Cash-strapped U.S. outfits look abroad

HOLLWOOD — To the untrained eye, it may seem as if it’s business as usual, but tremendous shifts of power are occurring in the world of children’s television. As international entities invest in American companies that specialize in kids media, consolidation is reaching global proportions.

Texas-based Lyrick Corp., owners of Barney, are being acquired by Britain’s Hit Entertainment. Last year, Film Roman sold a majority stake to Indian company Pentamedia, the Jim Henson Co. was acquired by Germany’s EM.TV (and is now up for sale again) & Merchandising and Sony Wonder/Sunbow Entertainment was bought by TV Loonland, a Teutonic player that has also picked up Saerom Entertainment (South Korea), Salsa Distribution (Latin America) and Telemagination (U.K.).

In this environment, co-productions aren’t just a good idea, they’re essential. And they are often the ticket to getting play in key international markets like France and Canada where requirements for homegrown programming dictate what gets on the air.

China has joined that fold, requiring its domestic networks to run six Chinese cartoons for every four imported animated series. Asian and Pacific Rim countries are leveraging these kinds of mandates to change their roles from service providers to co-production partners.

This globalization is healthy as long as many countries are involved.

“The more international creative collaboration there is, the greater opportunity we have to create a global hit,” says Ken Olshansky, senior vice president, creative affairs at Sunbow.

Nelvana has operated globally for years with offices in the U.S. and Europe. The company was recently acquired by broadcast group Corus Entertainment, virtually guaranteeing placement of its shows on Canuck airwaves.

Hometown pre-sales are important to attracting international buyers, says Cathy Laughton, managing director of Nelvana Enterprises in London.

The company is currently pitching a new series called “Mo’Ville Mysteries” and is bowing episodes of book-based magic series “Redwall,” in anticipation of increased Harry Potter mania when the feature film and toy lines start rolling out. At the MIP mart, Nelvana will also be making a big push for “Medabot,” an anime-style techno-robotics adventure toon, produced by Japan’s Kudancha (“Cardcaptors”).

There’s no question that the hottest kids shows are those with marquee value. Buena Vista/Disney will be offering just one new youth series at Mip; “Tarzan,” based on the animated feature. This tried-and-true formula has worked well for the Mouse House with shows like “Buzz Lightyear Star Command” (of “Toy Story”), which airs domestically on ABC.

“Anything that’s tied to a mainstream feature” is popular, says Stan Golden, prexy of Saban Int. “We had ‘X-Men’ in the catalog when the ‘X-Men’ movie hit the screens internationally. We are expecting the same thing with ‘Spider-Man’ next year,” he adds, noting that Saban controls all of the Spider-Man series from Marvel.

“A lot of broadcasters are already knocking on the door wanting to license it for the first time or relicense it.”

After the growth of franchises like Rugrats, Nickelodeon is introducing its next property in multiple media from the start. “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” was introduced domestically in January in TV shorts that lead to online games. In December, he will appear in a nationally released animated feature film, followed by a U.S. TV series debut. Mattel has already nabbed the worldwide master toy license, and Nick is lining up international sales for fall 2003, to follow the international release of the feature film in 2002.

According to Kathleen Hricik, executive VP of international program enterprises at MTV Networks Intl., “The action component of this show is not something that we’ve done a lot of before but we feel there is a great demand for it.”

The property is designed to appeal to an older viewer than Nick has traditionally targeted.

“We have been trying to create programming that crosses demographics,” explains Hricik, calling the tween age group “an underserved demo” and predicting an increased demand in the international market.

Domestically, Nickelodeon is introducing a Sunday night TEENick block, featuring mostly live-action shows.

“The kids market is glutted with animated programming. There’s a shortage of live-action programming,” says Saban Intl.’s Golden.

The company will be bringing six new series to Mip, half of them live-action.

“Live-action family oriented programming is very much in demand,” says Golden, citing the new Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen series “So Little Time” as the one generating the most premarket buzz.

The Olsen twins also star in a animated series from DIC Entertainment.

Exec veep of creative affairs Robby London says: “We had bidding wars, and clients angry with us in one territory because we had not shown it to them first.”

DIC is also offering two new animated series, “Liberty Kids” and “Evolution.”

The company is enjoying its return to independence after separating from Disney late last year.

“One of the real advantages of being independent in today’s world is that we have the flexibility to stop and move and make decisions on a dime,” says London. “There are a lot of opportunities out there right now, the problem is the big companies are too slow to take them and the small companies don’t have the resources.”

Speaking of big companies, the merger of America Online and Time Warner has caused Warner Bros. to fold its TV, feature and classic animation divisions into a leaner Warner Bros. Animation unit. As a cost-cutting measure, Warner Bros. is not exhibiting at Mip this year.

Meanwhile, sister company Cartoon Network has opened a production studio in Burbank and is launching several new toons. Most anticipated is the one-hour series “Justice League,” based on the DC Comics property.

They are also introducing new shows “Time Squad,” “Samurai Jack” and “Grim & Evil” as well as over 100 new episodes of existing shows like “Dexter’s Laboratory.”

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