Canadian prodcos’ tot TV talent perks up preschool market

IN the eyes of Canadian programmers, the preschool demographic has always been an important target, and the hot shows get snapped up quickly. Networks have to move fast to get the series they want and keep young viewers tuned in....
July 1, 1999

IN the eyes of Canadian programmers, the preschool demographic has always been an important target, and the hot shows get snapped up quickly. Networks have to move fast to get the series they want and keep young viewers tuned in.

‘I think children as young as 18 months have an aesthetic sense,’ says Peter Moss, VP of programming and production at Treehouse and YTV. ‘So the production value on preschool programs tends to be high, as well as entertaining and visually stimulating.’

Canada’s national public broadcaster, the CBC, is well known to Canadian kids and parents for its preschool programming. Accord-ing to Adrian Mills, the caster’s head of youth, children’s and daytime programming, the CBC draws between 35% and 40% of preschool-age viewers on weekday mornings with its Playground block, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. He says that although nothing has been confirmed, the CBC is talking about adding two and a half to three hours a week to its morning preschool lineup. ‘We are thinking about extending our time to get more shelf space on the network,’ Mills says. Due to the CBC’s commitment to preschool programming and the high morning ratings it brings, Mills believes that the already successful morning lineup can be built upon. Hosted by a puppet character named Dog on a virtual set, the Playground block offers CBC mainstay series Mr. Dressup, Sesame Park, Nelvana’s Rolie Polie Olie and Cinar’s Arthur, and will be adding Nelvana’s Franklin, Cinar’s Mumble Bumble and Radical Sheep’s Amigo and Me in the fall. All of these series are produced in Canada.

Newcomer Treehouse TV is a specialty channel, launched November 1, 1997, that offers exclusively preschool programming from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m daily. According to Nielsen Media, it garners a 6% share of kids ages two to 11 who are watching cable when in direct competition with other preschool block broadcasters. A spin-off of 11-year-old YTV, Treehouse presents Teletubbies, St. Bear Doll’s Hospital by Montreal’s Norma Denys Productions and Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues in its weekday lineup. Additionally, it offers YTV/Treehouse-produced programming like Ants in Your Pants and Crazy Quilt.

Peter Moss says that a great deal of the YTV programming is also targeted at preschool, with YTV Jr. running from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., and 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Its lineup includes Nelvana’s Dumb Bunnies, Panda Bear Daycare by Radical Sheep, and Hammytime II Production’s Once Upon a Hamster. During weekdays, 42% of YTV programming is aimed at preschoolers, while 33% of the total week targets tots. For its efforts, YTV garners 13.3% of the preschoolers watching cable on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

According to Moss, YTV/Treehouse is second only to the CBC in terms of carrying the most original Canadian entertainment programming. Nationality notwithstanding, there are other qualities that he looks for in a preschool show before adding it to the YTV or Treehouse schedules. ‘The programs have to be about something,’ he says. ‘We don’t have to teach them numbers and letters, but it does have to be about the domain in which they are investigating.’

Taking care of the numbers and letters side of things are provincial pubcasters. In Ontario, the public broadcaster is TVOntario. In the preschool programming biz since 1970, TVO features a six-hour weekday morning block of preschool programming known as the TVO Weekday Nook, soon to be changed to the TVO Kids Morning as the pubcaster extends its 6 a.m. to noon programming to include weekends in the upcoming season. Nook host Gisele cuts in between shows, teaching brief lessons based on kindergarten curriculum.

TVO also has an afternoon kids block, the TVO Crawlspace, which runs from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. and receives a 30% to 35% share of the weekday afternoon children’s market in Ontario (ages two to 11). All totaled, TVO regularly devotes 30% of its broadcasting schedule to preschoolers.

Preschool programming at TVO is highlighted by Teletubbies, Cinar’s Country Mouse City Mouse and Nelvana’s Little Bear, and Nelvana’s Elliot Moose launches in September. According to Pat Ellingson, the channel’s creative head of children’s and daytime programming, the amount of Canadian-produced preschool programs on TVO fluctuates from about 70% to 95%, depending on the season.

Global Television, a national commerical network, has a smaller preschool lineup featuring two hour-long blocks from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. daily (with Vancouver-based Take Part Productions’ Tell-A-Tale Town and New Brunswick-based Just Peachy’s Blue Rainbow), and from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. (with Nelvana’s Care Bears and Cambium’s Sharon, Lois & Bram’s Elephant Show).

Canada’s first exclusive animation station, two-year-old Teletoon runs its commercial-free preschool block from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., featuring the likes of Cinar’s The Adventures of Paddington Bear and Caillou and Nelvana’s Jim Henson’s Dog City. The specialty cable channel normally receives 15% of the Canadian basic cable preschool market from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The cable-rooted Family Channel runs a shorter block from 6 a.m. to noon, and does not air any advertising, bringing in a 6.1% share of the preschool market. It broadcasts Nelvana’s Babar, Disney’s Goof Troop, Cinar’s The Busy World of Richard Scarry and Nelvana’s Franklin, another notable favorite amongst kids. ‘Probably our top-rated preschool show is Franklin,’ says Kevin Wright, VP of programming for both Teletoon and Family Channel. ‘We have even created a slot for it on the weekends, where we air it in prime time.’

…with the weight of the world on his antlers

Nelvana’s new property Elliot Moose has been described by company pundits as the next Franklin. The two series are easily comparable as they are both preschool properties based on children’s books from the Kids Can Press library of 250 titles. Nelvana has had much success with its book-turned-screen star characters (including Franklin, Pippi Longstocking and Babar), and many feel that Elliot is the next contender in line for the preschool crossover heavyweight title.

Ready to air in September on co-producing network TVO, Elliot comes equipped with 26 half-hour episodes, which feature 104 smaller episodes based on the Elliot books, written and illustrated by Andrea Beck, and developed for TV by Jed MacKay. The US$4.1-million series will follow Elliot through a number of wacky adventures as he delves into the realm of deep space and sets sail on the oceans as a pirate.

‘It’s unusual in the sense that no other series combines live action and animation the way this does,’ says Elliot producer Marianne Culbert. ‘The half hours are usually two segments of animation and two of live action, and there are crossover elements in story lines.’

Elliot Moose will also be seen this fall on TFO in Quebec (sister to TVO), Knowledge Network in British Columbia and SCN Saskatchewan. According to Andrew Witkin, Nelvana’s VP of North American Licensing, there is some significant interest in Elliot from U.S. broadcasters, but no deals have been confirmed.

On the licensing front, Witkin says Kids Can Press will naturally handle the Canadian end of Elliot publishing, while Scholastic will do the honors State-side. Witkin and Nelvana reps met with roughly 60 potential licensees at Licensing Show, where Elliot was a key topic of discussion for next year. At press time, no other licensing plans were formalized.

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