. Although she’d be happy to get more girls, Persson says this network is predominantly boy led and these shows should appeal to both genders thanks to their mix of humor and action.

Keeping that in mind, she’s on the lookout for comedy-action for the main channel, but warns it’s difficult to make acquisitions for the network. Cartoon not only produces much of its programming in-house in the U.S., but there’s also the new development unit in the U.K. that’s set to get up and running in January. Not all is lost for indie producers, however, as CN did pick up Vancouver, Canada-based Nerd Corps’ Storm Hawks recently and there’s a lot of possibilities for preschool acquisitions at Cartoonito.

Jetix expands its target

Whereas last year the focus was on primetime and weekend blocks to target the older end of the boys’ demo, this year is about pumping up the viewership across all blocks. Boel Ferguson, managing director at Jetix UK, is most interested in promoting Jetix UK’s brand, which is stretching from its original dispatch of boy-centric action adventure to include live action, comedy and adventure. Consider Pucca, which she says has the action the boys expect with the cheeky humor girls will enjoy.

New programs launching in the upcoming season include Toronto, Canada-based Breakthrough’s comedy toon Captain Flamingo, action-adventure Team Galaxy from Marathon, and of course, Jetix’s latest co-production, Oban Star Racers.

Live action isn’t new to the Jetix channel – after all, this is the home of the Power Rangers. But Ferguson is excited about adding Dark Oracle to her sked. It mixes comic book style 2-D toons with sci-fi inspired live action. ‘It shows we’re about variation,’ she says.
Editor’s Note: This story has been modified from its original print version for clarification.

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