New youth channels hit international TV's sweet spot

Kids’ nets grow globally | U.S. kid shows have firm hold overseas | Preschool programs cautious about 3D | Music-filled shows gain momentum worldwide | Long-running kids shows keep pace | Mip Junior was honey for ‘The Hive’

Kids programming, which for decades has been emerging from public broadcasting and Saturday morning blocks into the cable and multiplatform worlds, has hit a real growth spurt of late, with dedicated channels multiplying like bunnies.

In the United States, Hasbro and Discovery’s new joint-venture network The Hub is set to debut Oct. 10, Disney plans to convert SoapNet into a preschooler channel called Disney Junior in 2012 and BBC is working on bringing its popular CBeebies channel Stateside. Overseas, the growth is just as dramatic, with some nations boasting dozens of channels devoted to kids shows.

Such an increase means the demand for content is greater than ever, but the process for developing and acquiring it is a complicated one that has seen increasing specialization, financing challenges and a need for programs to fit into a platform’s brand while also appealing to audiences across the globe.

In the preschool programming world, CBeebies has seen dramatic growth. Founded in 2002 in the U.K., it has added channels all over the world and is working on plans to eventually bring its signal to the United States. Henrietta Hurford-Jones, BBC Worldwide’s director of investment for CBeebies, says the preschool space is wide open for new brands.

“There’s room for everybody to create a really strong space,” she says, “particularly if you’ve got a really clear aim and identity.”

Playhouse Disney Worldwide senior veep Nancy Kanter says the expansion of its preschooler block into the 24/7 Disney Junior means the network is working with a wider range of outside producers than ever. Making sure that content fits increasingly specific brands requires a great deal of cooperation as early in the creative process as possible.

“Everyone is specifying their niches more and more specifically; the mass general audience is not as important as it once was,” Kanter says. “We have very clear criteria for what are we looking for.”

Even well-established brands have found the need to evolve as the market has changed. Cartoon Network has spent much of this year launching new programs such as “Adventure Time” and “Generator Rex” and solidifying franchises such as the “Total Drama” series and “Ben 10,” while expanding its brand with reality shows and live-action scripted fare such as “Unnatural History.”

“We did a lot of research talking to kids, and they love animation but also embrace live action,” says Stu Snyder, prexy-COO of Turner Animation young adults and kids media. “I think, frankly, we should always listen to our audiences.”

Growth abroad is helping Nickelodeon generate shows to bring back to the United States, says Steve Grieder, exec VP, Nick and program sales, MTV Networks Intl. “The U.S. team is looking at the content pipeline with a much more global perspective,” he says.

He cites “House of Anubis,” which originated in the Netherlands, and “Isa TKM,” a telenovela-style show developed out of Venezuela, as examples of shows that are traveling well and being developed for American TV.

While the kids segment of the TV biz has been more resilient than most, it has not been immune to the global economic downturn. Toper Taylor, CEO of independent producer and licensor Cookie Jar Entertainment, sees resiliency in homevideo sales and merchandising even as ad revenues have declined, with makers of sugar drinks and products with trans-fatty acids having left the market.

The latter development has spurred an increased interest in older kids, prompting Cookie Jar to develop shows like the animation and live-action hybrid series “Mudpit” and teen sitcom “Decidedly Debra” that could appeal to the “iCarly” crowd.

“Rather than focus on the 2- to 11-year-olds, it’s now a 9- to 14-year-old or a 6- to 14-year-old audience,” he says.

Taylor says the overall production levels are down, as are cross-border co-productions, because producers have increasingly stayed home to exploit tax breaks. But with cash hard to come by, others see co-productions and going abroad as the only way to get a production off the ground.

“It used to be the case, certainly over here, that you could get a commission from one broadcaster and that would cover the cost of your production,” says Hurford-Jones. “The same is very rarely true today unless you’re talking about the really major studios, like the Disneys of the world.”

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