Canada’s first kidcaster celebrates 20 years in the biz

Looking at the dynamic kids television industry Canada enjoys today, it's difficult to believe that a mere 20 years ago, there was a dearth of outlets for children's programming in the country.
August 1, 2008

Looking at the dynamic kids television industry Canada enjoys today, it’s difficult to believe that a mere 20 years ago, there was a dearth of outlets for children’s programming in the country.

National pubcaster the CBC, provincial net TVO and national commercial broadcasters CTV and Global all ran kids blocks primarily aimed at preschoolers, but pretty much ignored the genre past 4 p.m.

After three separate attempts, upstart channel YTV finally received a broadcast license from Canadian regulatory body the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on December 1, 1987. By its September 1, 1988 premiere, YTV had attracted 3.7 million cable households, giving the fledgling network a financial resource base from which to create more original shows and co-productions.

YTV generated so much interest from kids and advertisers alike in the early years that conventional broadcasters’ kids blocks fell by the wayside, leaving only the CBC and TVO standing in the space. ‘It was simply no longer attractive for them to target kids on a part-time basis,’ says Paul Robertson, president of Corus Television.

Indeed, reflects Arnie Zipursky, CEO and co-chairman of Toronto-based prodco CCI Entertainment, ‘It was a different world, and YTV was the new home and the new hope for kids programming in Canada.’

By the 10-year mark, YTV had become home to approximately 1,000 hours of co-produced programs, had 7.6 million cable household subscribers and reached an impressive 9.5 million viewers ages two-plus each week. And in its 20th year, it now reaches into some eight million Canadian households and has triggered more than US$1 billion worth of original productions in Canada.

From that strength of positioning, the kidcaster believed it could do almost anything, which led to a few hard lessons learned. In the early days, the goal was to take the strong brand and move it into every conceivable place kids wanted to be. ‘We had some missteps,’ confides Robertson. ‘We launched a line of toys with Hasbro that met with resounding disinterest from kids,’ he says. ‘We learned that YTV has brand permission to do certain things, but not everything.’

As it turned out, kids gave YTV the go-ahead to pioneer a vertical strategy that initially included an interactive website, summer events tour ‘Weird on Wheels,’ entertainment magazine Whoa! and a series of compilation CDs called ‘Big Fun Party Mix’ (now in its ninth iteration).

YTV extended that spirit into the programming realm as well. The net took a creative gamble in testing the kid appetite for CGI animation with Vancouver-based Mainframe’s Reboot – a calculated risk that paved the way for Canadian CGI producers. YTV was also the first network to air anime in Canada, starting with Sailor Moon. ‘It immediately created a new genre of interest for kids and opened the door for more to come,’ says Robertson. What followed was anime phenomenon Pokémon, which generated new ratings highs for YTV. At its peak, the show was drawing close to 500,000 kid viewers per broadcast.

Risk-taker, co-pro maker

And YTV’s willingness to take a risk is something that Canuck producers value. John May, Toronto-based Heroic Film Company’s executive producer and founding partner, got his start in the business with YTV. He had come up with an idea for a show while in school in the mid-’80s and ended up sending a shoebox to all the major broadcasters containing props from the show, a can of root beer and some sunflower seeds. After meeting a seasoned producer for lunch, May thought he’d be laughed out of the industry for his less-than-slick presentation. But remarkably, he received a call from YTV asking what it would take to put the show together. May’s initial concept spawned one of YTV’s first series, Deke Wilson’s Mini-Mysteries (22 x half hours), which went to air in 1990.

Mark Bishop, a partner and producer at Toronto-based marblemedia, concurs. ‘We pitched Adrenaline Project to YTV years ago in response to what young audiences were watching on other networks – shows like Fear Factor,’ he says. ‘YTV had its finger on the pulse of what’s out there and had the foresight to work with us on developing it.’ The net was open and willing to collaborate, he says. Bishop is currently working with YTV on a number of yet-to-be-announced projects, including multiplatform properties that may launch off-air and a new tween drama series.

Collaboration appears to be YTV’s calling card in the Canadian independent production arena. Producers collectively agree that a deal with YTV gives you the obvious benefit of exposure on YTV the channel, but also the chance to build profile via YTV the brand and even its parent company Corus’s network of channels.

‘The amount of support and attention YTV has given us is amazing,’ says Jonathan Wiseman, VP of sales and acquisitions for Ottawa-based Amberwood Entertainment, which is producing new 26 x half-hour CGI series RollBots with YTV. ‘We know we’re one of many, and yet the channel has still managed to give us the time that we need, access to other departments and considerable help applying to various funds.’

Slated for a February 2009 launch, RollBots features 11 tribes of perfectly round robots that roll at extreme speeds on rollercoaster-type tracks through Flip City.

Scott Dyer, who brings years of experience as a producer at Nelvana to his role as EVP and GM of Corus Kids, says, ‘Our relationship with indie producers in Canada is really important to us. And because of how the Canadian regulatory environment works, we have a tremendous amount of money to make Canadian content.’

Dyer admits that it was an interesting transition moving over to the other side of the television fence. In fact, at his first industry market in his new role, he had to work hard to dispel the notion that Corus’s kids channels were suddenly going to broadcast nothing but Nelvana shows. ‘The transition was very difficult because people didn’t know what I was representing, and I found myself on both sides of the table in some of the meetings,’ says Dyer. ‘There is a natural tension between broadcasters and producers, and because I represent both, I often find myself in conflict with…myself.’

Of course, having been on the production side Dyer’s got a unique insight into the challenges producers face in selling their product to broadcasters. With nearly two years as a programmer under his belt, Dyer shares some valuable advice: ‘As a producer, I didn’t learn as much about my broadcasters as I should have. I didn’t understand the daily flow of audience,’ he says. ‘A producer who goes to talk to a broadcaster and doesn’t know the schedule and can’t advise where the show he’s pitching belongs, is not going to be as successful.’

Local production,

international impact

While Dyer has a lot of insight to offer Canadian producers, what do international broadcasters have to learn from YTV’s 20-year example? If you ask the Canadian independent sector, plenty. First and foremost, say Canadian producers, YTV understands its brand and its audience, and never compromises on either. ‘Many international carriers have changed the scope of their programming as they’ve seen other broadcasters become successful in certain genres, like the success Disney has enjoyed with tween live-action shows,’ says Kevin Gillis, managing partner at Toronto’s Breakthrough Animation.’ YTV has examined the terrain, watched the migrations, looked at its core audience, and realized that it’s better to stick with what it does best – comedy.’

If you’ve created a loyal audience like YTV has done, adds Gillis, you don’t mess with the formula. ‘They’ve fine-tuned their strategy, but have remained consistent in delivering what their core audience wants,’ he says. ‘They’re the gatekeeper – they’re very strong in what types of properties they want and in protecting their audience to deliver a consistently high-quality broadcast product.’

YTV’s commitment to its audience and its conviction to preserve the core essence of its brand has given it marquee value on the international market. A deal with YTV is a door opener to discussions with global broadcasters, say Canadian producers. ‘When I go to any international broadcaster and tell them YTV is on-board, it makes all the difference,’ notes Gillis, who says that the network was instrumental in getting Captain Flamingo off the ground and sold into 130 countries. ‘You actually get offered sugar for your coffee then,’ he notes wryly.

marblemedia’s Bishop echoes that sentiment. ‘YTV provides a real quality stamp on our productions as we take them to the international market. It’s a hub of quality Canadian content, with a vision to position Canada as a center of excellence in kids programming,’ he says. ‘With YTV, it’s not just a matter of making shows to go on-air, but creating shows that will be award-winning and travel well internationally.’

On an even higher plane, YTV has played an instrumental role in building and nurturing the Canadian kids television industry. ‘They’ve created an industry of kids producers who now see the fruits of their labor play out in countries around the world,’ says Gillis. ‘We’ve all grown from YTV’s programming plans. That a broadcaster can partner with producers to achieve what it has on a global level is amazing.’

The next 20?

While non-linear activities have always been a focus, YTV has made multiplatform property development a core strategic priority over the past few years. Early efforts included streaming content, web games and online teasers to promote the launch of new series. From there, the kidcaster made a virtual leap into the universe of massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs) with projects like Constellation, which launched in early 2007. Constellation is series of online worlds that allow users to play games, compete and chat with other users, collect information and interact with their surroundings. YTV Tween Report research that reconfirmed tweens’ love of online games, coupled with steady gaming traffic on, sparked the initiative. From there, YTV parent company Corus Entertainment set an ambitious course to create the largest kids MMOG network in North America.

Early in 2007, YTV took its publishing mainstay – YTV Whoa! – interactive with the launch of a sponsor-packed e-zine that mirrors the print version but includes audio and video features that link readers to fan sites and programming clips.

And the network continues to demonstrate its commitment to multiplatform development with the endowment of the Innovative Storytellers Award. A partnership with marblemedia, this prize provides a significant US$15,000 grant to an outstanding Ryerson University graduate student whose thesis details how creators can best use new technologies to connect with audiences.

But does YTV envision diving deeper into the realm of user-generated content as part of its multiplatform strategy? Dyer claims that YTV has a toe in the water with Nickelodeon series iCarly and its interactive website, but cautions that ‘kid-generated content usually has a legion of lawyers around it and concerns over it being inappropriate.’

YTV is currently working to mitigate those risks and explore the concept. ‘We’re only now beginning to see shows in development that have the power to drive kids back and forth between website and broadcast,’ adds Dyer. ‘That’s because some of the behaviors that drive that interaction, like cell phones, aren’t available to our audience. But that is changing and we expect kids to be able to do more.’

In the meantime, YTV is focused on beefing up its platforms. Earlier this year, parent company Corus inked a deal with Comcast subsidiary thePlatform to deliver broadband video and develop and deploy custom Flash-based players for its entertainment portals, including

‘As a network, we’re trying to stay ahead of the game in the multiplatform universe, listening to kids and providing what they want,’ notes Jocelyn Hamilton, VP of content development at Corus Kids. And to stay a step ahead, sometimes it’s necessary to take a retrospective look backward. Sketch comedy and gameshows are two once-popular genres that Hamilton is currently exploring. (Stay tuned for details on development concepts, and see ‘YTV looks to innovate within its comedy mandate’ on page 70 for more on the kidcaster’s programming plans.)

Yet for all the emphasis YTV places on developing vertical properties and venturing into alternative genres, it all comes back to the brand and offering kids credible experiences with it. ‘It’s all about branding and knowing your audience, and when you create a loyal audience, you don’t mess with it,’ says Breakthrough’s Gillis. ‘As its audience gravitates to other platforms to get content, YTV isn’t throwing out the baby with the bath water.’

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