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Kids fare ready for play

Toons look to tap 'Power' from predecessors

HOLLYWOOD — Big players like Saban may no longer be on the children’s TV landscape, but many of the familiar U.S. and Canuck players will be peddling their wares at Mip TV, and there’s no shortage of shows hoping to become the next “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”

“We’re beginning to see the consolidation of the marketplace internationally,” says Toper Taylor, prexy of Nelvana Communications.

“Many indie production companies weren’t able to survive the vertical integration,” he continues. “We’re also facing the drying off of the once-booming German marketplace.”

On top of the Canuck toon shop’s list is Japanese anime series “BeyBlade,” which comes complete with a best-selling Hasbro spinning-tie merch tie-in. The company also is offering a new animated series based on the Berenstain Bears, the hugely popular children’s brand that has sold more than 260 million books worldwide. The show will be making its debut in the U.S. on PBS in January.

The company will be targeting an older audience with another series, “Clone High,” a joint venture with MTV. Created by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, this sly new toon features DNA clones of Lincoln, Cleopatra, JFK and Joan of Arc as they face the trials of life in high school.

Traveling popularity

A property’s popularity in the U.S. may boost the chances of its performance overseas. That’s the raison d’etre behind MTV’s bringing “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Invader Zim” to the mart this year: Both toons have strong track records on Nickelodeon.

“For us, both Mip and Mipcom are vital launch platforms,” notes Kathleen Hricik, MTV’s exec VP of international programming. “Mip is the perfect time for us to introduce a series because we have both the material and the press info to provide the buyers.”

MTV also is offering a complete marketing package with the “Jimmy Neutron” series, timed to maximize the potential of the property with the release of the Oscar-nominated computer-animated movie overseas.

“Buyers are weary of flash-in-the-pan fads,” says Hricik. “They want shows that have strong off-air components which will ensure their longevity.”

Another way to ensure aud exposure to a kids show is to base it on a real-life personality. Mainframe Entertainment (“ReBoot,” “Action Man”) is bringing a new computer-animated series centering on famous skateboarding champ Tony Hawk.

“Programmers are facing a serious age compression in the business,” says Joy Tashkian, Mainframe’s head of distribution and merchandising. “We’re losing the kids as early as 8 or 9 years old. That’s why we think ‘Tony Hawk’ would be a good way to target a … n older demographics.”

The Canuck computer graphics house also is introducing “Dot’s Bots,” another new animated franchise, which features a 14-year-old girl who creates her own robots.

“The show skews as young as 6, but it’s designed to pique the interest of girls as well as boys,” says Tashkian. “The robots help the heroine with her makeup and boyfriends and problems at school, and that’s kind of a new take on your usual robot cartoon.”

Ambitious slate

U.S. toon outfit DIC Entertainment, which recently announced a deal with Nickelodeon to produce 39 full-length animated telepics in the next three years, will be bringing its ambitious slate to the market. The films will feature familiar characters such as Inspector Gadget, Sabrina the Witch and Dennis the Menace. DIC prexy-CEO Andy Heyward says that the first 13 toons will be ready by the fall.

“We’re all trying to offer properties that have marquee value,” says Heyward. “As a result of consolidation, the sinking market in Germany, the falling revenues in Brazil, and the financial crisis in Argentina, people are looking for more reliable material. The global marketplace is one big tapestry: Every time there’s a problem in one territory, you really feel its impact everywhere else.”

Despite all the turmoil, Michael Jacobs, senior VP of international sales at Porchlight Entertainment, claims his company is busier than ever.

“There’s a hunger worldwide for family and children’s programs. Vertical integration has squeezed the programmers, so more often they’re open to nontraditional ways of doing things. They are more willing to let us keep international distribution rights.”

Porchlight, which produces the popular series “Jay Jay the Jet Plane” (a strong performer Stateside on PBS), also will be taking new animated movie “The Haunted Pumpkin of Sleepy Hollow” to the mart.

Although many of the sellers try to put a positive spin on the state of the business, they all share the belief that American producers and distributors have had to become much more aggressive and savvy with their global pitches.

“Many of the foreign markets have become key producers of their own children’s products, and they also export a lot of their shows,” says Mainframe’s Tashkian. “The trick is to learn to work closely with foreign broadcasters to reap the benefits of co-production laws and secure broadcast space in foreign territories.”

As Tashkian points out, “The Teletubbies,” “Thomas the Tank Engine,” “Pokemon” and “Power Rangers” — some of the biggest kids shows of the past decade — have all been imports.

“Bottom line is no matter what, there will always be an opportunity for a well-designed, creative kids program. Children will find it and come back to it.”

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