BKN aims to reinvent itself as a network

The surest indicator of how tough the U.S. kids syndication business is getting may be the move by Bohbot Kids Network (BKN) to shift its business from syndication to compete with the likes of ABC, Fox Kids and Kids' WB! by...
January 1, 1999

The surest indicator of how tough the U.S. kids syndication business is getting may be the move by Bohbot Kids Network (BKN) to shift its business from syndication to compete with the likes of ABC, Fox Kids and Kids’ WB! by creating its own network.

‘You just can’t get away with simply putting television shows into time periods any longer,’ says Rick Ungar, who came on board as chairman and CEO of New York-based BKN, a division of Bohbot Entertainment and Media, in early October. ‘As we’ve seen in the past couple years, it just does not produce the ratings you need to make something successful.’ Contributing to the problem is that kids identify more strongly with networks or cable channels than with individual programs, says Ungar. Therefore, in markets where a station carrying syndicated shows lacks a strong identity with kids, new shows don’t get sampled because kids don’t tune in. ‘Because you can’t depend on station loyalty, you have to create brand loyalty.’

Ungar is looking to make kids loyal to BKN, a network that will launch on August 29 with two separate programming services for different stations in the same markets. Bulldog TV will heavily target boys ages six to 11 with action-adventure programming, and the second service, currently referred to as BKN Cartoon Classics, will target a wider audience of boys and girls ages two to 11 with a ‘softer’ lineup, says Ungar. Each service will air 12 hours of programming per week in contiguous time periods, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday to Friday and on Sunday. This represents a jump from the eight half-hour Monday to Friday strips and four half-hour series on weekends that BKN is offering this season in syndication. Bohbot has been in the kids syndication business for eight years, operating as BKN for the last two-and-a-half years.

BKN is shooting for a clearance level of 92% of the country on more than 190 stations. The key station targets are Chris-Craft, Tribune and Sinclair Communications Group, as well as Paramount and smaller station groups. At press time, Ungar had finalized a multiyear agreement with 46 Sinclair stations covering about 25% of the U.S.

BKN’s first-year programming lineup has been filled with a mix of new productions and acquisitions, as well as catalog programming. Bulldog TV will introduce Roswell Conspiracies-Aliens, Myths and Legends, produced by BKN’s newly acquired production company Epoch Ink (renamed as BKN Studios), and Bug Wars: A Starship Troopers Adventure by Columbia TriStar Television Children’s Programming. BKN Cartoon Classics will unveil a new Sonic the Hedgehog series by DIC Entertainment, Le Studio Tex and Sega of America called Sonic Underground. BKN Studios will also be producing other undisclosed series for the schedule.

Beyond the programming, what Ungar believes truly defines a network today is branding. ‘The brand has to become as important, or almost as important, as the shows,’ he says. Both services will be positioned with promos, interstitials and bumpers, and the network is looking to establish a high-profile Internet presence.

All of this requires a ‘large investment leap,’ says Ungar, to the tune of about US$100 million in promotions, station clearances and production. The allocation of minutes on both services toward promoting the network in the first season alone will have a gross rating point value of US$50 million, says Ungar. BKN raised this financing through bank deals, according to Ungar, and Chris-Craft and Columbia TriStar have a minority stake in the network. The network will support itself through ad sales, and will also benefit from revenues of ancillary activities, such as licensing, raised by its parent company.

As an incentive to advertisers, Ungar is offering to run any ad bought on one of the services in both services during the same time slot until each service generates sufficient ratings on its own to satisfy advertisers. ‘We recognize that the numbers have gotten hugely soft in the kids business, and it’s making it very difficult for advertisers,’ says Ungar.

For stations, Ungar’s pitch is that they will benefit in the long run from higher ratings, which will make it easier to sell their ad time and allow them to charge a higher price for that time. Stations will split ad time 50/50 with BKN. Ungar is signing stations to one- to three-year deals, but has no built-in guarantees that stations won’t withdraw.

In the face of competition from a batch of newcomers kicking off in the coming year, not to mention the existing networks and cable channels going after kid viewers, Ungar is banking on the wider reach of broadcast television to give BKN a boost. ‘The advantage that we’re going to have over anybody who’s getting started on cable is that we’re broadcast,’ he says. ‘And while broadcast television is losing some numbers to cable, [broadcast numbers are] still so hugely larger than cable [that] that gives you one edge right there.’

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