Cablers test U.K. market

Before they launch in the United Kingdom this fall, the latest batch of American cable channels to cross the Atlantic must find the answers to some tough questions.

For example: Is a “family” the same thing in Britain as it is in the United States? Does the American word “nickelodeon” mean anything to British kids? And does anyone in Britain have a clue who the Jetsons are?

Wrestle with challenge

Such cross-cultural riddles are currently being puzzled over by exex from the Family Channel, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network/TNT, as they wrestle with the challenge of adapting their American program concepts to suit the tastes and viewing habits of British audiences.

While Family and Nick attempt to translate themselves as convincingly as possible into authentic British channels, the Turner team working on the European versions of Cartoon and TNT are clinging fiercely to their American identity.

But all four channels share the conviction that their original creative formats, although developed for the very different U.S. market, have a universal appeal, which will be welcomed by British viewers and will add something fresh to the U.K.’s rich and varied TV culture.

This belief has been strengthened by the extensive market research they have been carrying out in recent months.

“We came to the U.K. thinking we would have to do a major rewrite of our ideas and philosophies, but we’ve really been pleasantly surprised,” said Mike Quintana, Family Channel’s European business development manager.

“We always had this fear of being the ugly American, trying to do things our way and then finding we’d done it wrong, so we’ve all been very sensitive and open to the way the British do things. But we found that families in the U.K. are concerned about pretty much the same things as families in the U.S.”

‘Kid-tested…kid approved’

James Baker, the British program director of Nick U.K., said, “The most important thing I’ve learned is that we must give Nickelodeon its own identity in Britain without forgetting what the channel has learned in America, that everything has to be kid-tested and kid-approved.”

The Family Channel, Nickelodeon, TNT and Cartoon Network are due to start transmitting via the Astra direct-broadcast satellite by the end of September, followed Oct. 1 by the QVC home shopping service. Late last month, Nickelodeon parent MTV Networks announced plans to launch British versions of Nick at Nite and music channel VH-1 in early ’94.

The challenge is to steal viewers from the established terrestrial networks, which have the advantage of huge expenditure in British program production tailored precisely for domestic audiences.

Local flavor

Hence the attempts by Family and Nick to introduce a strong British flavor into their planned services. Family started by acquiring a U.K. company, the former ITV station TVS, which has local studios and a solid program library. Nickelodeon formed a joint venture with British Sky Broadcasting. Both have hired program chiefs from ITV — indeed, Family’s entire U.K. staff has only two Americans.

By contrast, Cartoon/TNT Europe is being programmed from Atlanta, with London-based general manager Sue Kroll responsible primarily for sales and marketing. The Turner channels will, for the foreseeable future, be 100% pure American, drawn from the company’s extensive library, although Kroll said the plan is to add some local programming eventually.

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