YTV looks to innovate within its comedy mandate

From broad beginnings as Canada's first dedicated kidcaster to becoming the first network to bring anime to Canadian kids, YTV's programming strategy has evolved - and grown up - along with its audience.
August 1, 2008

From broad beginnings as Canada’s first dedicated kidcaster to becoming the first network to bring anime to Canadian kids, YTV’s programming strategy has evolved – and grown up – along with its audience.

‘There’s always been a pretty fair mix of animation and live-action (the current split is about 60/40), but it’s cyclical,’ says Scott Dyer, EVP and GM of Corus Kids. ‘Animation got very hot and enjoyed a high point in the mid-’90s. Now, in the last five years, animation has waned a little in favor of the aspirational live-action sitcoms that Disney has popularized.’

As YTV shifts into more of a dual-gender network (think Nickelodeon), its focus has landed squarely on comedy.

Looking at its programming day, YTV focuses on comedy and animation after school, moves to aspirational comedy in the early evening, switches to live-action, and then rounds out the evening with family-friendly shows like Malcolm in the Middle. Saturdays are dedicated to comedy and action toons, and weekends usually include blockbuster movies.

‘We’re always looking for comedy, and it’s hard to find quirky, fun content with a different hook and characters that drive the stories,’ says Jocelyn Hamilton, VP of content for Corus Kids. ‘We’re now looking for cartoony squash-and-stretch properties to complement the great shows we have from Nick, like SpongeBob, The Fairly OddParents and The Mighty B!’ Hamilton is also currently on the hunt for smart humor, which she says takes great writing and standout characters.

And she’s beefed up the live-action side of things with upcoming series like Family Biz and Bambaram Diary. ‘It’s an important, relevant medium for kids today,’ Hamilton says of the genre. Adds David Wiebe, director of content for Corus Kids: ‘We want to build our own star system. It’s a strategy that requires more live-action because you need the stars from those shows to do it.’

An international co-production between Canada’s Muse Entertainment, Summit Crescent Productions and France’s Breakout Films, 26 x half-hour series Family Biz, launching in spring ’09, centers around three latchkey kids who have the run of the family house until their corporate-minded dad is downsized. He decides to work from home – and makes his kids his new pet project.

And Toronto-based Heroic Film’s Bambaram Diary (working title, 26 x half hours), which should be joining the sked in fall ’09, follows the adventures of 13-year-old Lois, a self-proclaimed ‘brown kid’ trying to navigate the minefield of adolescence with her well-intentioned but misguided parents by her side.

YTV is also delving deeper into the kids reality TV genre, adding to its Get Real block that debuted in 2007. Following the success of series like Prank Patrol, Mystery Hunters and Ghost Trackers, Dyer points to new music-centric reality show Next Star as a potential breakout. It premiered in July as Canada’s first talent series for kids 15 and under, and Dyer says it’s a prime example of the net’s reality strategy. ‘Next Star is one of those unique programming experiences that we think belongs on YTV. It celebrates kid culture and treads that interest in reality programming, but is not as sharp and unpleasant as the adult reality genre can be.’

Also new to Get Real is Toronto-based 9 Story Entertainment’s Survivorman Kids, bowing next April. The series is inspired by the Discovery Channel series starring Les Stroud and takes a team of six 14- to 16-year-olds into the wilderness for three weeks with Stroud serving as their mentor and survivor-skill judge.

‘Stroud is the real deal – you’re there with him experiencing it when you watch Survivorman,’ says Dyer. ‘We want to bring some of that competition to kids programming in a safe way. And in a time when the environment is very important, his stewardship of the outdoors is compelling.’

But for producers that are looking to mine other adult reality series for kid-friendly fodder, think again. Hamilton cautions: ‘We’re not trying to remake adult series; we’re trying to find kids properties that bring in families.’

Asked what’s not currently in her pitch file, but is definitely a future focus for YTV, Hamilton says she’s long struggled with the idea of a tween drama. Traditional dramas have not performed well on YTV, but Hamilton is interested in exploring ways to make it work.

Not afraid to take calculated risks and always up for a challenge, Hamilton says she’d also like to explore the concept of a music dance party series. ‘Music is such a part of kids lives. Boys and girls are both interested, and when you look at the success of video games like Guitar Hero, the idea is compelling,’ she says. ‘But to get that formula right is hard. How do you do it and stay current. DIC tried it with Dance Revolution and never really pulled it off.’

So, if you’re looking to pitch YTV with a drama, dance series, reality show or the next great comedy, heed this caveat from Hamilton: ‘Come in with a well-thought-out concept, and be ready to explain how your characters are going to drive the story. Watch our air space and be able to tell us what block a show is going to suit. You have to make sure it fits in and flows with our schedule.’

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