Diversity sneaks into kids programming

HOLLYWOOD – At the start of the season, more than 20 kids shows premiered on U.S. domestic networks and cable channels. With the competition for young viewers’ attention as strong as ever, the strategy that most programmers have subscribed to this season is to target programming to specific ages and cultural groups, and to incorporate more gender diversity.

“Just a few years ago the idea of having a show built around a female protagonist and appealing to both boys and girls would be unthinkable,” says David Hiltbrand, a contributing editor for TV Guide specializing in kids’ programming. “Shows for kids have become far more unisex, it’s leveling the field,” he adds, citing the WB’s “Jackie Chan Adventures” as one in which a female character (Jackie’s 9-year-old niece) carries much of the action.

The show was one of TV Guide’s top picks for new kids programs in 2000, along with the WB’s “Generation O!,” Fox Family Channel’s “The Zack Files” and “Real Scary Stories,” Nickelodeon’s “As Told by Ginger” and “Dora the Explorer,” ABC’s Disney’s “Teacher’s Pet,” and PBS’ “Bookworm Bunch” block.

However, Hiltbrand says, “This was not a particularly rich year for children’s programs. There weren’t as many new shows and what there was didn’t stand out.”

The non-profit watchdog org Kidsnet (www.kidsnet.org) supported many of lastyear’s new series in its Media Guide, lauding educational programming like PBS’ “Bookworm Bunch” and Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer,” but leaving out shows featuring violence such as “Jackie Chan Adventures.”

“We are looking for programming that has both educational and social value for children, that is age-appropriate,” says Karen Jaffe, prexy of Kidsnet, explaining that the organization’s researchers look at shows carefully to come up with its ratings and recommendations. For instance, she adds, “We spent some time looking at ‘Pokemon,’ and we couldn’t find anything redeeming about it. It was just a lot of fighting.”

While such rankings are helpful to generate interest in programs, it is the ratings that truly determine a show’s success. Most midseason programming decisions were made after the final Saturday of the November sweep, Nov. 25. The overall trend in kids programming seems to be “let it be,” due in part to the fact that so many shows launched well into the season.

Nickelodeon continues to rule the cable airwaves, achieving its largest average audience levels ever in 2000 and capping its fifth consecutive year as the No. 1 basic cable network among both kids and adults in total day.

Nickelodeon launched three kids’ series in the summer, including two toons, “As Told by Ginger” and “Pelswick,” and two Latino-themed shows, the live-action “The Brothers Garcia” in primetime and animated “Dora the Explorer” in its Nick Jr. preschool block. Dora has performed remarkably well with an average 9.5 rating among its target demographic of kids 2-5. Nick’s newest show “Tiana” also with a Latino theme, will launch on Jan. 14.

Nickelodeon’s reach has spread to network television, since its new sister net, CBS began filling its Saturday morning programming slots with a block of its programming, branded “Nick Jr. on CBS” last fall. Featuring “Dora the Explorer” and several other pre-school shows, the block has boosted CBS’ Saturday-morning rating and share averages more than 250% over prior-year levels.

Since PBS introduced the “Bookworm Bunch,” the pubcaster has seen a significant increase in weekend ratings. In the first week, viewership was up 67% among kids 2-5 and 65% among total kids 2-11. The block features six book-based shows from Nelvana (“Corduroy,” “Elliot Moose,” “Marvin the Tap-Dancing Horse,” “Seven Little Monsters,” “Timothy Goes to School” and “George Shrinks”) that will be available to international buyers at NATPE.

Meanwhile, Fox Family Channel has been successfully targeting the older demos, with science-fiction and reality shows like the new “The Zack Files” and “Real Scary Stories” (“Scary … But True” for the international market) that boosted ratings averages with kids 9-14 in their Saturday afternoon slots. The cabler has postponed the debut of its music-themed show “Da Mob” until summer and is re-thinking the strategy for another musical show, “The Hi-Fi Room,” after its lackluster July-November debut (“Great Pretenders” is airing in its place). The Fox Family Channel will soon be in the market to acquire programming, after Saban Entertainment sells its 49.5% stake in Fox Family Worldwide.

NBC is also targeting teens with its Saturday-morning TNBC block. Its new dramedies called “Just Deal” averaged a 1.4 rating in kids 12-17 last fall and the network has ordered an additional 13 episodes.

Fox Kids Network launched its schedule in August, with the return of “X-Men” and the continued run of Japanese import “Digimon,” boosted by the release of “The Digimon Movie.”

ABC’s fourth season of “Disney’s One Saturday Morning” introduced two toons: “Teacher’s Pet” and “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command.” “Teacher’s Pet,” a toon about a talking dog, has been critically acclaimed for its smart writing and adult appeal, posing the question of whether the show should make a move to primetime. For now, ABC is sticking with Saturday mornings at 10. UPN continues to run its Sunday-Friday “Disney’s One Too” block featuring the same shows in “Disney’s One Saturday Morning.”

The Kids WB! continues to have success with boys, especially with new shows “Jackie Chan Adventures” and “Static Shock!” But one of its original shows launched last fall, “Generation O,” has been performing erratically in its Friday afternoon “Fraturday” slot, so it may be replaced by “Men in Black,” which has a history of strong ratings performance.

Donna Friedman, senior VP at Kids WB! says, “We are No. 1 on Saturday mornings by quite a margin, so I am really proud that we are not making any changes yet.”

The network will launch two new shows mid-season: “The Zeta Project” and “Cubix.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more