New distribution moves beyond kids’ play

Technology allows shows to reach more tykes than ever

For many in kids’ programming, the focus on digital technologies and evolving platforms is a case of been there, already doing that.

As with any new technology, the younger demos are inherent early adopters, so over the past several years children’s networks and producers have quietly worked to established business models employing multiple platforms such as video-on-demand and interactive technology.

The result is an industry segment well-poised to take full advantage of rapidly improving technologies.

“What has transpired in 2005 was that a lot of different distribution methods we’ve been hearing about — clamoring for on the one side and being scared at on the other — have now become real,” says Mar Vista chief operating officer Fernando Szew.

Global penetration

“I’m talking about VOD around the world and mobile content that is now just part of the general kids’ entertainment spectrum. The overall trend of interactivity allows for a deeper experience; television doesn’t have to be just a passive viewing experience anymore. … Here are a lot of shows that cross-promote not just the show but the lifestyle and the brand as well.”

Szew observes that because of the globalization of entertainment, there are new opportunities for content providers, such as selling animated hours as broadcast specials domestically and features internationally.

“We have had success with theatrical deals in Spain, France, Italy and Latin America because there are more matinees and smaller cinemas that cater to that audience in those markets,” he says.

NATPE is proving to be a healthy venue for such deals.

Szew explains: “It has turned out to be much more of an international marketplace. That is a function of the consolidation of the U.S. syndication market, making NATPE a smaller venue for domestic deals” and because of emerging overseas markets hungry for cost-effective content.

Emmanuelle Namiech, Granada Intl.’s head of kids programming, says not only are there more dedicated tyke channels thanks to digital, but that more traditional broadcasters seem to be setting aside programming blocks for children’s fare as well.

Namiech notes: “The last couple of years we saw a very high demand for a lot of preschool programming like ‘Pokoyo’ from major broadcasters and more commercial channels, probably linked to the interest in making a program work on air and off air with all the exploitation of ancillary rights and potential for merchandizing.”

While animation remains in high demand, there’s a new trend gaining momentum — formats for kids.

Mar Vista will be offering “Surprise! It’s Edible! Incredible!” and “Prank Patrol” as formats while Granada has had success with the gameshow “Jungle Run” and the science series “Big Bang.”

“But what’s difficult is that it remains an expensive area,” Namiech says. “Buying the format isn’t going to be expensive but making the local version is. If you have a kids slot and you can acquire a series of 52 episodes, it will cost you significantly lower than if you have to commission. So it’s a balance between what you can afford to produce and satisfying your local audience.”

As a result, formats remain the purview of the biggest networks in the biggest territories.

DIC is hoping to stay ahead of the technology curve by pursuing mobile platforms.

Matching media

“The convergence of technology and entertainment is going to be the story of the coming year,” asserts DIC CEO Andy Heyward. “We’re looking very seriously at how we can expand our presence on the telephone, which is the new frontier right now, just the way the computer and videogames were a couple of years ago. We have a number of brands that go all across these different media, such as ‘Strawberry Shortcake,’ and we’re looking at working at a more aggressive pace.”

Heyward says that age compression will put more devices into the hands of younger children sooner than ever before.

“It’s not unusual for 11-year-olds to have a cell phone. And it’s not just in L.A.; you see it everywhere. Ten years ago, a girl played with Barbie until she was 8 or 9 years old. Now it’s 5. Boys would play with Hot Wheels until 8 or 9 and now they’re out of them by 4. Kids are growing up faster; they are more comfortable and fluent with media and technology at a younger age. I think the phone is just going to be ubiquitous.”

But all kids’ execs stress that new platforms must remain rooted in the fundamentals.

“Content is content,” Heyward says flatly. “Whether you put them on television, the Internet, computer, videogames, telephone or whatever, you are still dealing with the same elements of drama that are timeless — crisis, conflict, character, jeopardy, resolution.

“Now, having said that, some of these new media lend themselves perhaps to different formats with those same characters and storytelling — you might want to see three-minute Webisodes or shorts on a telephone. But at the end of the day, you’re telling stories that need to engage people.”

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