A new day dawning for kids formats?

Toronto, Canada's Tricon Films, a well-known adult reality player, will be at MIPCOM trying to widen the global footprint of its first kids show, The Next Star. But the company isn't just trying to distribute the original production around the world; it's also taking a run at selling the format rights.
October 1, 2008

Toronto, Canada’s Tricon Films, a well-known adult reality player, will be at MIPCOM trying to widen the global footprint of its first kids show, The Next Star. But the company isn’t just trying to distribute the original production around the world; it’s also taking a run at selling the format rights.

Now, you may be thinking that this is simply the naive pipedream of a kids industry neophyte, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Evidence suggests that a bona fide kids formats market has been developing steadily since late 2005, when a wave of kid-friendly reality/game show hybrids first hit the international scene in hopes of piggybacking on the success of mainstream megahits like Survivor and Amazing Race. And these pioneering efforts in the kids space have paved the way for a new generation in the genre.

‘Producers automatically think about creating formats now, whereas five or six years ago, it was unheard of,’ says Mindy Laxer, VP and GM of Apartment 11 Productions. The Montreal, Canada-based studio sold the format rights to its practical joke reality show Prank Patrol, originally commissioned by YTV, to CBBC in 2006.

The British format has experienced some success, with Manchester’s Baker Media producing two full series for BBC and CBBC. It uses the original’s basic gag formula (in each episode, everyday kids get to play an elaborate joke on family and friends), as well as its graphic branding (including some spiffy ninja prankster costumes and Prank Patrol van), to frame the British host and participants. Laxer says there are some other notable differences. ‘A little bit of tweaking is possible, and you can still maintain what you consider to be your format,’ she explains. For example, in order to bring the format in on the local prodco’s budget, much of the footage was filmed at studio headquarters and not on location, as it was with the original series.

But, says Laxer, the real key to making a successful kids format is to start out with a universally appealing concept that will translate into other territories easily. She admits that Apartment 11 has been trying to format 2004 series Surprise! It’s Edible Incredible! for a few years, but its food-focused elements – the show ends with a cook-off using ingredients found in kids’ own homes – differ too much from country to country, and Laxer suspects this fact is keeping the series grounded.

Mystery Hunters, which currently airs on YTV in Canada and sends kids all around the world to investigate unexplained phenomena, has worked well as a dubbed series in other territories, but isn’t a prime formats candidate. Laxer says the show’s hefty travel budget and extensive production logistics would be off-putting to potential rights buyers.

But Laxer believes the fact that kids programming budgets vary so widely from territory to territory is what has traditionally kept formatting from being a successful model until now. And if producers are serious about formatting their shows, then they had better be prepared to put in a lot of legwork with potential broadcasters to create ways of working around budget limitations without degrading the integrity of their original content. Besides shifting production to a stationary location on Prank Patrol, for example, Apartment 11 flew some costumes that had been used for a prank in the original series across the pond to do double duty in an ep of the CBBC version.

Laxer says her team works closely with the broadcaster and foreign production company on everything from budget to process, and even invited Baker Media to visit the Toronto set for a week to see the original production first-hand. ‘The main thing is to work with a production or broadcast partner that understands the format,’ says Laxer.

By all accounts, Baker got it from the get-go; the studio had been looking at doing a joke-driven live-action show, and after reading about Prank Patrol in the trades, decided to pursue these format rights instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. Baker then pitched the show to Anne Gilchrist at CBBC and scored the commission. There’s no set formula for selling format rights, though, and Laxer says she also pitches them directly to broadcasters, with the expectation that an interested broadcaster will hook her company up with a trusted prodco.

A package deal

‘The motivation behind trying to sell formats is that we’ve done the research, we’ve corrected the mistakes, and we’ve built the equipment and tested the technology,’ says Toronto, Canada-based CCI Entertainment’s EVP of production, Jim Corston, who is looking at a format deal with Nick Germany for Ghost Trackers. ‘If you had to start from scratch and build a show, it would be an expensive proposition, both in terms of cash outlay and the mistakes you’d make along the way,’ he adds.

Now in its third season on Canada’s YTV, Ghost Trackers follows real kids as they use paranormal tracking equipment to explore and uncover spirits in purportedly haunted houses. And it may well be on the brink of something big. Nick Germany is initially airing the first season of the North American original to test the waters before signing the rights to create a localized version. And Corston says there is serious interest from two more territories right now.

Corston points out that besides the universal appeal of ghost stories, the show is geared to a wide kid-to-teen target demo, it engages the younger crowd and has enough jeopardy and creepy suspense to keep older viewers from migrating to prime-time dramas. He has a list of several elements that must be built into any localized version to maintain the essence of the show.

To begin with, CCI has mapped out an air-tight casting process that specifies the type of kids that work best on the show, namely non-actors who are precocious and outgoing enough to videotape themselves talking about the experience of exploring the house in an articulate way. Like Prank Patrol, Ghost Trackers has a recognizable van that serves as an important hub and visual marker for the brand, but there may be wiggle room for tweaks. For example, a broadcaster could possibly get away with not using all the ghost-tracking tools, but Corston says he’d draw the line at letting foreign versions include séances or elements to do with the occult. Additionally, CCI’s level of involvement with broadcasters will vary depending on the country, and he expects that the Canadian team will be on-hand at Nick Germany to give instruction and help iron out the kinks for the first few episodes.

At Tricon Films, president Andrea Gorfolova also plans to help broadcasters set up the The Next Star format, which comes with a menu of services that breaks down the costs and extra consulting time. The studio offers buyers an option to purchase the format rights alone, or package them up with the original 13 x one-hour season to build buzz for a local version.

Originally commissioned by YTV, The Next Star is a teen-oriented talent search hosted by local personalities, and it has a theme that changes every season. The first season focused on finding a recording artist under the age of 16, a tried-and-tested formula courtesy of American Idol. The twist is that the show will move on to new domains each season, such as training and choosing the best TV host, finding the best musical theater performer and maybe even scouting an up-and-coming sports star. Ultimately, says Gorfolova, it will be up to the format buyers to determine what talents they zero in on.

Additionally, The Next Star’s format rights come with an information pack that includes ratings, online application prototypes and detailed specs on everything from choosing the best shooting locations, to correct camera angles and casting procedures. How detailed is the instruction manual, you ask? The casting segment goes so far as to dictate the number of banners and badges required to organize contestants.

Tricon isn’t stopping with The Next Star. It’s also in development on another show called Grad Dance, which will have format rights available from the outset. Grad Dance is a competition reality show that teaches kids a choreographed dance routine to perform on the night of their graduation formal.

But the kids format movement isn’t exclusively a Canadian thing. In the last year, a handful of prodcos from many different international ports have been putting the word out that format rights are available on their shows. And while projects like Prank Patrol and Ghost Trackers require localized casting and shooting original footage, many others that rely on puppetry and animation elements will have a much easier ride.

RDF’s director of family entertainment, Nigel Pickard, told KidScreen last year that he was open to formatting scenarios for Nick Jr.’s Yo Gabba Gabba! and would work directly with local broadcasters and/or producers from territory to territory.

This summer, Iceland’s LazyTown Entertainment put out the word that its same-name pro-fitness kids show is now available for international formatting. The company says it’s currently in talks with eight territories concerning co-pro deals for the 26-ep series.

And Kerwhizz, a new preschool quiz show in Munich, Germany-based Studio100′s pipeline, has already been picked up by CBeebies. GM Jo Daris says the series has been developed from the start to be easily localized for any country; its contestants and hosts are animated characters, and the live-action studio audience was purposely cast with an international-looking group of kids that could work around the world. Daris says the only role that would need to be re-shot is that of the show’s quiz master.

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