Catching the next wave

Tyke tube panel looks at shifting children's landscape

The Panel
Jonathan Barzilay, general manager and senior VP, Toon Disney and ABC Kids
Donna Friedman, executive VP, Kids’ WB!
Michael Hirsh, CEO of Nelvana
Kathleen Hricik, exec VP, international program enterprises, MTV Networks Intl.
Marjorie Kaplan, senior VP, Discovery Kids
Mike Lazzo, senior VP, programming and production, Cartoon Network
Rich Ross, general manager & exec VP, programming and production, Disney Channel
John Wilson, senior VP and co-chief programming exec, PBS

The past year brought dramatic changes to the kids programming landscape in North America.

Fox Family Worldwide was snapped up by ABC, adding ABC Family to the ranks of Disney-controlled airwaves.

And a new pattern has emerged, the “subletting” of tyke-targeted timeslots, starting with Discovery Networks’ $6 million lease on NBC’s Saturday morning, with Fox trying to do the same (no takers yet).

There was also fierce competition for kids’ attention from computers and videogames and cost-cutting because of the recession.

To get a view from the top down, we talked to eight leaders in children’s television:

How will the consolidation of outlets and new commoditization of kids programming slots affect the business of children’s television?

Barzilay: Kids programming travels across borders better than almost any other kind of content, and that makes development more strategic than it has ever been, since shows are likely to air on multiple platforms in multiple territories.

Friedman: For Kids’ WB!, it should offer more product to choose from since independent program suppliers will have less shelf space and fewer alternatives for their shows.

Hirsh: If you are a producer with a significant catalog of animation, it represents a great opportunity. We think it creates an opportunity for a company committed to a specific category, in our case, kids.

Kaplan: For us, its 100% good news. It gave us the opportunity to partner with a broadcast network and get our fledgling kids channel out to a universal U.S. television audience.

Lazzo: Viewers will ultimately benefit from fewer, more focused programmers, and ad sales should improve as inventory tightens. One potential pitfall here could be a more conservative approach.

Wilson: For me, it’s less of an issue of how it affects the business as it is how it affects children’s television itself. For that you have to wonder if programming is coming from fewer and fewer sources and being distributed on more platforms, (are viewers) really being served.

Given the slump the kids business is in, do you think it will get any worse before it gets better? What happened to the boom of a few years ago? And is there a silver lining in this dark cloud?

Barzilay: The kid marketplace is subject to the same cycles as the larger economy, although it enjoys some resilience because parents will often buy for their children before they buy for themselves. In the meantime, despite the soft economy, the kid and family sector continues to produce hits; for example, the top three grossing films of the year are likely to be family vehicles.

Hirsh: We are ending a glut that was produced by too many people getting into the business a few years ago. The boom was on the financial market side — there were companies going public in Europe and getting values that were not comparable to what companies in the industry were getting here in North America. While they were in the money they produced too large a volume of production without traditional business concerns.

Hricik: Weak ad markets and the global economic downturn can curtail new channel launches and the production of new content but broadcasters can switch strategies and aggressively build on the strengths they already have … expanding their operations to include licensing and merchandising.

Kaplan: Look, the entertainment market is tough right now, and the kids market may be even tougher, but there are plenty of kids out there and they still watch what is for parents a terrifying amount of television. The kids audience is nowhere near as fragmented as the adult audience. The kids TV landscape looks a whole lot more like what the broadcast landscape looked like 15 years ago. For us, there really is no down side.

Wilson: As a buyer and exhibitor, I still feel like we have a lot of options open to us. If anything, as fewer program suppliers are being used by more distributors, it’s going to create a backup in the production flow that could come our way, because we’re an independent and we have more choices. I think where the economy is going to cause a ripple effect for us is that some of the paths of revenue sharing (i.e., licensing) will be lost.

Recently we’ve seen trends toward Japanese-import toons, teen- and tween-targeted shows, and mystery/adventure programs. What kind of programming do you expect to be hot in U.S. and international markets this year?

Friedman: I don’t like to predict trends as kids always surprise us. However, one area that may see an uptick is the fantasy genre based on the popularity of “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings.”

Hirsh: What’s great is that the demand for programming is broad today, in animation and the children’s area. The marketplace has begun rationalizing itself so that networks have different selling points, targeting specific demographics. There is greater diversity of demand than there ever has been.

Lazzo: A great computer-generated series is still yet to happen for television the way it has happened in the theatrical business, and I hope to see this begin to realize its potential in animation. However, to program or acquire for trends is a programming Achilles’ heel and tends to invoke the law of diminishing returns.

Ross: We are seeing the strength of live-action comedies and sitcoms as the U.S. broadcast networks depart from creating that type of programming.

Movies like “Shrek” and TV shows like “SpongeBob SquarePants” have been popular with adult as well as kid audiences. How do you see the impact of adult tastes affecting children’s media product?

Friedman: All the best kids shows have always had a layer of meaning for parents so they could enjoy the programs along with their kids. I think most of the kid networks will continue to keep their focus on kids and what they want, as we will, with adults being the icing on the cake.

Kaplan: For us the parents are the easy part. We know we represent an opportunity for family viewing. Our real job is to turn our attention to the kids and make sure we pay attention to what they want from us. It’s very easy to make the mistake of reading too much virtue into it.

Ross: Layering humor has always been and will continue to be a part of our business. The must for us is to appeal to kids first and then layer in humor that entertains parents. We have seen adult numbers climb for “Lizzie McGuire” and “The Proud Family” but that is because we feature families in the stories and not just the kids or other characters by themselves.

Wilson: That’s always been around. We try to connect with the kid and the parent, but you can’t always do that. Look at shows like “Barney” and “Teletubbies,” which have been so successful with kids. They are shows that parents just don’t get. But because we don’t approach our audience as consumers, we don’t have to be talking to the person that makes the spending decisions.

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