Though public Irish broadcaster RTE keeps a relatively low profile, it enjoys the benefits of a kids schedule well-stocked with both the hottest international hits and homegrown Irish fare. Co-funded by licensing and advertising, the net’s RTE Two channel stands alone as Ireland’s only public broadcaster running children’s programming, with its 12-hour kids block The Den airing every day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
But just because the country’s other pubcaster, TV3, doesn’t cater to kids doesn’t mean RTE has a monopoly on those eyeballs. Being in such close proximity to England, up to 85% of Irish kids can easily tune into the UK’s terrestrial channels. And 60% of households have access to digital and satellite channels, bringing as many as 30 more dedicated UK kids channels into play.
Because RTE routinely cuts package deals across all programming genres and demos with the big US studio distributors, The Den usually ends up with the best of the best from content leaders like Nick and Disney. Given the competitive nature of the Irish kids channel universe, you might expect the likes of Nick UK and Disney Channel UK to kick up a fuss about sharing their programming with RTE, which is essentially a rival. But that’s not traditionally been the case. ‘We’re not a huge market, so most of the other channels don’t have a problem with us,’ says deputy head of schedule planning John McMahon. He explains that although Nickelodeon would want first airing of a show like Drake & Josh, it ‘wouldn’t have a problem with us getting it soon after that.’
The Den targets kids under 15, and in terms of blocking strategy, its sked from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. is comprised of classic 2-D animated series such as Arthur and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, followed by a dedicated preschool block that runs until 3 p.m. and features the likes of Charlie and Lola, Thomas & Friends and Peppa Pig. The last three hours of the broadcast is a mash-up for older kids that starts with edgier animation like Bernard and Planet Sketch, and then moves into live-action fare including Hannah Montana and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
This scheduling approach is relatively new and reflects a move made last June to move away from the pre-digital MO of scatter-programming and changing up the roster of shows every day. ‘In 2007, we realized that kids, like adults, are creatures of habit and want to know that a show is on at a certain time of day every day,’ says McMahon. Now, the channel runs a new show five days a week in the same timeslot for the length of the series (whether it be 26 or 52 eps), and then moves on to continuously air another show. McMahon says the strategic shift, as well as adding program promos and signposts throughout the day, has resulted in a share increase of 4.7%.
Though McMahon preferred not to comment, this successful scheduling experiment will more than likely inform the programming strategy for RTE’s 24-hour kids digital channel, which is on track to launch next year, pending structural issues for expanding bandwidth that the Irish government is still ironing out.
In the meantime, McMahon says the channel is looking primarily for fast-paced, English-language tween live-action fare. And because The Den has embraced stripping, he needs big runs. At the moment, McMahon is more interested in picking up CGI animation than 2-D toons, and he adds that slapstick comedy works best for RTE in this style. It’s worth noting that anime has largely failed to connect with Irish kids – with the singular exception of Yu-Gi-Oh! – so that’s not a genre McMahon is interested in. He would like to see more animation skewed towards girls. Half hours tend to work best for cartoons and after-school live action, but the preschool block can accommodate shorter formats.
Unlike other subsidy-rich territories, Ireland’s broadcasters aren’t bound by the terms of their licenses to run domestically produced content. And The Den’s lineup certainly favors international acquisitions, which account for the bulk of its total schedule. But McMahon is very committed to giving The Den a distinctive Irish feel and adds indigenous shows whenever he can.
RTE has co-funded homegrown projects such as Monster Animation’s Fluffy Gardens and Brown Bag’s Grabby Bag. The Den’s schedule also sports two studio-based live-action shows about Irish kids – ICE is a tween-skewing music and entertainment variety show running in the late afternoon; and Kazoo, which wraps up the preschool block, shows kids under seven how to do crafts and activities at home. McMahon says he also significantly increases the amount of in-house programming in the schedule during school holidays, packing in half-hour quiz shows and live-action dramas.