Over the last six months, the international kids TV business has experienced arguably the largest turnover in talent that KidScreen has yet witnessed. This past spring it seemed like UK commissioners were playing a game of musical chairs, while August brought an exodus of sorts in France, as the heads of three leading kidcasters left their posts for other climes. How will all these new appointments affect channel directions and pitch approaches? Read on.
Carrington goes commercial
The chattering classes were hard at work speculating who would take Finn Arnesen’s place at Turner International’s kids channels when he vacated his role last October. After a good six-month search, broadcast veteran Michael Carrington left his controller role at CBeebies to step in as chief content officer at Turner Broadcasting EMEA. He now oversees creative services, franchise management, original production, development, co-productions, acquisitions, business development and compliance for Cartoon Network and related channels across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Out of the gate, Carrington’s looking to bring a stronger comedic focus back to the pan-European flagship channel Cartoon Network, which he says had taken on an excess of action-adventure programming. To that end, he’ll be leaning towards picking up more comedies that target six to 12s with a slight skew to boys. Carrington says CN and Boomerang’s international audiences are also expecting to see a certain amount of live action, particularly after the success of the Ben 10 live-action movies that debuted last year.
‘We want to explore live action from a European perspective, and for me that means comedy,’ says Carrington, adding the universal love of laughing allows comedy to bridge cultural likes and dislikes. ‘Ideally, we can find a concept that is connected with boys particularly, but doesn’t alienate girls, and has a sense of adventure to it,’ says Carrington.
Though a lot of Turner EMEA’s content comes from the State-side studio in L.A., Carrington says he plans to keep programming relevant for viewers in his territories with a complementary amount of locally produced series. Kicking off original programming is CN’s first European production, The Amazing World of Gumball. Carrington inherited the mixed-media comedy series that’s currently in production for a 2011 debut. Ireland’s Boulder Productions and Germany-based Studio Soy are pitching in on the project being shepherded in London by VP of original series, Daniel Lennard.
Carrington stresses that although he is based in London, he’s looking to acquire content from all the territories in his remit. ‘We have the number-one channel for kids in Italy (JV net BOING with Mediaset), and we have ever-growing popularity in Spain and France, so we are as keen to connect with those children as we are to connect with audiences in the UK.’ VP of co-productions and acquisitions, Cecilia Persson remains the first point-of-call for studios with completed programs or license renewals in the offing.
Also on Carrington’s to-do list for the coming months will be extending UK-only preschool channel Cartoonito into the rest of Europe. Not one to forgo his past six years of experience overseeing CBeebies, the territory’s leading brand for two to sixes, he’s aiming to launch a Cartoonito-branded preschool block on Turner’s younger-skewing European Boomerang channels. He says the two-hour block will be repeated throughout the day and will be a haven for safe, non-violent content with a heavy doses of comedy.
CBeebies puts Beeb vets Benbow and Stewart on top
Taking the reins in May as controller for BBC’s preschool channel CBeebies in the wake of Michael Carrington’s departure, Kay Benbow is leading her team up to the new Beeb HQ in Salford. She says the campus-like atmosphere will create a more accessible vibe as well as opening up opportunities for producers across the country.
‘It enables us to look at working in different ways, connecting with different people and putting different partnerships together that we might not have thought of before,’ says Benbow. She says working with producers across the territory will also open up opportunities to potentially produce content that reflects the lives of children living in various parts of the UK, not just those around London.
In the meantime, Benbow says rather than making any drastic changes to the programming mix or scheduling, she’s been busy analyzing and evaluating what’s working for the channel and how it can improve on its mandate. In particular, she’ll be paying attention to how brands work across platforms and how CBeebies can offer something that enhances and extends a brand across TV, internet and radio. She feels online, in particular, holds the opportunity to better capture the attention of the upper end of the channel’s four to six target demo. ‘We know that multi-platform and online is a real opportunity to keep them engaged with CBeebies content,’ says Benbow.
Also top of mind with Benbow is keeping on-course to unearth more great comedies. She says shows like Adastra’s live-action sitcom Grandpa in my Pocket have not only appealed to older CBeebies viewers, but have also done well internationally. Additionally, she wants to see more content featuring strong female lead characters. ‘We’ve done a great job at getting the boys back, so whether it’s live action or animation, strong female role models are something I’m interested in.’
As for her successor as CBeebies head of production, animation and acquisitions, Benbow didn’t have to look far. She bumped executive editor Alison Stewart up to the post. And in the coming year, Stewart says she has three major objectives, the first of which is navigating the move up to Salford from London.
Stewart’s second goal will be ‘to kick off a big new front of development at CBeebies.’ After a few years of intense development on landmark series ZingZillas, which bowed this spring, Stewart says she’s intent on finding the next big thing at an early stage – ideally a couple of years before it’s ready for broadcast. As well as serving as head of in-house production, where she’ll be developing for the domestic market and working closely with Benbow on needs and strategies for the channel, Stewart is also taking the lead on animation and acquisitions. ‘Kay has managed that slate for the last three or four years, and that’s what I’m now moving into, so I’ll be at Cartoon Forum, MIPCOM and KidScreen Summit looking for new projects,’ says Stewart.
Thirdly, Stewart is focusing on strengthening partnerships with other arms of the BBC that also serve CBeebies’ target demo (such as BBC Learning), and third parties including co-producers that can share insights on content creation.
McCann makes moves at Nick UK
Speculation was also rife at the beginning of the year about who would replace long-time Nickelodeon UK MD Howard Litton. Few, however, predicted that Tina McCann would leap to Nick and step in as MD from her spot at Turner International, where she was working as interim CCO. Assuming overall responsibility for Nickelodeon UK and its suite of channels – Nick, Nick Jr. and Nicktoons – McCann says the operation will be forging closer ties than ever with the US mothership. The global broadcaster’s one brand initiative that rolled out earlier this year with a unified on-air brand identity is driving the move.
‘We have a great production slate coming through the US, so it’s finding shows that complement that slate,’ says McCann. ‘It’s also important that we’re talking to our UK audience in the voice they understand, while utilizing our global assets,’ she says.
To get out in front of the very competitive kids TV landscape in the UK, McCann says her team has been busy working on writing briefs for the local production community to formally outline what the channel is looking for to serve its preschool and core six to 10 viewers.
‘We’d like to sit down and talk with the producers that we like to work with,’ says McCann. ‘Instead of waiting for them to come to us with ideas, we’d like to go to them and say ‘This is what we’re looking for – come back to us with pitches,” says McCann.
Though she was keeping tight-lipped on the specifics of the briefs, at press time McCann’s team was working on narrowing down their focus. McCann did say, however, that she’s interested in finding local properties with international appeal to pick up globally. She mentions House of Anubis from Liverpool-based Lime Productions and Studio 100 Media. The telenovela was formatted for both the German and Dutch markets, and a new format is being prepped to bow State-side – a first for Nick US. She says it’s an exemplary model of an international show being exported to the US. As well, she may be entertaining more telenovela pitches as she’s interested in the genre and its appeal to the older end of Nick’s target demo.
On the preschool front, McCann points to US import Team Umizumi, which launches this fall, as a strong curriculum-driven show that travels well internationally as a prototype for things to come. ‘It doesn’t have to be educational, but if it has an educational element in it, it makes it a richer proposition,’ says McCann. She also says that besides the exclusive industry outreach effort that will start off with the briefs being sent to prodcos with which Nick UK is familiar, she’s also open to casting a wide net.
‘We get pitches all the time and look at everything that comes in because you never know when you’re going to unearth that golden nugget,’ McCann says. To that end, Nick UK’s VP of programming Debbie MacDonald is still the first point of contact for submissions.
Gregg leaps from indie ranks to series development at Teletoon
Alan Gregg, with his 17 years experience in the kids TV biz, is now the first stop for producers looking to pitch original material to Canada’s 24/7 animation net Teletoon. Having moved over to the role of director of original content for the channel from his most recent gigs with Ireland’s Brown Bag Films and Toronto-based guru Studio, it’s likely that Gregg has pitched his new boss and VP of programming Carole Bonneau on occasion. So he knows very well what it’s like to have the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. (He’s also working alongside Caroline Tyre, director of programming, who continues to oversee acquisitions of primarily international content for Teletoon.)
With a remit to produce Canadian content, Gregg says the channel has invested US$225 million in Canadian animation since its inception in 1997 and regularly invests 47% of gross annual revenues into making homegrown series. To that end, he says he’s primarily looking at working with domestic partners to develop new projects. However, he also has a keen eye for international co-production opportunities, which he says open up financing options with foreign broadcasters.
Heading into MIPCOM this month, Gregg has five new original Canadian projects on the slate he largely inherited from predecessor Michael Goldsmith, who’s now at Family Channel. The lineup includes comedy series Crash Canyon (Breakthrough Entertainment) and Detentionaire (Nelvana), live-action/animation hybrid Mudpit (Cookie Jar Entertainment), a web and TV-integrated series called GeoFreakZ (CCI Entertainment) and live-actioner My Babysitter’s a Vampire (Fresh TV).
Gregg says Teletoon accepts submissions and pitches – between 500 and 600 – on an annual basis. Of those, he says 70% aren’t right for the channel, but the remaining are reviewed in regular monthly meetings with the executive production team in Montreal. From those meetings a shortlist is taken to an internal committee.
Gregg says funny is money for Teletoon’s future development slate. He’s moving away from the action/adventure-packed schedule and is on the lookout for comedy that hits the channel’s core demo target of kids six to 10.
‘Even if we were going to do an action show, it would have to have a heavy comedy component,’ says Gregg. ‘I’m looking for character-driven comedy for six to 11s and eight to 12s, but the real sweet spot is 10- to 11-year-old boys.’
Family Channel grows original slate under Goldsmith
Since moving over from Teletoon and pubcaster CBC, respectively, director of original programming Michael Goldsmith and Sarah Haasz, production executive of original programming, have had a year to develop a solid partnership. And they’re dedicated to pumping up Family Channel’s and sisternet Playhouse Disney Canada’s development and production slates.
Goldsmith says he and Haasz will be looking to round out the Family Channel slate with girl-led comedies. Having launched three series with strong male leads in the last year – Connor Undercover, Overruled! and Baxter (all with Toronto-based Shaftesbury) and acquiring less Disney-made fare – Goldsmith says he wants to nurture the network’s strong girl audience.
Goldsmith is currently interested in finding a half-hour TV project that could also translate to web and interstitial content. The ad-free channel has two- to seven-minute spaces between shows and Goldsmith says that it has a great potential to run shorts along with the usual promos and videos. Short-form properties could also play well on the channel’s website.
‘The goal would be to re-package it eventually as a half hour of programming,’ says Goldsmith, adding he’s already got one property in the development hopper that will roll out as interstitial and web content first. The channel is also putting its money where its mouth is where web content’s is concerned, and has earmarked some cash to fund production of online game and video content – especially after funding body the Canadian Media Fund announced it was dedicating dollars to digital content production this year. And Goldsmith adds that short-form product provides opportunities to monetize content.
‘We don’t sell traditional ads, so we are thinking of how we can build properties that kids will love and that we can integrate sponsors into,’ says Goldsmith.
In the coming year, Goldsmith says he’ll also be on the lookout for movies, such as the upcoming Sixteen Wishes, which the channel has partnered with Disney and distributor MarVista Entertainment to produce. Though he admits movies aren’t the channel’s core business, he says he’s open to commissioning or acquiring films for the Friday night lineup.
Looking further into the future, Goldsmith says comedy series are a priority for the core kids set. Also in early development is a co-production between Miami, Florida-based Dolphin and Toronto’s Aircraft Pictures called What’s Up Warthogs! The show follows a group of high school students who spice up their daily routine by producing a news show. The series is intended to roll out in four- to five-minute eps online from Monday to Thursday, with a full 22-minute ep airing on the network on Friday. ‘These shows will shape the direction going forward and what we are looking for in the fall,’ says Goldsmith.
Coming up at Playhouse Disney Canada are two new shows in production, Justin Time (guru Studio) and Stella and Sam (Radical Sheep).
CBC gets back into the game
Coming up on her fourth year as creative head of children’s programming at Canadian pubcaster CBC, Kim Wilson says her team hasn’t changed, apart from the departure of Sarah Haasz last year. But she admits the new competitive landscape – combined a limited five-hour programming day and decreased budgets – has caused the former kingpin of Canadian children’s programming to regroup and delve into financing programs creatively.
‘There is a great degree of interest in being involved in financing from the get-go so that we can help bring in as many partners as possible at a time when we’re all financially strapped,’ says Wilson. She’s restricted to taking on shows that meet Canadian-content requirements, but says producing quality series with less money means bringing in like-minded partners – namely international public broadcasters.
So, Wilson says, after a couple of tough, grounded years, her team will be back full force at MIPCOM and KidScreen Summit this year, on the lookout for projects that they can partner up on at an early stage of development.
‘We can’t pick up brands that are recognizable, we have to create brands from scratch, and that’s part of why we want to work with others as much as possible – it helps the funding arrangements and it helps in creating a super-hit when it’s on a number of networks,’ says Wilson.
Wilson lists the channel’s top performers as preschool series SuperWhy! (Out of the Blue/DHX Media) and Busytown Mysteries (Cookie Jar), and says she’s staying on course to develop a slate centered on educational preschool fare. Besides two art-based shows launching in the fall, Artzooka! (CCI) and
Pirates (DHX), Wilson says music will be a key element of the channel’s educational strategy, particularly with the launch of Caboose. The in-house production will feature guest drop-ins from popular musicians. In the meantime, she says developing interactive content for school-age kids is also a focus, as content for that demo, which is limited to just 2.5 hours of air time on Saturday mornings, is almost entirely online.
The channel is also airing the first two seasons of Teletoon original Are We There Yet? (Sinking Ship), and has scooped up season three, which it is now in production.
CN realigns its development and programming ops
Cartoon Network made some strategic executive appointments at its L.A. studios this spring to help usher in a new two-pronged development strategy for comedy and live-action series. Nick Weidenfeld is now heading up development on comedies as VP, while Tramm Wigzell has been named VP of action-adventure. Both report to Rob Swartz, VP of original series.
‘We needed two strong executives to head up those genres,’ says Swartz. ‘We’ll continue to run the type of programming that our target audience wants and that includes comedy on both the animation and live-action side,’ he says.
Swartz says the original development team is fairly small and works together to share ideas and introduce new shows to one another. It’s also working closely with chief content officer Rob Sorcher and the programming department at Cartoon Network’s Atlanta, Georgia-based headquarter, headed up by SVP of programming and scheduling, Stacy Isenhower.
‘[Swartz and Sorcher] have their hands in everything that’s out there to be developed and what can and should be developed,’ says Isenhower. She likens her role to a shopper in their store of content, who can ask for more comedy or a new action show based on holes she needs to fill in the schedule.
Freeing Isenhower up to work ahead in filling the long-term program requirements of the channel, the network has appointed Rob O’Neill to the newly created position of VP of program scheduling.
‘I’d say that Rob’s purview is today through nine to 12 months ahead, and mine is the 12 months and beyond,’ says Isenhower. Being in charge of everything that shows up on the air, from series to PSAs and interstitials, Isenhower has also been overseeing the network’s on-air rebrand that rolled out this summer, which she says was important in reinstituting CN’s identity.
‘Before we didn’t speak to the viewer as much,’ says Isenhower, adding that the new look and tagline ‘Check it’ coincides with the new comedy and action content rolling out. ‘We wanted to have a dialogue with viewers versus just being a destination that they could show up to,’ she says. Isenhower explains that the characters representing the channel prior to the rebrand didn’t engage with the audience, whereas the branding is now more dynamic on-screen and more interactive online.
‘This is exactly what we planned we were going to do, wait and put it all out there at one time to really turn this ship around,’ says Isenhower.
Cohn adds development at TeenNick to remit
Long-time Nick exec Marjorie Cohn was promoted to president of original programming and development at Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids & Family Group this past spring. In the new role, Cohn now oversees Nick’s live-action creative executive teams on both the East and West coasts, managing the creative direction and co-ordination between series production and network departments/businesses. She also helms all original programming for Nick TV movies, Nick and Nite and TeenNick, taking over from former TeenNick SVP of original programming Amy Friedman. (She just happens to be opening her own consulting business this month – see ‘Amy Friedman puts head and heart into new business,’ p. 126.)
Cohn says the months following her appointment have been filled with getting new live-action tween series Big Time Rush and Victorious on-air, but adds that she’s been looking at the next steps forward for Nick and Nick at Nite and sisternet TeenNick. Her goal is to develop programming that works with the newly established one-brand initiative that united all channels and websites under the single, globally recognized brand, Nickelodeon.
‘We always need to keep our eye on where the kids are, and we know they are sharing TV with their families,’ says Cohn. Hinting at the undisclosed development slate, she says she’s keen to develop shows that don’t speak down to kids and that the whole family can enjoy. She adds, ‘They like to see their content on every platform, so it’s incumbent on us to make sure that we’re developing shows that have content that extends beyond TV.’
Nina Hahn remains another point of contact for the network on the original programming side as SVP overseeing international development – she attends all markets and takes care of scouting for global projects.