Kids cable nets accent U.S. favorites, local color

Once upon a time — as recently as five years ago — children watching TV in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Australia didn’t have many programming choices. The situation was similar to what American youngsters faced in the 1960s and ’70s: Except for a full plate on Saturday mornings and a few scattered programs on weekdays, it was fairly slim pickings. U.S. exports to those overseas territories were few.

But as cable and satellite programming made deep inroads around the globe, the kid demographic has benefited perhaps more than any other in recent years.

Just take a quick glance:

The Cartoon Network is seen in more than 50 million homes overseas: well over 30 million in Europe, 10 million in Asia and 8 million in Latin America. And that was before a huge launch Sept. 1 in Japan. The network can already be seen in some 85 countries and has been dubbed into a dozen languages.

Nickelodeon claims about 30 million subscribers internationally to go along with its 70 million U.S. homes. About 20 million of those are in Germany alone (where it launched in 1995), with another 5 million in the U.K., 3 million in Latin America, 500,000 in Australia and scattered pockets in Scandinavia and Turkey.

The Disney Channel, despite being something of a late entrant into the international game, now claims six overseas feeds: to the U.K., Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, France and the Middle East. There are plans to distribute the channel to Italy and Spain starting in the third or fourth quarter of 1998.

Fox Kids Network is beginning to make a splash globally, particularly in the U.K., and the recent formation of Fox Kids Worldwide, uniting programmer Fox with producer-distributor Saban, was arranged with big international targets in mind. (See related story on Saban.)

There was a time, not too long ago, when programming experts might have been surprised to find such regional blockbusters as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon smashing across cultural barriers and roping in kid audiences new to the distinctly hip, energetic style that plays so well in the U.S.

Yet now, for example, there are no fewer than five kid-targeted networks (also including the homegrown TCC, formerly the Children Channel) playing in the U.K. on cable or satellite. Kids programming runs during mornings on the terrestrial (non-cable) channels, as well as via Sky TV.

Thus far, U.S. product is the clear winner, as Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network have dominated the U.K. market with nearly 5% of the comparatively small cable viewing audience between them. Since debuting, they have eaten into TCC’s ratings in a major way, taking advantage of TCC’s complacency.

The BBC, ITV and Channel Four have done little to respond to the newfound cable competition, despite their dominant positions in the over-the-air market. Cable remains a relatively small phenomenon in the U.K., comprising just 2.2 million homes, or 22%. And on average, cable and satellite programming totals just 11% of all TV viewing in Britain.

Germany is far more wired with cable than is Britain, with 19.5 million cable households and another 6.5 million satellite homes out of a total TV universe of 32.5 million. That means 26.5 million homes out of 32.5 million are paying for their TV, or better than 80%—a huge market. Both Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have done well there but have yet to surpass the audience of local service Super RTL.

In France, Canal J — the oldest of the kidvid nets, bowing in 1985 — has retained its edge with some 2 million subscribers, in part due to its availability as part of most basic cable packages. Disney Channel, which debuted in France this year, and the CanalSat and Teletoon digital platform remain relatively small presences. Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network have yet to debut there.

Customized programming

The secret to the overall early success of the U.S. kid cablers overseas is that they haven’t been afraid to tailor themselves and their message to fit the viewing tastes and customs of the juvenile viewership in any particular market. They follow a strategy similar to McDonald’s, which sells wine in its French outlets.

“We customize our strategy from market to market,” confirms Cartoon Network prexy Betty Cohen. “But there are certain constants that transcend barriers. Our programming can be seen in a lot of countries that have extremely different cultural issues and world views, yet we don’t really need to alter our lineup much to fit in.”

Nickelodeon has found a universal appeal in many of its programs as well, particularly “Rugrats,” “The Secret World of Alex Mack,” “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and “Space Cases” in the U.K. and “Rocko’s Modern Life” in Germany (despite the lead character’s unmistakably Aussie roots).

Yet, in each market, the companies have become skilled at mixing in indigenous programming that distinguishes it from Nick’s U.S. counterpart. In the U.K., for instance, Nickelodeon’s lineup soon will include “Renford’s Rejects,” a live-action series about a group of kids who decide to form their own sad-sack soccer team.

Karen Flischel, managing director of Nickelodeon in Europe, also notes that Nickelodeon has what it calls a global character lab comprised of fresh, original animated projects commissioned by each individual Nickelodeon channel abroad.

While it might appear from the style and content of overseas productions that kids in other parts of the world are less sophisticated than their American counterparts, Flischel insists that Nickelodeon doesn’t see it that way.

“We think that kids everywhere are savvy TV viewers, that’s a fundamental piece of the whole Nickelodeon philosophy,” she says. “We do a lot of research both before and after we launch in a market to see not only the preferences in kids’ TV viewing, but in their lives, as well. We want to get inside kids’ heads and understand them.”

TV-savvy kids

And to Flischel’s way of thinking, kids aren’t necessarily so different wherever you go. Certain universal truths about youngsters make it possible to cohesively program for them, regardless of territory.

“No matter what country you’re talking about, older brothers and sisters always say they are annoyed by their younger siblings,” she says by way of example. “And the younger ones always say they feel tormented. That’s universal. Another thing that’s universal is that kids love animals. The differences that relate to culture are relatively minimal.”

Minimal or not, those differences can’t be ignored by broadcasters and producers. One difference that U.S.-born kid cablers have grown to understand is that kids in other countries (especially the U.K.) are accustomed to having a live, on-air host to “guide” them through the programming day in 60-second and 90-second interstitial interludes. So Nick provides such hosts, as do the Cartoon Network and Disney Channel.

“It’s all just part of tailoring the product to fit what kids and families want,” explains Disney TV Europe spokesman Lucien Harrington from London. “Over here, it’s still a very young market, and everyone is still learning.”

Generally, however, the stylistic differences between U.S. shows and what young viewers are accustomed to seeing in their country works in favor of U.S. imports. For instance, Nickelodeon’s lineup of Nicktoons (including “Rugrats,” “Ren & Stimpy,” “Doug,” “Rocko,” “Hey Arnold!” and “Angry Beavers”) consistently pull solid numbers, no matter the territory or language.

“They’ve really put us on the map internationally,” believes Lisa Judson, senior VP, creative director and chief of staff for Nickelodeon Intl. “Kids in other countries like the fact that our shows are character-based, rather than being based on an action or toy line. We’ve helped revolutionize the animation market around the world. It’s far more creator-driven now.”

Conversely, while the Cartoon Network has found success cultivating such new original toon series as “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Cow and Chicken” and “Johnny Bravo,” as well as the older kid-skewed “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast,” it has made its international mark mainly via the classics route.

Such vintage Hanna-Barbera fare as “Yogi Bear,” “Huckleberry Hound,” “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons” may be old hat to most American kids, but for tots in Thailand and Brazil, they are as good as brand-new.

“We get huge numbers with ‘Tom & Jerry,’ ‘The Flintstones,’ ‘Scooby-Doo’ and ‘Popeye’ all over,” Cohen stresses. “When a show is made well, it just doesn’t get old. And a lot of markets, like Australia, already have a great familiarity with Hanna-Barbera characters.”

Cohen says her network is just starting to hit in Latin America and is doing particularly well in Argentina, Mexico, Chile and Brazil (where Cartoon Network’s programming is dubbed into Portuguese).

Nickelodeon, meanwhile, has clearly exceeded expectations in at least one market: the U.K. The network’s audience share there in June was a 14.2, in the again comparatively tiny cable universe according to Flischel, which beat both the commercial ITV and pubcaster BBC network programs in households that receive Nick.

“We’re finally getting enough penetration to start competing effectively with over-the-air broadcast,” Flischel adds.

As Cohen points out, animation is a safer bet than live-action when trying to move kids programming across cultural divides.

Animation’s advantage

“Being an all-animation channel puts us at a distinct advantage,” Cohen says of the Cartoon Network. “The other guys have a lot of live-action and gameshows and comedies. Those things don’t translate as well as cartoons.”

On the other hand, Flischel claims that children overseas often tend to look up to the American youngsters they see on programming from the U.S. webs, and that has helped Nickelodeon’s live-action programming perform well overseas, along with its animated fare.

“American TV has quickly become a big part of kids’ lives overseas, and it’s only going to get bigger,” she points out. “And quickly.”

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