New players on the kids programming block scene

Following in the footsteps of Disney and Warner Bros., more players are entering the kids programming block game. In the last year, producers and distributors in the U.S. and Europe have unveiled efforts aimed at grabbing chunks of programmers' air time...
April 1, 2000

Following in the footsteps of Disney and Warner Bros., more players are entering the kids programming block game. In the last year, producers and distributors in the U.S. and Europe have unveiled efforts aimed at grabbing chunks of programmers’ air time and kids’ viewing time.

While some producers, distributors and programmers are skeptical about the viability of new block brands, the newcomers are optimistic about opportunities to extend the penetration of their endeavors.

For New York-based The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company, the motivation for creating a block sprung from the challenges of gaining exposure for a pair of shorts series-Granada’s Tom and Vicky and ITEL’s The Animal Shelf.

‘To sell a 10- or 11-minute show in North America is difficult,’ says Joan Lambur, itsy’s president of on-screen entertainment (TV). While some producers expressed concern that their show would be less known to kids than the block’s It’s itsy bitsy Time! brand, the alternative is that the series in the block, all ranging from five- to 12-minute episodes, would have garnered less exposure on their own, and not received adequate network coverage to support the sort of licensing and merchandising program that becomes feasible if a show is stripped.

Within the block, each series airs a minimum of seven times per week in the 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday to Friday slots on Fox Family Channel in the U.S., as well as 15 or more times a week in an hour-long Monday to Friday block, that is repeated three times daily on Canada’s Treehouse TV.

Joel Andryc, executive VP of programming and development at Fox Family Channel, admits that the hurdle of promoting a branded block in addition to the channel brand was a ‘slight concern.’ But the cablecaster, now in season two, was open to the block because ‘we’re up against stiff competition with PBS, Disney [Channel] and Nick Jr.,’ says Andryc, and the channel’s previous preschool programs hadn’t taken off. itsy bitsy’s success with Teletubbies and the block’s programming were also draws.

The block is seeing slow, but continued growth, says Andryc. From the second season’s kickoff mid-August to early February, share among kids ages two to 11 rose 15% over last year’s average in the 9 a.m. slot, 30% in the 11:30 a.m. slot and 25% in the 12 p.m. slot in households that receive the channel. (Last year, family-friendly Mork and Mindy aired at 9 a.m., preschool-targeted Shining Time Station followed at 11:30 a.m. and three programs-Mister Moose’s Fun Time, Shining Time Station and Dinobabies-ran in the 12 p.m. slot throughout the year.)

In terms of capturing viewers, the ability to mix the order of shows within the block adds an element of surprise to each episode, and ‘[a block] allows you a much more theme-oriented approach,’ says Lambur.

Andryc adds that from a programmer’s perspective, a block is easier to promote than individual series all aimed at the same demo. And the modular segments would make it easy to revise the lineup if a show were not performing well, or to add new series to refresh the mix.

The block, supported by underwriting from exclusive sponsor Hasbro at the start and end of each block (seven seconds in Canada and two minutes in the U.S.), brings a new and long-term revenue stream to both programmers in the hard-to-sell preschool arena, says Lambur. This injection offsets broadcast license fees comparable to those paid by these networks to acquire programming of the same length as the block.

And the block enables itsy bitsy to release licensed products under the company’s It’s itsy bitsy Time! banner. The company is looking to sign on licensees that can develop products for all the properties in the block, a potential challenge for licensees.

For next fall, itsy bitsy is producing 25 new episodes of the block for Fox Family and Treehouse. At press time, the company was in negotiations to launch the block internationally, possibly in the fall.

itsy bitsy has also signed a deal with London-based GMTV to co-produce a preschool-level educational block that will consist of 40 one-hour episodes (which can be converted into 80 half hours) of an original show melding CGI, cel animation, stop motion and live-action puppets. Set in Oooberry Land, the series will star a character who lives in a treehouse built into an Oooberry tree. Production is slated to be completed by the end of October, with a fall 2001 air date in mind.

The benefits of using a block to build a brand are the key selling points for Germany’s EM.TV & Merchandising. Its one-and-a-half-hour Tabaluga Tivi has been airing on Germany’s ZDF since October 1997. More recently, Junior blocks debuted on German commercial caster SAT.1 (7:40 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, with blocks from 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday also being branded Junior in the last two months) and Swiss pubcaster SF2 (from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday) in January.

‘You have a situation in Germany and in other territories where you have tons of kids programs on most of the stations,’ says Christoph Mainusch, EM.TV’s senior VP of TV business development. Given this, brands are crucial to build awareness with viewers. Whether programmer, producer or distributor, ‘for each perspective, [a brand] is a big asset,’ he says.

One of the most important elements that brings the brand to life for kids is a 3D animated wraparound series of comedy shorts, called Junior. Produced with TFC Trickompany in Hamburg, the wrap stars Junior, his little sister and his friend. ‘This character helps to establish Junior as a brand not only as a label, but Junior also is a program brand,’ says Mainusch.

‘We not only offer the stations a good program, but say that you get a good brand, you get a good on-air promotion, you get a good wraparound program for that with Junior, Jaz and Jane, and you have the power to create a brand,’ says Mainusch.

This support includes the brand’s rollout in a range of licensed merchandise. ‘We have the connection of bridging media and industry,’ says Mainusch. Hans Vriens, a member of EM.TV’s executive board who’s responsible for sales and marketing, adds that the company is in a more advantageous position than programmers to make this connection because it typically holds more rights. Already on-board to release Junior-branded products are Junior.Toys (majority-owned by EM.TV), edel music (video and audio), Tivola (CD-ROMs) and Junior.Publishing (a 50/50 joint venture with Egmont).

For programmers, blocks can lead to higher ratings, says Mainusch, opening the door to generate increased revenue. SAT.1′s Junior block reached market shares of 16% to 20% on Saturday mornings in its first six weeks. (SAT.1 aired up to eight half hours of programming from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. last year.) Programmers can choose the makeup of their blocks from the more than 28,500 half hours in the Junior.TV library (a 50/50 co-venture with KirchGroup).

When it comes to costs, ‘branding should add value to the whole equation,’ says Vriens. ‘So, in principle, we should be able to ask for more money. Now, of course, in the beginning of a brand, you’re not able to ask for premium prices.’ Prices also vary greatly depending on the programmer, the country, the series and other terms of the agreement. ‘And what we’re trying to do is look for a deal where we all win,’ says Vriens.

Similar to the international channels (see sidebar), EM.TV is eyeing a block and channel strategy. EM.TV and KirchGroup (majority-owned by SAT.1) operate a Junior channel on digital pay-TV platform Premiere World. At press time, EM.TV was in discussions with outlets in eight European, Latin American and Asian territories for the Junior block. Over the next few years, the Junior block on SAT.1 will grow to 11.5 hours per week.

Columbia TriStar International Television is taking its distribution strategy to another level by offering programmers the ability to create an ANIMAX kids programming block. As a ‘value-added incentive,’ says Annie Morita, senior VP of sales and marketing for the Culver City, California-based company, programmers that acquire at least an hour from CTIT’s slate of anime and 19 animated series can receive an ANIMAX branding package, complete with opener, close, menus and interstitials-all at no cost. Programmers retain flexibility to decide which series appear in the block. ABS-CBN in the Philippines, Singapore’s TV12, Indonesia’s SCTV and Taiwan’s Super TV have picked up the block, and three deals were pending at press time.

‘For us, there’s no downside,’ says Morita, ‘because we get to partner with the broadcaster so that we’re actually helping them develop a kid-focused franchise on their program schedule. We get to place CTIT animation, as well as increase awareness of anime. And in order not to lose control of the brand, we’re generating the branding package that goes along with the block.’

CTIT had been looking for other uses for the ANIMAX package already produced for Sony Pictures Entertainment’s ANIMAX cable channel in Japan, which hit the airwaves in June 1998. The company hopes the format will interest all territories in which it sells programming, and in the long term, to launch the channel internationally.

Paris-based Expand Licensing is also aiming to package blocks. Preschool programming should be housed in an environment that parents trust as safe and that encourages toddlers to learn, says executive licensing manager Bruno Zarka. A block also makes sense because licensees need to advertise their products, particularly on TV, and since preschool series themselves should never be considered by licensees as TV advertising for products, says Zarka, a block can provide a vehicle to which licensees can become attached as advertisers or sponsors. For its first effort, a block for Fox Kids France that’s slated to debut this month, Expand is bringing on all advertisers or sponsors for the block, providing an economic benefit to the network.

Such a block is appealing, says Benoit Runel, executive director of programming and acquisition for Fox Kids Europe (formerly deputy GM and programming director for Fox Kids France), because the two-year-old channel wants to boost its preschool presence. Being able to work with one company handling the TV and merch rights, the deal negotiations and the dubbing for several series would also be a plus. Still, says Runel, Fox Kids is hesitant to promote someone else’s brand, and a block’s brand would be exclusive to the channel.

The new initiative represents Expand Licensing’s first step into program distribution, a benefit to licensors, who can now approach one company to oversee this area as well as licensing and merchandising. The company aspires to usher in blocks in other territories, notably Spain, the U.K. and Germany, over the next three years.

But blocks aren’t to everyone’s tastes, and some question the potential for such efforts to spread.

At the BBC, Roy Thompson, head of children’s commissioning, says he would never need to give up any length of output to a block, given the public broadcaster’s mandate to commission kids programming. He also wouldn’t schedule shows with similar material or genres back to back-the closest the BBC comes is a full hour of preschool programming on weekday mornings with Tweenies and Teletubbies. As well, since the BBC’s own brand is so powerful, he would not consider picking up programming using someone else’s brand, regardless of the appeal of the fare.

While the format bestows some cost advantages to programmers in acquiring several series from one supplier, and to distributors, who save costs of marketing and negotiating sales for individual programs and who can count on a program being exploited in many markets whenever they greenlight a project, Marc du Pontavice, chairman and CEO of Paris-based Xilam believes it’s not the desire of broadcasters to work on a system of blocks: ‘it makes everyone lazy.’

‘Besides the majors-like Disney, Saban, Warner and Nickelodeon-I don’t know any other suppliers in the business that have enough programs and influence to have blocks [working] all over the place,’ adds du Pontavice, which is necessary not only to cover costs but for brands to become widely known.

While blocks can work for preschoolers, who need a common thread in the programming to keep their interest, says Marie-Line Petrequin, managing director of animation and development at Igel Media in Hamburg, they become less successful for older kids. ‘Such blocks simply do not take into account that children know exactly what they want to see. They choose each individual show.’

‘[A programming blocks] strategy may still be interesting for young channels with less investment power or smaller, special-interest channels,’ she adds. ‘In my experience, however, more established channels accept these types of blocks less and less….These channels want to have the best shows available, and they feel able to package them on their own.’

At London’s HIT Entertainment, managing director of worldwide distribution Charlie Caminada sees the most interest in blocks from startup cable, satellite and digital channels, and in terms of territories, from Asia, parts of Latin America and Europe, including some Eastern European countries. HIT is open to offering blocks if the move enhances its business, says Caminada, though it hasn’t yet found the right circumstances to do it.

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