The Beeb goes to battle and puts U.S.-backed nets on edge

The U.K. is one of the most dynamic and competitive markets in the world when it comes to children's broadcasting. With 70% of British kids now living in digital-friendly homes, the territory is fertile ground for the U.S.-backed thematic networks that now control much of the global trade in movies, TV, videos and consumer products.
October 1, 2004

The U.K. is one of the most dynamic and competitive markets in the world when it comes to children’s broadcasting. With 70% of British kids now living in digital-friendly homes, the territory is fertile ground for the U.S.-backed thematic networks that now control much of the global trade in movies, TV, videos and consumer products.

That said, Disney, Viacom and Turner, which control 13 U.K. channels between them (including +1 services), don’t have things all their way. An aggressive counter-attack by pubcaster the BBC in both free-to-air and digital cable/satellite broadcasting has put the overseas invaders on the defensive for the first time in years.

The BBC, which is funded by a US$4-billion annual license fee, has long been the dominant force in U.K. free-to-air children’s TV. With an annual budget of US$72.7 million, it has managed to sustain a varied mix of original productions on BBC1 and BBC2, as well as on diginets Cbeebies and CBBC. CBBC channel controller Dorothy Prior says: ‘One of the things that is unique about our channels is the wide range of output – and keeping the balance right between all the genres is essential. When I commission shows, I’m looking for genuinely innovative ideas that fit with our brand values and complement the existing output. I want high-quality, British-made programs that are relevant and appealing to our target audiences.’

Commitment to British content is exemplified by a star-studded drama slate headlined by Shoebox Zoo, a live-action/CGI hybrid from CBBC Scotland about an 11-year-old American girl coming to terms with her mother’s death (with some help from four animal wood carvings that magically spring to life), and I Dream, set in a Fame-esque school that features members of S Club 8 as pupils (19 Entertainment).

In a competitive market, Prior says it’s also important to have strong returning shows with established fan bases. Examples include old-faithfuls Blue Peter and Newsround, as well as newer hits like Tracy Beaker (BBC and Entertainment Rights) and BBC-produced Saturday morning juggernaut Dick & Dom in da Bungalow, which averaged a 28% share of kids last fall/winter and soundly trounced the Beeb’s historic rival CiTV’s 17% showing.

But with so many popular reorders to slot in, Prior says there aren’t that many opportunities for new shows. One entry that should entertain as well as tap into a growing trend that sees kids taking more initiative in the kitchen is Platinum Films’ Planet Cook. ‘I was keen to commission something that would help children learn about food and cookery as I felt that was an obvious gap,’ says Prior, who also commissioned new eps of in-house series Big Cook Little Cook for CBeebies.

In preschool, the bias is again in favor of established brands with built-in recognition. ‘Little children love their favorite characters and presenters and the familiarity and comfort they bring,’ says Prior. ‘We are fortunate to have a number of long-running landmark series that are linked to the government’s Early Learning Goals and offer learning through play, and we can use them to add structure to our preschool schedules.’

This fall sees new episodes of Postman Pat and Little Red Tractor (both Entertainment Rights), the return of preschool ‘soap’ Balamory and the Roly Mo Show, a spin-off from Novel Entertainment’s preschool hit The Fimbles. Rounding out the preschool schedule are Pingu from HIT Entertainment and a new song-and-dance series called Boogie Beebies (BBC).

Digital preschool net Cbeebies has established itself as one of the biggest kids channels in the pay-TV universe, which comprises satellite platform SkyDigital (7.3 million homes) and digital cable (three million homes). Anchored by Teletubbies, Tweenies, Fimbles and Balamory, the channel further leveraged one of the Beeb’s well-established brands this fall with last month’s launch of a four-hour Postman Pat block. The much-loved character, who’s been on the Beeb since the ’80s, will act as the block’s host, introducing shows, reading and responding to mail from viewers and starring in five animated links between shows.

By comparison, Cbeebies’ sister diginet CBBC has taken a little longer to settle – not surprising when you consider that it competes for older kids with Turner’s channels (Cartoon, Boomerang, Toonami), Viacom’s Nickelodeon and Nicktoons, Fox Kids, Disney Channel, Toon Disney and Sky One (which siphons off kids with its broad entertainment proposition). Nevertheless, CBBC has grown steadily with a schedule based around BBC commissions (Tracy Beaker and Basil Brush) and acquisitions that, until recently, might have appeared on Nick or Disney (Even Stevens).

The importance that the BBC places on CBBC is underlined by the fact that it has commissioned two extra weekly episodes of flagship magazine show Blue Peter exclusively for the channel. Airing three times a week on BBC1′s afternoon block, the series also started running daily on CBBC in September. ‘CBBC and CBeebies offer a mix of programs, and it’s that diversity that makes them stand out,’ says Prior. ‘But we are now looking to commission longer runs of shows for stripping on the digital channels. We’re always trying to make the schedules clear and easy to navigate. That’s not easy with a mixed-genre service – particularly as we try to ensure that our four services complement each other at any point in the day.’

While the U.S.-owned competition is formidable, the BBC has also been boosted by last year’s introduction of Freeview, a BBC-backed digital terrestrial platform that provides an alternative to SkyDigital and digital cable. Although Freeview does not offer premium content like movies or sports, the fact that it’s free (after a one-off US$100 spend on hardware) has made it hugely popular among consumers who don’t want to sign up for pay-TV packages.

Already in four million homes, the significance of Freeview is that the only children’s channels it carries are Cbeebies and CBBC. Although Freeview doesn’t offer carriage fees, its rapid growth means the BBC’s channels have access to far more homes than their rivals – a fact that has boosted its viewing share from 2.79% of four- to 15-year-olds in multichannel homes excluding Freeview, to 5.2% including Freeview.

Many non-BBC children’s channels would love to get into Freeview homes to grow their ad sales and create the mass exposure that feeds off-screen brand exploitation. But signing up with the BBC-backed platform would sour their dealings with Sky, which does kick back carriage fees. So until Freeview is in six to seven million homes, the need to protect pay-TV revenues will outweigh the benefit of wider reach. In the meantime, Sky-based channels also have to put up with the fact that every new Freeview home is also, potentially, a home lost to Sky.

While public money and cross-promotion between platforms have enabled the BBC to compete with U.S.-backed channels, its main rival CiTV has found things much tougher. With Disney, Viacom and Turner all able to pack their schedules with U.S. shows, and with the BBC cushioned by its license fee, CiTV is seriously considering striking up a strategic alliance with either Nickelodeon or Disney. Although no deal has been forged yet, it could cover anything from co-production and cross-promotion, to first-look deals on shows and blocks on each other’s networks.

While CiTV is keen to cut a deal, it has not reduced its commitment to original production, says channel editor Estelle Hughes. ‘We have a lot of strong drama coming through in the fall because it’s a genre that gets good ratings and can create a distinctive voice from the digital networks.’ New entries that fit this bill include Help I’m a Teenage Outlaw (from Andy Watts, creator of hit show My Parents Are Aliens) and My Life as a Popat, a comedy-drama from Feelgood Fiction that addresses unique mixed-family issues by centering on a British-Asian clan. CiTV is also bringing the reality phenomenon to kids with Scary Sleepover, a show from Granada and Wised Up TV in which a group of kids try to maintain their nerve in a simulated haunted house.

In animation, fall comprises a mix of acquisitions and original shows, says Hughes. Engie Bengy (Cosgrove Hall), Fun Song Factory and Meg and Mog will return in the preschool lineup. For older kids, ITV has bought CGI series Pet Alien from Mike Young Productions and Breakthrough Animation’s Atomic Betty. Hughes is quick to stress, though, that the net is still committed to commissioning the bulk of its schedule for older viewers, and she expects Zenith Entertainment’s King Arthur’s Disaster to be a strong comedy for spring 2005.

The growth of multichannel TV also makes life tough for Five, a free-to-air network with a 7% share. But children’s controller Nick Wilson has defied the odds with smart acquisitions, a bold co-pro strategy and creative scheduling, which have helped establish the channel’s Milkshake block as a trusted preschool destination.

Looking ahead to late 2004 and early 2005, Wilson plans to keep the flow of new preschool product coming through with shows like Sunny Patch Friends (Nelvana/

Absolutely), Bottletop Bill (Southern Star), Woolamaloo (Scottish Media) and Fifi and the Flowertots, the new stop-motion series from Bob the Builder creator Keith Chapman. ‘We’re always on the look-out for high-quality shows where we can come in as a co-pro partner,’ says Wilson. ‘We’re working a lot more with Australian and Canadian partners because they produce great shows at competitive prices.’

Perhaps the biggest scheduling move Five has made recently is the launch of NGA (No Girls Allowed), a new Saturday morning strand for boys: ‘When we launched our preschool block, it was because we sensed a gap in the market,’ says Wilson. ‘The same is true with NGA; it looked as though the other free-to-air networks were not focusing so directly on boys.’ NGA houses toons like Beyblade, Beast Wars, Excalibur and Duel Masters (licensed from Entertainment Rights for use this fall). The block is anchored by a live 15 x 45-minute show from Two Hand Productions called No Girls Allowed, which is dedicated to boy-appealing subjects like tanks, sporting skills and BMX biking. ‘The show is physical, outdoors and full of facts for boys six to 12,’ says Wilson.

As he turns his attention to the 2005/2006 season, Wilson will be looking for more young comedy dramas in the same vein as The Snobs and The Ice Cream Machine. ‘We’re also aware that our analogue advantage is slowly eroding because of the growth of digital penetration. So I’d like to explore ways of taking brands like Milkshake into the digital world,’ he adds.

Although the major thematic channels can draw on deep reservoirs of popular U.S. content, intense competition means they also need to invest heavily to sustain their share. Turner has new shows coming through on all of its kids networks this fall, says channel chief Richard Kilgariff. Key titles for Cartoon include season two of Cramp Twins (TV-Loonland) and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (created by Craig McCracken, of Powerpuff Girls fame), while Toonami will headline Megas XLR and Transformers Energon.

Kilgariff says his strategy is to ‘retain our position as the number-one family of kids channels, but create distinct propositions for different segments of the kids audience.’ While flagship shows play a key part in this strategy, Kilgariff is a strong believer that the connecting tissue between toons is a vital point of differentiation in the multichannel market. ‘I don’t see a meaningful distinction between a programming and a marketing [dollar]. Our goal is to create content that develops unique personalities for our channels. If you don’t find ways to enhance your channels, you might as well be running a video-on-demand service.’

A good example of this philosophy at work can be found in Skatoony Truckatoony, a live/Flash-animated concept introduced late last year on Saturday mornings. ‘It’s like a toy lottery in which kids register to win a truckload of toys delivered to their door,’ says Kilgariff. ‘Ratings increased by 80% between January and May 2004, suggesting that there are better ways to create appointments-to-view than just adding another long-form show.’

Mechanics that encourage viewer retention are also favored by Nickelodeon UK, says channel chief Howard Litton. ‘It’s very competitive, so we’re all looking for ways to keep kids watching our channels for longer. We’ve done research that suggests that we have been able to hold onto viewers with free interactive games that run across ad breaks, so I’ll be looking at the data this fall to see how we can take this strategy forward.’

Litton’s assessment of the market is that Nick, Turner and the BBC nets are pretty even. But he accepts that the flagship Nick channel has not been pulling its weight lately and is taking steps to correct the imbalance. ‘We’re recharging the brand and refocusing it on a slightly younger audience – more nine- to 10-year-olds than 11-year-olds. Nick has been much more on par with Nicktoons and Nick Jr., but we want it to be the clear flagship brand, attracting around 50% of our overall ratings.’

This fall, the big addition is live-action series Drake and Josh, which Nick hopes can replicate the success of Kenan and Kel, a mainstay for the channel in both the U.S. and U.K. (both shows were created by Dan Schneider). Nick is also investing in a bunch of domestic live-action pilots for the 2005 season – including one with indie producer Endemol.

Nick’s stable of top-performing toons from the U.S. tend to air across Nick and its sister channel Nicktoons, which is performing well against the likes of Toon Disney and CBBC (see ratings charts). Danny Phantom, a series from Fairly OddParents creator Butch Hartman about a 14-year-old half ghost/half boy, will be a headliner on Nicktoons this fall, says Litton, who believes it has the same style and sense of humor that has made FOP such a hit with Nick viewers. He’s also hoping that 2005 is the year SpongeBob SquarePants breaks through in the U.K., a prospect made more likely by the imminent launch of the first SpongeBob movie in Q4.

Preschool net Nick Jr. has been performing well since last year, when Litton focused the schedule around a dozen core shows and put renewed energy into interstitials. The channel has scored a 2.56% overall share of four- to 15-year-olds for the first half of 2004. Although he remains mum on the details, Litton is brewing a schedule event based around Dora The Explorer for fall, with 25 new episodes and several promotions planned.

While Cartoon and Nick seek to fortify their positions, Jetix is the raider at the gate looking to catch up with the market leaders. In recent months, the channel has done well by playing to its strengths, says U.K. director of acquisitions and scheduling Nathan Waddington: ‘Our audience has grown rapidly since our decision to focus firmly on seven- to 15-year-old boys, with kid ratings for January to June 2004 up 43% over the same time last year.’

Waddington says the turnaround started in April 2003, when Jetix stopped trying to attract girls and instead put all of its muscle behind a raft of action-oriented shows including Jackie Chan Adventures, Totally Spies!, Sonic X, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and classic Marvel titles Spider-Man, X-Men and The Hulk. Hoping to keep the ratings momentum up, Waddington is betting on Marathon’s Martin Mystery, which combines the dark, supernatural appeal of X-Files with Men in Black’s sense of humor in an animated package reminiscent of Totally Spies!, which has been one of the network’s strongest performers. Jetix is hoping to expand its comfy relationship with Marathon over the course of a three-year co-production deal the two companies signed earlier this year.

Sonic X and Megaman NT Warrior will take center stage in the new Jetix breakfast block that launches in Q4, and Waddington expects exports from the U.S. Jetix block to play a greater role next year, with Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! as the first title to cross the pond in time to air sometime in Q1 2005.

Going forward, a big theme for Jetix will be the extension of its brand: In Q4, the block will move to weekday mornings (6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.) and weekend afternoons (3 p.m. to 8 p.m.) before the full rebrand is implemented in Q1 2005. With the block currently attracting 44% more viewers than the same airspace did this time last year, Waddington is confident his audience will be comfortable with the switch.

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