Production values key in retaining youth audience

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Paris during Fashion Week might not be the first place you’d look for evidence of the popularity of U.S.-produced children’s television programs in foreign markets.

But Steve Grieder, executive vice president of Nickelodeon and program sales for MTVNI — who happened to be in town during the runway shows — was reminded of it with a quick glance at la television.

“I was in the office and someone said, ‘Look what’s on TV,’?” Grieder says. “Marc Jacobs, a top American designer, (is) on a major talkshow in France, and all they’re talking about is SpongeBob. When you’re in this situation, you know you’ve gotten somewhere with your character.”

“SpongeBob Squarepants,” the cartoon kitchen item who lives in a pineapple under the sea, isn’t the only beloved American character with a passport chock-full of immigration stamps. Contemporary U.S. youth programming is proving just as much a hit in foreign markets as the old classics.

To take just one example, “SpongeBob” delivered a 25% share on Spain’s Clan TVE, reaching 330,000 kids on average and making it the No. 1 program on the network among children 4-12 from January to July (according to TNS Sofres).

Older kids are watching too. Lately, live-action shows aimed at tweens have become so popular that they have turned into vehicles for international stardom. Disney’s Miley Cyrus of “Hannah Montana” fame toured the U.K. last summer and has performed for Queen Elizabeth, while Nickelodeon’s Miranda Cosgrove, star of “iCarly,” appeared at last year’s European Music Awards.

Burbank startup Hasbro Studios is so confident in the foreign market for U.S. children’s television that it is working on global sales for an entire portfolio of programs linked to familiar Hasbro brands like G.I. Joe and My Little Pony. Later, they’ll add gameshows and live action for tweens and families.

“People have grown up with these brands and products,” says Hasbro Studios senior veep of international distribution and development Finn Arnesen. “They’re already in the marketplace. What we’re doing is adding a layer of bringing branded entertainment to the world.”

So why is U.S. programming so popular with kids who did not grow up on apple pie and baseball but crepes and soccer? One answer: production values.

“You have to look at the Hollywood model — Hasbro Studios and all the other studios (have) high-quality, experienced production crews,” Arnesen says. “And if you’re delivering to a U.S. audience, the shows have to be to the highest quality.”

Hasbro tapped the deep Hollywood talent pool to hire Lauren Faust, an animator who helped create hits “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,” to reimagine the new “My Little Pony.”

Still, Arnesen adds that “there are parts of the world that are catching up in terms of their production values.” And Grieder notes that in general, European offerings have become more compelling.

“Over the last year, (it) has not been simply having people that work in Hollywood and people that work everywhere else, but sort of creating a bridge between them,” says Grieder.

Nickelodeon, which reaches 137 countries and territories, is developing new versions of programs that were smash hits in Holland, Italy and Latin America.

Appealing as foreign-produced kids’ shows can be, they don’t have a huge presence in the U.S., but the ones that do typically have sticking power. “Thomas & Friends,” produced by the U.K.’s HIT Entertainment, has been chugging across U.S. TV screens since 1989.

“Most of our shows appeal to the under-5 crowd, (who) don’t really have an appreciation of a British show or an American show — they just know what they like,” says HIT Entertainment exec veep, the Americas Pam Westman.

Enhancing a TV show’s presence by going beyond the screen is a U.S. specialty. “Thomas” has a touring stage show and attractions in many Six Flags theme parks. Disney long ago established theme parks overseas, and the recent world tours of their “High School Musical” stars attracted screaming fans worldwide. Consumer products like backpacks and T-shirts further establish U.S. shows in foreign markets.

But with more channels being created all the time, competition for U.S. programming will surely grow.

“The major significant change (in the past few years) has been in the prevalence of channels,” Arnesen says. “It’s increased competition. Now, in Europe, you’ve got some markets with 30-plus kids channels.”

Competition, yes, but also demand. And it isn’t just Europe. Arnesen just returned from an nine-stop visit to Latin America. In Korea, Nickelodeon has gone from being in 3 million to 8 million households.

“Asia is a big opportunity, and the emerging markets like Russia, Poland and Eastern Europe is another,” says Grieder.

Numbers don’t tell the full story. A show may not have as many eyeballs in a certain country, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t become an established presence.

“In the U.S. if you’ve got 2 or 3 million viewers, you’re doing great,” says Grieder. “In a lot of other markets, 100,000 viewers might be enough to push you over the top.”

That’s still a lot of “SpongeBob,” “Hannah Montana” and “G.I. Joe” backpacks.

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