Territory report: U.K.

The Beeb, ITV battle it out on Saturday mornings

LONDON — Despite a growing influence of U.S.-owned kids networks, the main funders of original U.K. children’s shows are still pubcaster the BBC and its commercial rival ITV. At present, the key scheduling battle is Saturday morning, where BBC1 has just launched a new magazine program, “The Saturday Show,” in a bid to overhaul its dominant ITV rival “SMTV: Live.” Like “SMTV,” “Saturday” will run for 52 weeks of the year in a brand-building bid.

The huge success of the ITV show is due in large measure to its three hosts — Ant, Dec and Cat. So it is no surprise that ITV kids controller Janie Grace has commissioned 15-minute daily comedy “Chums,” starring the three performers. Not only does this extend a successful franchise into ITV’s weekday kids block, it dovetails with Grace’s recent policy of stripping shows.

Aside from “Chums,” a key talking point this fall will be the head-to-head battle between “La 7,” BBC1’s third series starring pop group S Club 7, and ITV’s rival show “Star Street,” which features another up-and-coming tween band, AllStars. The latter show precedes “Chums,” creating a live-action block from 4:30 to 5:05 p.m.

Grace has been in her job for a year, having taken over from Nigel Pickard, who left to run the BBC’s kids department. As a result, she says, most of her fall series were actually commissioned by her rival before he switched channels. Dramas like “The Worst Witch,” and preschool animation such as “Merlin” (Entertainment Rights) and “Angelina Ballerina” (Hit) are good examples of Pickard’s legacy.

If there is a trend it is the growing interest in tween live action. Some of this is homegrown, like Granada’s “My Parents Are Aliens” (for ITV) and the BBC’s 13-part drama “Oscar Charlie” (BBC), about a boy who discovers his granddad is a secret agent feigning senility. However, key acquisitions targeting this demo include “So Little Time” (airing on the BBC this fall) and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” (a consistent hit for ITV).

Other BBC buys include “Rugrats” — which topped the ratings this summer — and “The Wild Thornberrys.” A more recent addition, bowing this September, is Sunbow’s co-production with Cartoon Network, “The Cramp Twins.” One of the BBC’s interesting commissions is a revival of U.K. kids classic “Basil Brush,” featuring a fox with a wicked sense of humor. Last seen in the 1980s, the Entertainment Rights-owned puppet will be featured in a family sitcom next year.

Among the other U.K. terrestrials, Channel 4’s main commitment is to Jim Henson Co. preschool series “The Hoobs” (a co-production with Decode) while Channel 5 has acquired Cartoon Network’s “Powerpuff Girls.” A shrewd move given that the show’s following is likely to be boosted by a theatrical release in 2002. Fall on C5 also will see the launch of “Atlantis High,” a teen comedy.

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