Uncovering new opps in kids educon

Since expanding international reach is the name of the game going into MIP-TV, we dish up the ingredients for creating edutainment that travels, the lastest in regional versioning techniques and what's on global buyers' wishlists....
April 1, 2001

Since expanding international reach is the name of the game going into MIP-TV, we dish up the ingredients for creating edutainment that travels, the lastest in regional versioning techniques and what’s on global buyers’ wishlists.

Educational children’s programming-whose definition can span from entertainment-driven shows with prosocial messages to heavily curriculum-based product-is enjoying a renaissance. Producers are employing stealth (burying educon in entertainment) and blue-chip partners to reap advantages and deal with the challenges of this elusive category.

But do educational programs travel well? Sesame Street is in 140 countries, and ‘[there are] common themes for girls and boys all over the globe and things that need to be taught,’ says New York-based Sesame Workshop’s executive VP of operations Karen Gruenberg. In terms of territories that represent the best opportunities, ‘everywhere,’ says Linda Kahn, senior VP of programming and distribution at New York-based Scholastic Entertainment. Its science-centered Scholastic’s The Magic School Bus has sold to more than 45 territories. Preschool-oriented Clifford the Big Red Dog-about ‘life’s little lessons’ such as sharing-has recently begun international sales. And Horrible Histories-taking kids into the daily life, warts and all, of periods in history-began airing early this year on S4C in Wales. Horrible Histories is produced with U.S.-based Mike Young Productions and Telegael Media Group in Ireland, based on a book series from Scholastic in the U.K.

Educational shows ‘can sometimes be very successful’ in the markets in which they are produced, says Charlie Caminada, managing director of worldwide distribution at HIT Entertainment in London. But ‘if you look around the worldwide market, there is not a very long list of educational properties that have really traveled very successfully.’ That’s because ‘education is so particular to the local cultures of a country,’ he says. Those properties that do succeed internationally share certain elements, such as being based on successful book series, having the credentials of well-known brands and companies involved, and being ‘attached to a company that has the ability and the resources to produce a first-class television series [that] is entertaining in the first place,’ says Caminada. He anticipates roughly three educational properties a year ‘will be considered true international successes.’

Another factor that may hinder educational programs’ potential to travel is that ‘there’s a general perception that educational shows don’t always perform,’ says Toronto-based toonco Nelvana’s co-CEO Michael Hirsh. Given this, ‘I think if it’s a good show, it will travel just as well, but it won’t travel better [than a purely entertainment program].’

Is this perception borne out? Educational shows tend not to draw the same ratings as a Pokémon, says Olivier Brémond, managing director of Paris-based Marathon. The trend is the same with adult educational programming, says EM.TV member of the board for programming and production Dr. Sylvia Rothblum. But Scholastic’s Kahn counters that ‘you can have an exceptionally educational program that’s really entertaining and that gets great ratings.’ And president of U.K.-based Gullane Entertainment Charles Falzon says: ‘[These programs] tend to garner more loyalty. When a property has that kind of relationship with the audience, the child tends to get more invested in the property.’

Producers worldwide are approaching educon in different ways.

‘We have a roster of brands that are synonymous with valuable information and morals and interactive play, but they’re not `educational’ in the school sense of the word,’ says Gullane’s Falzon. Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends’ ‘interactive play value’ encourages children to create their own stories and scenarios, Art Attack is about ‘getting the most out of kids in terms of letting their creativity run loose,’ and The Longhouse Tales is based on North American Native mythology. ‘That’s really an important distinction for us because we believe that first and foremost, what we are selling is entertainment,’ adds Falzon. Gullane’s recent acquisition of the children’s book division of publisher David and Charles Limited brings new properties for possible development into other media (see KidScreen’s March 2001 issue, ‘Gullane bolsters its book base,’ page 16).

‘I think you have to be more subtle than ever,’ says Nikolaus Weil, COO of Greenlight Media Group in Berlin. This philosophy is applied for SimsalaGrimm, based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales; Odyssey, an action-adventure series that introduces children to Homer’s classic tale; and @dventurers, in which four kids travel through the Net to different historical settings to battle a virus embedded by an evil professor.

Marathon is also not taking a school-driven or technical approach to educational programming, but is producing documentaries for children in which viewers learn about kids across the globe. Its documentary series, about topics like music, sports, food and pets, have sold to more than 50 countries, and Marathon’s Brémond says what gives them international appeal is that each episode tells a kid’s own story, featuring a child from a different country. The documentary series are also interesting for parents since they ‘could be seen as almost like travel [programs],’ says Brémond.

HIT’s first educational series is The Magic Key, which launched on CBBC and BBC Schools last September. Designed to help four- to seven-year-olds develop English reading skills, the animated show is based on Oxford Reading Tree (a reading scheme used in 70% of U.K. schools) and is a collaboration by HIT, Oxford University Press and the BBC. The U.K. will be the program’s lead market, and Caminada believes the property has a lot of international opportunities because the English language is predominant in the world and a necessary or second language in many countries. As well, Oxford Reading Tree and Oxford University are ‘very established brand [names] internationally;’ the project brings the involvement of the BBC; and HIT has established a track record in children’s entertainment programming, as well as having had some association with Sesame Street (HIT CEO Peter Orton was formerly at the Jim Henson Company) and Barney. (HIT previously handled international distribution for Barney, and in February, acquired the show’s producer Lyrick Studios.) ‘A large part of this company’s focus now is to concentrate on building fewer but sort of larger, more substantial global franchises,’ says Caminada.

Sesame Workshop is tapping a niche for English as a foreign language with Sesame English for ages four to 11. A new Muppet living with a U.S. family and learning English is the star of the live-action and animated series, for which the producer partnered with language services firm Berlitz International. The series has been produced as half hours and as a format game show with a local host. Sesame English debuted in Taiwan and China last summer, and Gruenberg hopes to roll it out internationally, including into the U.S. for English as a second language teaching.

Nelvana is also taking a more curriculum-oriented course with Cyberchase, ‘a new educational show that does for math what Scholastic’s The Magic School Bus did for science,’ says Hirsh. (Nelvana co-produced The Magic School Bus with Scholastic and handles worldwide distribution outside the U.S.) Three kids venture into cyberspace to defeat the evil Hacker by using math and logic. Targeted at kids ages eight to 11, 2D-animated Cyberchase is being produced with PBS affiliate Thirteen/WNET New York for a winter 2002 kick-off on PBS. Hirsh believes the series will travel well because math is a relevant subject worldwide.

PBS has also commissioned second and third runs for Standard Deviants TV, a 26 x 30-minute edutainment offering from Washington, D.C.-based Cerebellum. Targeting tweens and teens, the show is based on a video series that has sold more than 2.5 million copies. In each episode, kids are immersed in a funny and fast-paced learning adventure of topics like Shakespeare, astronomy and the Internet. Season 2 began airing on PBS last month, with Season 3 following in December.

On the heavily curriculum-based end of the educational programming spectrum, London-based BBC Worldwide is looking for opportunities abroad for about 30 to 40 core titles for ages four to 16, chosen for their international relevance from the hundreds commissioned and aired by BBC within its BBC Schools slots. Distinctly different from entertainment-driven programs with educational elements, these shows are intended to help a child get through a stage of learning on a very specific subject, such as learning to count, and can be used at home or in a classroom, says Jonathan Drake, global business development manager, Education, in BBC Worldwide’s global marketing and brand development division. Clay-animated Numbertime, for example, is an early numeracy program for ages six and seven. Television programs such as World 2000, geared to 11- to 14-year-olds, can be beneficial to studying geography because ‘you can take the children to the country and terrain you’re talking about,’ and series such as Science in Action for ages 11 to 14 ‘can provide demonstrations of scientific experiments or theories [that] a teacher won’t have access to in a classroom,’ says Drake. He invests in about 30 to 40 new hours of such programs per year.

The best market opportunities for these productions in their original form-typically five x 20-minute series-are Scandinavia, Benelux, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Middle East, and many of the Beeb’s series with international value are co-productions. Another approach BBC Worldwide has tried successfully over the last two to three years is to allow broadcasters and producers, with BBC Worldwide’s supervision, to re-edit and reversion the material to fit their needs; for example, the South African Broadcasting Corporation created a version of Numbertime. Drake would like to break into the U.S. and South and East Asian markets with reversioned productions. Science, geography, math and languages tend to be easiest to transport internationally.

One of the biggest challenges is ‘the pricing is bad compared to other genres’ in many markets, says Drake. Some territories offer only half of what they might for a kids entertainment show of the same length, although pricing in Northern Europe is ‘reasonably comparable’ to that for entertainment. Versioned programs produced market-by-market are also ‘less profitable because you don’t have the scalability,’ says Drake. ‘I feel that looking to the international market at the beginning and making the versioning process as simple and as cost-effective as possible is probably going to be important to the educational production process going forward.’ (For more on these innovative and inexpensive techniques, see ‘New version initiatives find international success,’ page 106.)

For its part, when it comes to producing a program with education leading front-and-center, Munich-based TV-Loonland’s director of programs John Bullivant says it’s ‘highly unlikely’ such a project would ever appear on the company’s development slate unless it were commissioned by a broadcaster. ‘I don’t think I’d get it financed or be able to produce it,’ he says. The company’s entertainment series such as Little Ghosts could be considered to have educational elements in so far as its four ghost stars reflect kids experiences, solve problems, work as a team and provide positive role models-’that’s responsible and good storytelling,’ says Bullivant.

Indeed, raising the financing can be harder relative to other genres, says Marathon’s Brémond, including looking for co-financing with broadcasters because these outlets may produce their own shows. ‘But [educational shows] sell very well afterwards,’ so Marathon’s distribution arm helps to finance production based on strong anticipated sales. ‘I would say it would be very difficult outside of the factual programs today to raise the financing for an educational program,’ says Brémond, and ‘I don’t think we have enough budget in the educational market to do top-quality animation.’ At the same time, such shows also are often less expensive to produce. For example, a 26 x 26-minute kids documentary would total about US$2 million, compared to US$9 million for a same-format animated series.

On the plus side, educational programming can draw in different kinds of organizations that can further a producer’s content agenda or distribution goals and potentially provide financing, says Sesame Workshop’s Gruenberg. For example, the NAMM International Music Products Association gave a grant to help further music curriculum on Sesame Street’s 33rd season in a three-year initiative called Sesame Street Music Works. The effort, designed to help kids make music and parents and educators understand the role of music in children’s development, also involves producing an educational media toolkit for distribution through music retailers, public TV stations and early childhood organizations. Nelvana’s Cyberchase is funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

Ancillary revenues for educational series can also be tapped via licensing activities. ‘I see no limitation at all’ in merchandising potential for educational shows, says EM.TV’s Rothblum. TOMY has signed on to produce toy and gift lines for The Hoobs, a preschool-targeted series starring aliens writing an encyclopedia about Earth, produced by EM.TV subsidiary the Jim Henson Company. EM.TV is looking to extend the property into books, CD-ROMs and other categories. An educational show ‘might have a bigger potential’ than a purely entertainment show because parents feel OK buying products when their children can learn something, especially in the preschool area, adds Rothblum. Different kinds of products, such as science learning kits, may also become options, says Scholastic’s Kahn. But Nelvana’s Hirsh says the course for an educational show versus a purely entertainment show is ‘tougher because you don’t start off with the same entertainment base,’ pointing out that the most successful toys tend to be for properties such as Pokémon and Power Rangers, which are not remotely educational.

Among outlets, public broadcasters offer the best opportunity for educational shows because they may have a mandate to be involved in such programming. When it comes to the U.S. landscape, producers across the board point to the strength of pubcaster PBS as an educational outlet. But ‘the funding system of PBS is not very easy for us’ because producers must raise financing or go into fundraising by bringing on a sponsor, says Marathon’s Brémond. It’s difficult to forge relationships with potential underwriters from overseas. A U.S. outlet that has proven successful for Marathon’s children’s documentary series, including new productions Let’s Dance, The Animal I Love and There’s No Food Like My Food, is the video market for schools. The company is working with distributors Schlessinger Media, New Dimension Media, Landmark, Simitar and Questar. The State-side school market for educational programming is ‘a major market actually,’ says Brémond.

U.S. cable and satellite services such as Discovery Channel, National Geographic and The Learning Channel may also have demand, says HIT’s Caminada. ‘Our shows have sold across the board,’ says Scholastic’s Kahn, ‘both to public broadcasters and to commercial networks, both to broadcast and to cable.’ A case in point: The Magic School Bus headed to Fox Kids Network in fall 1998 after airing on PBS.

Across the pond, ‘the U.K. has been incredibly fortunate in that its children’s programming is a mirror of essentially prime-time schedules,’ says TV-Loonland’s Bullivant. ‘If you take ITV, the BBC and cable and satellite, you can go through every genre of programming that appeals to adults and find the equivalent in children’s,’ including news, magazines, drama, documentary series, game shows, Saturday morning variety and arts and crafts programs. Given the breadth of genres the market is open to and the opportunities offered by BBC Schools and Channel 4Learning blocks, ‘in some ways, you could argue that the U.K. is the best place to be,’ he says. Educational channels are also popping up on digital platforms, says BBC Worldwide’s Drake, ‘but the question becomes, is it an outlet that everybody can view, and is it backed by financial resources to buy [the programming]?’

But Marathon’s Brémond says breaking into markets outside its French home base, such as the U.K. and Germany, can be difficult because broadcasters in those territories tend to produce their own shows. EM.TV’s Rothblum agrees. ‘Many of the broadcasters produce [educational programs] in-house, and [these are] a very national kind of show,’ such as ARD’s nearly 30-year-old preschool series The Show with the Mouse. ‘As any producer, your strongest [market] is always your local market because you should understand it better than any other,’ says TV-Loonland’s Bullivant. ‘I think in the international kids business, smart producers should keep their eyes and ears open for how they can take an idea and make it work in their local market.’

What does the future hold for educational kids programming? ‘Education is becoming more and more important because the world is changing so fast,’ says EM.TV’s Dr. Rothblum. Plus, ‘I definitely think the Internet will have a very, very strong impact on educational programming, and it might be that most of it will take place on the Net.’ While a TV program is static, the Internet is ‘a much faster medium, and you can take into account [any] changes that happen.’ Rothblum predicts this move on-line could happen as early as the next three to five years.

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