New kids on the block

Shreducation, the Disney XD series about the extreme sports antics of a band of snowboarders, some as young as 12, wasn't made for the kids market.
April 1, 2010

Shreducation, the Disney XD series about the extreme sports antics of a band of snowboarders, some as young as 12, wasn’t made for the kids market. Created by Toronto-based prodco Riverbank Films and co-produced by factual distributor, re:think Entertainment, the doc-style series starring ex-pro boarder Jesse Fulton was originally produced for Canadian sports channel The Score. Drawing a strong male 18 to 34 audience, The Score held a non-exclusive window on the show. So when the re:think team arrived at MIPTV last spring with the first season in its back pocket, it couldn’t have been more perfect.

‘That’s when we heard the buzz around Disney XD, Turner and Nick with this new live-action, boy-focused programming,’ says re:think’s director of sales and distribution Paula Hutchinson. re:think then realized that the series, which revolves around a group of tween and teen boys, each with compelling personalities, seemed naturally more suited to kids. The majors were intrigued, and re:think went back to Toronto and re-cut the entire 13 x half-hour first season to make it distinctly a kids show.

The distributor’s timing was right on the mark with Shreducation. As kidcasters increasingly compete for tween audiences with reality and competition-based programming airing on adult-targeted nets, they’re looking for the same level of high-interest series as their primetime counterparts, but with a more age-appropriate slant. At the same time, last year’s downturn in the market forced adult prodcos and distributors to look for new opportunities outside their chosen realm. What’s happened since is that a number of these players, like re:think, have brought their expertise in reality programming and scripted drama to the kids arena. And they’re making significant inroads.

Making it kid-friendly…

Hutchinson, who had prior experience working with Disney, knew getting the series past its legal department would require an overhaul. ‘The content had to be changed. We had to sanitize it completely,’ she says. Everything from rude conversational topics to insulting ‘hey dude’ banter and heavy rough-housing had to be toned down.

Moreover, Riverbank and re:think had to add content young viewers could relate to and really hone in on the lives of the hopeful group of snowboarders and their emotional journeys. Instead of just introducing the kids and showing them taking perilous runs at the halfpipe, the re-worked series now explores each character’s back story so the audience can get to know them. To manage the feat, re:think went back to the vault and pulled out unused footage that could be pieced together to create a story arc for each fledgling shredder.

‘So it went from being an extreme sports series for young men to an aspirational series for kids,’ says Hutchinson. The tween and teen shredders, who in seasons one and two travel throughout North America, Europe, Australia and Argentina, not only compete but take part in photo shoots, nab feature film cameos and hang out with actors. All the while, they’re also dealing with regular teen stuff such as parents, school and dating.

As it turned out, re:think’s decisions proved to be bang on. Disney XD acquired season one for the US, UK, Latin America, Japan, Central and Eastern Europe and Nordic territories. And after debuting State-side last fall, the show is rolling out on Disney XD channels internationally over the course of the year. Additionally, Nickelodeon Australia and New Zealand have signed on for three seasons, the second of which re:think delivered last month.

Shreducation was the first kids series that re:think had executive produced. And now, besides a handful of kids co-productions it’s looking into, the prodco has picked up a preschool PBS show called The Biscuit Brothers. Hutchinson says she sees this trend in kids shows will continue and, to that end, aspires to take on some scripted projects down the road.

…without being condescending

Similarly, Toronto-based Tricon Films & Television, which had been producing irreverant, pop-culture one-offs for Canadian channel MuchMusic, was approached by kidcaster YTV to develop The Next Star, a tween-friendly answer to American Idol, in 2008.

‘We wanted it to have the calibre and quality of an adult reality show, but we didn’t want it to be mean-spirited,’ says Jocelyn Hamilton VP of programming and production at YTV owner Corus Kids. The channel looked to Tricon for its large-scale shooting style to create the slick look of a full-fledged talent competition, as well as its capacity to produce live programming on the fly – carrying out cross-country auditions and using its music industry connections to boot.

Tricon’s SVP of development and international sales, Carrie Mudd, notes her company had become quite good at understanding YTV’s target demo and what it responded to in terms of pacing and tonality.

Part of Tricon’s MO was to resist dumbing down the content, but rather to keep it sophisticated and treat the audience as it would adults, says Mudd. In fact, the prodco used most of the crew that staffs production on its adult factual programming. Mudd says the end product wound up luring a big co-viewing crowd for YTV, with parents taking the outcome just as seriously as their kids.

The relationships with experienced creatives from outside the children’s world is a strength that Nickelodeon Australia director of programming Deirdre Brennan agrees adult-targeted prodcos bring. ‘They look at projects with a fresh eye, particularly projects with family appeal,’ she explains.

The broadcaster has had a lot of success with kid-focused comedy sketch shows for the eight to 12 set, including Sorry, I’ve Got No Head from London-based distributor Little Portman, a division of Portman Film & Television. The live-action slapstick series, created by London’s SO Television, features off-beat characters including, as the title suggests, headless burger-joint customers. Such a peek into another genre like the world of grown-up sketch comedy opens up a unique world to kids TV, but Brennan says it’s important for new players in the kids space to establish supportive relationships with kids producers and/or broadcasters to make sure the content is appropriate and relevant for a younger audience.

Keeping it on kid target

Hamilton agrees, adding that YTV’s development team was careful to make sure The Next Star remained aware of kid-specific sensitivities. ‘Anytime you bring competition into it, there are going to be heartbreaks and times it doesn’t go your way,’ she says.

For its part, Tricon brought on production staffers who had kids experience to support the project and Mudd contends the biggest component of aging down the concept was the alteration made to the elimination portion of a competition show.

‘It needed to be more like a bootcamp and there needed to be mentoring; it wasn’t about drama,’ says Mudd. ‘We’re not going to be kicking people off every week who are only 11 years old.’

Now that the company has dipped a toe into the kiddie pool, so to speak, Tricon is jumping into the space with both feet. Mudd says she’s amassing a creative development team with extensive experience in kids entertainment and has a raft of projects simmering on the back burner.

Tricon will be shopping international distribution rights for The Next Star at MIPTV, as well as newly acquired tween/teen sketch comedy show The Paul Telner Project and seasonal family musical Christmas Dreams. The company also has a handful of projects in early development, including an Entertainment Tonight-type show for kids called The Magazine, hybrid reality/game show Youth or Dare, and a series of shorts called The Adventures of Small Foot.

YTV’s Hamilton says commissioning The Next Star from Tricon made for the net’s first live-event production in seven years. It paid off in ratings and new exposure for the channel, but she warns that producing for kids isn’t a sure thing for all adult-skewing studios.

‘It worked in this instance, but than doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone could do it,’ Hamilton notes. ‘Producing kids TV is not an easy thing, it’s probably more difficult that any other genre.’ Besides the restrictions for age-appropriate content, she says kids and tweens are a very discerning audience and have many other platforms to go to for entertainment. ‘Even more so with this generation of kids…it’s not an easy feat to be the piece of entertainment that a young person wants to watch.’

Hamilton is also quick to point out that although she’s open to solid pitches from all prodcos, regardless of whether or not they come from the kids entertainment side, she hasn’t turned her back on her strong stable of kids producers. In fact, she’s lined up a couple of Canuck kids prodcos to deliver reality programming, such as Apartment 11′s In Real Life and Survive This from 9 Story Entertainment.

Writer driven, kid approved

Studios with scripted pilots are also taking their turn at producing kids series. It’s a tough TV market and studios are eager to go beyond their comfort zones to unearth new opportunities. But there’s also a sense that writers/show runners who develop and then oversee their series are just more interested in penning family content.

‘We’re not thinking in terms of what the balance of our development slate will be, we’re much more focused on working with our writers,’ says Carolyn Bernstein, EVP of scripted programs at Reveille Productions in L.A., who already has significant experience in tween and teen programming from her former post as head of drama at the WB.

Reveille, whose roster includes the US adaptation of Ricky Gervais’ The Office, telenovela reborn Ugly Betty and hot-and-steamy period drama The Tudors, recently sold tween/teen series Gigantic to TeenNick. Tapping into the celebrity zeitgeist, the series follows a fictional group of teens who, as the offspring of Hollywood heavy hitters, live life under the constant glare of the paparazzi and tabloid press. Reveille has another younger-skewing show in development, and Berstein says she’d love to take on even more series that target kid audiences, but the next moves will be determined by what Reveille’s writers come up with.

EVP of original programming and development at Nickelodeon Networks Marjorie Cohn says one of the biggest strengths Reveille brought to the table as an adult-targeted producer was its relationships with high-calibre writers.

‘We have relationships with A-list writers in Hollywood and part of this trend is the emphasis on family these days,’ says Cohn. But she also notes those A-list sitcom writers are competing in a tougher market now. ‘Networks have reduced budgets and had abandoned the sitcom for a while,’ she says. ‘We concentrate a lot on comedy and so we offer a wonderful environment for A-listers to come and work.’ She admits that writing talent won’t be scoring any rich syndication deals in penning Nick shows, but says they are granted considerable leeway to follow their creative visions and make the shows they want to make.

Much like the other broadcasters, however, Cohn says even Hollywood TV writing vets have a learning curve when it comes to creating kid content. Writers naturally tap into their own nostalgia and adolescent experiences for their scripts, but she says that this generation of millennials has a different sensibility than Boomers and GenXers. ‘We’re constantly telling our creators that irony and sarcasm aren’t necessarily the preferred place for kids these days,’ says Cohn. ‘This generation is really positive; they love their parents and aren’t always rebelling.’

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