One result of the recent sharpening of the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which mandates that stations now provide three hours of educational kidvid programming per week, is that U.S. distributors of animation are increasingly casting their programming nets over the Atlantic.
“We are looking more overseas because the nature of (Europe’s) kid programming is softer and more potentially FCC-friendly,” says Tom Kenney, president of New York-based Summit Media Group. “With all the pressure on stations to be using this programming, things that were available overseas — which were always passed over — are now becoming more appealing.”
Such is the case with “Oscar’s Orchestra,” a cartoon series produced by Britain’s Tony Collingwood Prods., which Summit is distributing in the U.S. in conjunction with Lacey Entertainment. “Oscar’s Orchestra” was originally dangled before U.S. broadcasters in the early 1990s, but was rejected at the time on the grounds that its focus on classical music made it too “educational” for wide audience appeal.
While he is pleased at gaining a U.S. audience, series director Collingwood is surprised to see the show carry an “educational” label. ” ‘Oscar’s Orchestra’ was never sold as being educational to the U.K.,” he says. “It was what it was, which was a television series using some of the best music ever written to tell fun stories. But without planning it, we seemed to have hit the FCC-friendly requirement.”
The perception that British and European animation is more educational can be attributed to the fact that Euro shows are often softer-edged than Stateside toons, and are as likely to be based on classic literature as comic books, videogames or recent hit movies. Collingwood puts it another way: “Things in the U.K. tend to be a little bit more laid back,” he explains.
“It has always been our editorial line to do softer, educational subjects,” says Maureen Sery, managing director of France’s Marina Prods., the studio behind “Mr. Men,” a series that will be imported to the U.S. this fall, also from Summit/Lacey. Based on the children’s books by Roger Hargreaves that feature simple characters who embody particular personality traits, “Mr. Men” was originally produced as 104 five-minute episodes for European television. The show will undergo a total repackaging for U.S. syndication.
Such reformatting, as opposed to simply dubbing in English-speaking voices, is often a necessity when bringing Euro toons to the U.S. “You can’t just take things in and put them on the air and say they’re ready for the States,” notes Kenney. “We’ve put three (‘Mr. Men’ episodes) together and given them new voiceovers so that each character is more identifiable, new music and we’re doing live-action wrap-arounds to tie the whole thing together. We’ve taken some raw elements and retooled it in significant areas to make it more suitable for this audience.”
Meanwhile, the Montreal-based animation packager, Mediatoon, plans over the next few years to bring a variety of French comic book characters to U.S. television. As a subsidiary of Belgian comic journal giant Editions Dupuis, Mediatoon can draw upon its vast catalog of characters and properties. “Dupuis has a very strong library of intellectual properties that exhibit the kind of programming characteristics that we find to be more and more of interest, not only in the U.S., but internationally,” says Mediatoon prexy David Patterson. “We have one right now that is in development between ourselves and France 3, and also with CLT and with an American partner, and that is the one we have high hopes for.”
While Patterson declines to identify the project, which is targeted to debut in 1999, he describes it as a family-oriented property with “the characteristics of a Dennis the Menace or a Charlie Brown.”
While Euro toons will no doubt continue to play a part in helping U.S. broadcasters meet the new Federal mandate, some experts point out it would be a mistake to look upon existing overseas animation libraries as cornucopias of FCC-pleasing shows, just waiting to be fed into the U.S. pipeline. Cultural differences are still a consideration. “My experience is that, more often than not, those programs are simply not attractive to the American marketplace,” says Lacey Entertainment president Brian Lacey. “The potential is in the future.”