Special Report on NATPE: Honey, I shrunk the syndication market: Competition in children’s TV has intensified even further. To get any kind of ratings, a show must be outstanding in every way

NATPE has come a long way since it opened 35 years ago with 71 attendees. Last year, close to 17,000 people came to New Orleans from around the world, making NATPE arguably the largest stop on the fast-paced international television market...
January 1, 1998

NATPE has come a long way since it opened 35 years ago with 71 attendees. Last year, close to 17,000 people came to New Orleans from around the world, making NATPE arguably the largest stop on the fast-paced international television market circuit. KidScreen’s special report on NATPE looks at how the once mostly American television market has grown with the expanding television industry to represent a truly global perspective, including, especially in recent years, a greater Latin American presence.

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As syndicators of children’s programming continue their dogfight over the few precious parcels of real estate available on U.S. broadcast stations, quality has the upper hand over quantity.

The growth of network programming blocks such as Kids’ WB!, the steady erosion of the kids audience to cable and other entertainment options, and purportedly unreliable ratings information have raised the stakes in the syndication game.

‘To get any ratings at all, shows must be outstanding in their look, in their character development and in their storytelling,’ says Sally Bell, president of Claster Television.

To brand or not to brand

Aside from traditional market-to-market clearances, some syndicators have recast their image to package shows into a branded program block and promote the block over the content. Nickelodeon has taken this concept to the extreme, promoting the network as the place for kids to be first, and its individual programs second.

In the syndication market, Buena Vista Television was a pioneer of the non-network affiliate branded program block with its Disney Afternoon. The company leveraged the Disney brand name as the focal point for tune-in and ad sales. This season, Bohbot has given itself a facelift, and a new name-Bohbot Kids Network (BKN)-to develop long-term business relationships with stations.

BKN president George Baratta says that the programming block was born out of necessity. ‘We saw where the TV landscape was going and we wanted to formalize long-term relationships that we’ve had with a group of stations that we did business with year in and year out,’ says Baratta. BKN is modeling itself after Disney in that it has consolidated the company into four core businesses-network, affiliate sales, production and licensing and merchandising.

The 12 hours each week of BKN programming is carried by 48 percent of the country, with clearances of parts of the block adding up to 80 percent coverage. Most BKN affiliates have signed three- year deals, which means that with half of the country locked up, the syndicator can concentrate on getting station upgrades or converting one-year deals into longer agreements.

Baratta believes that it is an advantage to sell a block as opposed to individual programs because a block will guarantee advertisers that if an individual series fails, it can be replaced while the block continues to air seamlessly.

BKN seems to be swimming against the current, as many companies have pulled back from the branded block concept, primarily because children are more interested in shows and not names. Even Buena Vista is steering away from its Disney Afternoon concept, although it still has a strong syndication presence.

‘A concept like Disney Afternoon gives you an identity that’s consistent from year to year as shows change, but I doubt that kids run home and say, `I’m watching Disney Afternoon.’ We saw that the viewership varied according to the quality of the programming within that block,’ says Bill Graff, program director for WB11 in New York City.

‘Branding for kids is very overrated,’ adds Don Hess, corporate program director for Quest Programming, which owns WB affiliate WATL in Atlanta. ‘Kids are interested strictly in the shows. It doesn’t matter where they come from; it matters what they are.’

Chris Hallowell, senior vice president and managing director of the Program Exchange, believes that a syndicator’s primary job is to help stations build high ratings. This results in the syndicator’s show being renewed and builds equity for future deals. ‘Those companies that have blocked up shows really do it out of their own interests as opposed to working to create high ratings for the station,’ he says.

Claster Television experimented with branding a block of its shows last year but abandoned the concept because it feels the strength of its titles like Mummies Alive! and Beast Wars could be sold and promoted better if marketed individually rather than as a group.

‘Generally, kids know the places where they are always welcome and that are speaking to them,’ says Graff.

The ratings war

Unreliable Nielsen data have long been a sore point with syndicators of children’s programming, who protest that children’s audiences are not measured accurately and fairly. ‘Nielsen audience measurements of children do not reflect a real understanding of the way children think, how they behave and their lifestyle,’ says Bell. ‘It skews the information received by advertisers and programmers in a way that discourages stations from carrying children’s programming.’

There’s an argument to be made that children’s numbers are down because audiences are moving toward other entertainment options, but syndicators and station programmers do not believe that audience levels have dropped as steeply as numbers indicate. At WATL, children’s shows in a time slot that produced a 20 kid rating five years ago now only produce a five or six rating, according to Hess.

Poor ratings forces stations to move kids shows to marginal time periods where the program will not hurt the station, or reduce children’s programming to a bare minimum as mandated by the FCC. ‘It’s difficult for a broadcaster to focus on the children’s niche and try to build a rating because of all of the other things it needs to do to serve its other audiences,’ says Tom Voit, director of sales for Litton Syndication.

Litton tries to support the stations that carry its highly rated teen series Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures by offering them a vignette package to make Hanna the local animal expert on locally produced newscasts. ‘We’re looking for ways to make the show part of the brand in their community,’ says Voit.

Advertising budgets drive much of the decision-making at the station level. That’s why the deal between Disney and Kellogg has helped maintain high clearances for Buena Vista syndicated programs. The 1997-98 season is the first year of an alliance between the two companies. Disney is using Kellogg’s local media dollars to help clear its product by having Kellogg prebuy local time, thus guaranteeing affiliates a revenue stream if they carry the programming.

‘There are very few stations in the strip market who are looking for great shows that come with no ad support,’ says Graff. ‘Stations can’t afford to go that route because there just isn’t enough spot money out there.’

Syndicators are facing the challenge of a shrinking marketplace where lots of companies are competing for a few spots. Be it a block of programs or an individual show, the need for outstanding programming is greater than ever if kids are going to take notice of it. If children’s programming isn’t going to bring the numbers, stations will turn to other programming that will.

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