Baby Potato

Fewer Episodes, Please

Since I don't foresee a lot of new money flowing into the kids' TV business, the real question, in my view, is how to drastically reduce the cost of making a show. My suggestion certainly doesn't solve everything, but it would go a long way towards helping new preschool shows get off the ground.
November 8, 2011

This week I’m home.  I have no badge around my neck.  I have no hotel room key.  I’m not carrying a passport.  I drink my own coffee, sleep under my favorite blanket, and the best part of my day is when Mary and I take our dog, Buffy, to the puppy park and throw her an old tennis ball.  Whatever new thrills traveling may hold, they simply cannot compare to the bread and butter joys of being at home.

Being home also allows me time to think about some of the bigger-picture issues that impact my business and, I suspect, yours in our ever changing children’s media ecosystem.  During my travels this Fall, it’s become quite clear that most production companies, from the UK to Canada to Korea, are being squeezed by the very same market forces:  Low broadcaster license fees, the collapse of the DVD market, high labor costs, and very few hits in the toy aisle.  Betting on a new preschool show has become more like playing high-stakes roulette than low-stakes black-jack, and most folks who used to invest in new IP either don’t like the current odds or have already lost their shirts.  Few shows these days ever recoup their costs (much less see any profit) and indies are dropping like flies.

In today’s post, I would like to float a small idea that I think could make a very big difference across our entire industry.  As a creative person, I admit I may be crossing over into areas that are best left to those of you with MBA’s, but perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures, and maybe a creative is exactly the kind of person needed to help fix our very broken industry.

Since I don’t foresee a lot of new money flowing into the kids’ TV business, the real question, in my view, is how to drastically reduce the cost of making a show.  Though the various treaties and incentives available in some countries lower costs for many companies (though not mine), I don’t see government intervention as being a sustainable answer, particularly during a global economic downturn in which most countries need their tax revenues to pay for more pressing things than animators and storyboard artists.

My suggestion certainly doesn’t solve everything, but it would go a long way towards helping new preschool shows get off the ground:  Reduce the number of episodes in a first season from twenty-six to twelve.  Though the per episode costs might go up a bit, the benefits of this approach would, I believe, far outweigh this small increase.

These “Short Order” first seasons would be like pilot seasons for a new property, allowing broadcasters, production companies and licensees to see if they have a winner without the sizable upfront burden of financing twenty-six or fifty-two episodes.  As “Blue’s Clues” inadvertently proved during its first season, preschoolers love reruns.  They like to anticipate dialogue and plot points, and they don’t need twenty-six episodes to determine if they love a new show.  And, once a series does take off, as Blues’ Clues quickly did, then, of course, twenty-six or fifty-two episodes can always be ordered.

There was a time when toy companies operated under narrow assumptions and required a bare minimum of twenty-six half-hours on a top network with a good time slot in a big country to even consider a master toy deal.  And, without the master toy license in place, the other licensees just wouldn’t take the plunge.  These days, the big licensing stories in the kids’ industry are properties like Angry Birds, Moshi Monsters and The Annoying Orange which aren’t even on television.  These “off-air” hits, combined with a decade’s worth of “big” TV-based properties (including some of my own) that did not perform in the toy aisle, have led many to reconsider the logic of the old, expensive model.

In our current market, I believe, a smarter approach would be to put far less upfront money into the production of a first season’s worth of episodes, and to put more money into creative, low cost on-line initiatives that build a fan base through social media, gaming, and e-publishing.

In many ways, this is the approach we’ve taken with our own “Small Potatoes,” and we forecast that we’ll have recouped our own modest investment and begin showing profits by early 2012.  Rather than making fewer episodes, however, we opted for a short-form series to help reduce our upfront production costs and, therefore, our risk.  Much of the interest we’ve gotten from licensees and broadcasters in “Small Potatoes” has been generated by our Facebook page which now has over 200,000 international fans, mostly teens, and costs us almost nothing to maintain.

Back when Noggin was still in existence, I remember Kenny Miller said something that always stayed with me:  “We’d rather put a little money down on ten horses then a lot of money down on one or two horses.  Once a horse is a proven winner, we’re happy to put in more.”  This made a lot of sense to me back then and it makes even more sense to me now.  A “Short Order” may mean less money flowing into indies for first seasons but it also means having to raise less money for first seasons.  Another likely outcome would be more new series getting greenlit and, significantly, a wider variety of shows getting made since not all of them would need to be overtly “toyetic” to attract the high level funding now required to start production.

In other television genres, small orders are very common.  Some new drama series get a pickup of just six episodes.  A new reality series might get between eight and twelve shows.  So, why does the cash-starved kids’ TV industry need twenty-six or fifty-two episodes to determine if a show has legs?  This is far more episodes than are needed to find out if kids will like a show and sheer volume of episodes is no longer a prerequisite for most licensees.

So, while others are occupying Wall Street this week, I am advocating a new “Short Order” approach to commissioning.  I suspect there are flaws in my argument (as I’m nothing if not flawed) and invite you all to share your views in my little comment box below.  I wish you a happy Fall!

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