Sellers fight for airtime in kidvid market glut

LONDON — The international TV market is awash with kiddie fare, particularly animation, and broadcasters have more than enough product in their libraries to fill their skeds for the foreseeable future.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for sellers.

Buyers are buying, producers are creating and distributors are clinching deals. The trick is to deliver the right product at the right time, and that comes down to luck rather than design more often than not.

So what caused the glut? Many major networks have existing volume deals and countries are producing far more fare locally. Additionally, children’s programming has not been the highest yielding in terms of ad dollars, so it’s never going to command the majority of the space on the networks.

Finn Arneson, VP of programming, acquisitions and development of Cartoon Network Europe, believes that there are specific areas suffering from oversupply. “There is a glut of programming in certain territories like France because of subsidies and there’s a glut of programming of certain types such as preschool.”

One such market, opines Arneson, is the U.K., which has traditionally been very good at preschool shows, so producers keep churning them out.

Chloe van den Berg, sales director of U.K.-based Entertainment Rights, which specializes in preschool fare, disagrees. She says that because there’s a new group of preschool kids every three years, and therefore a very quick turnaround, the business just keeps growing.

“We’ve still got new shows coming through like ‘Little Red Tractor.’ People wouldn’t be investing all this money if nobody believed it wasn’t going to fly.”

Much of the programming imbalance has been caused by Germany, which represents a third of the Euro kids market in terms of development and acquisitions. Many of Germany’s kidvid producers tapped the stock market and invested that money in programming without considering whether it would be picked up by broadcasters.

“It’s very hard to sell in Germany because there’s been a reduction in the number of timeslots and a reduction in budgets,” explains Benoit Runel, exec director of programming and acquisitions at Fox Kids Europe.

“If you don’t have an output deal or a volume deal in place, good luck, because you’re not going to sell anything. If you do, you’re going to make $10,000-$15,000 per episode, which is equivalent to Italy. Five years ago Germany would pay $20,000-$35,000 per half-hour,” he adds.

“The U.K.,” he adds, “is still paying respectable license fees, but it has never been a territory where there has been a lot of acquisitions.”

Indeed, across all territories, less is being commissioned, while existing shows that perform well are being renewed.

“Airtime is so precious that broadcasters must concentrate on what works creatively, and from a commercial viewpoint, what will get bums on seats,” says Greg Phillips, president of U.K.-based distributor Fireworks Intl.

Standards are also being raised. Companies are constantly being tested to come up with something that is creatively fresh, or at least a new slant that will get people energized.

“That’s a trend that isn’t going to go away,” notes Phillips.

To address the market imbalance, EM.TV, which was one of many German kids producers to tap the local stock market, has significantly cut back on the amount it produces.

EM.TV produced 22 titles in the last three years, but has adjusted to market conditions, producing just two to four titles per year. At Mipcom, EM.TV is introducing the new season of “Bear in the Big Blue House,” unveiling series “Timm Thaler” and returning with “Tabaluga.”

Germany’s RTV, another group to invest IPO money into production, says it will not be producing programming unless it has definite sales in its key territories or co-production commitments.

“That strategy created a lot of new programs, which now have a hard time finding an outlet,” says Oliver Kreuter, head of global sales at RTV. “It also means we can focus on two series and get them right rather than turning out 10 a year.”

Sander Schwartz, president of Warner Bros. Animation, agrees that it is a difficult time internationally for animation.

“The German market was a very important market and right now it’s in disarray and prices worldwide are falling,” he says. “But I firmly believe that if there is a secret to success in the kids business over the next few years it is to go to market with reasonable expectations. Come to market with a few shows at the highest quality possible. The cream will rise to the top.

“The days of producing 20 series are over — the demand just isn’t there. And, of course, you can’t produce 20 high-quality shows.”

However, Schwartz is in the enviable position of being part of a Hollywood studio, which has its own outlets, namely Cartoon Network and Kids WB, so he isn’t concerned with preselling series.

WB Animation produces two to three shows per year and has a regular cadre of buyers willing to take its product.

“Year in and year out they know we are coming out with two to four new series that are going to be of a certain quality and production value. But that doesn’t mean they are going to take shows from us every year,” notes Schwartz.

At Mipcom, Warner Bros. will be offering “Mucha Lucha,” about a school for masked Mexican wrestlers, and “Ozzy and Drix,” featuring a white blood cell and his sidekick Drix, a cold capsule, based on characters from the feature “Osmosis Jones.”

Also being lined up is “What’s New Scooby-Doo?” and “Baby Looney Tunes,” its first foray into preschool.

Brand recognition

Pitching a property that has had a previous life in either a comic strip, book, game or even feature film is more likely to catch the eye of a broadcaster.

Entertainment Rights’ series “Little Red Tractor” was based on a book with a strong fan base. Despite very little marketing the book sold 30,000 copies in the U.K. and 500,000 videos were snapped up. The U.K.’s BBC has commissioned the series for digital kids channel Cbeebies and will air it in 2004.

Joy Tashjian, head of broadcast sales at Canada’s Mainframe, says success in the kids biz is about sticking to three basic principles: good product, clever marketing and strong ancillary support.

At Mipcom, Mainframe is launching “Betty Boop,” the 1930s black-and-white cartoon series featuring the 1920s flapper.

“Retro properties are fine as long as they have very high marquee value,” says Tashjian.

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