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Co-financing No. 1 kids priority

Freebie deal pays off for 'Sumos'

The three half-ton wrestlers starring in the cartoon series “Super Duper Sumos” may not stand out as purveyors of educational thought, yet the trio is providing some lessons for buyers and sellers of kids programming who are flocking to NATPE.

DIC Entertainment couldn’t get arrested trying to sell the show to American networks, says CEO Andy Heyward. But the BBC warmed to the show, which is a co-production with South Korean partners. When the BBC aired “Sumos,” it became the No. 1 children’s show in the U.K.

Even after that, DIC couldn’t make any headway Stateside, so it used a little leverage with Nickelodeon, which was vying for another DIC title, “Speed Racer.”

“We begged and pleaded with them to take ‘Sumos,’ so they did a four-week test,” says Heyward. Not only did the show best “Speed Racer,” but other cartoons in the same schedule block as well. So DIC did a year deal with Nick for “Sumos” — for a license fee of $0.

Unheard of deals more likely

Heyward calls the freebie deal an aberration, but one that could well become more common in the increasingly difficult children’s program genre.

Others tend to agree.

“Maybe you shouldn’t write about this,” says one distributor, “but everybody knows that sometimes you have to give shows away for free in order to get placement.”

Another perspective comes from Fred Siebert, whose company Frederator creates children’s properties for Nickelodeon.

Five years ago Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and, to some extent, Disney were financing their programming 100% themselves. But in these tight times, alternative ways of financing and producing projects are all at the top of their list.

Siebert notes that many U.S. buyers have reduced budgets for kids programming, from as much as $650,000 per half-hour episode two years ago to $350,000-$500,000 today.

Not every network is reducing kids programming or budgets. “Because we’re a 24-hour animation programmer, we haven’t seen our budgets cut. Our budgets have actually increased,” says Mike Lazzo, senior VP of programming and production for Cartoon Network. Even so, the net is looking at “every model under the sun” when constructing program deals.

Lazzo is seeing a rise in the popularity of computer-generated animation, while anime still continues to hold strong. Indeed, kids programming as a whole is experiencing a “creative renaissance” in the opinion of Tom Lynch, CEO of the Tom Lynch Co., whose credits include “Scout’s Safari” on Discovery Kids’ NBC block.

Financing creativity

Increasingly, however, the financing is as creative an exercise as actually making the show — and it usually involves international co-production partners and/or licensing partners (toy companies).

Pinpointing those players are key reasons for children’s program sellers to attend the National Assn. of Television Program Executives confab.

“Financing is where the whole U.S. business is shifting, but it’s what the European market has been doing for 20 years,” says David Ferguson, London-based president and chief operating officer of core activities for TV-Loonland, which specializes in kids fare.

The growing importance of merchandizing certainly has its critics.

“It feels in many ways like we’ve come full circle, and we’re back in 1985. A lot of stuff on the air is toy-based, derivative boy-only shows,” complains Cyma Zhargami, exec VP and general manager of Nickelodeon.

Zhargami is certainly benefiting from the impact of ancillary revenue — either when Nick merchandises products tied to its owned shows or when it picks up a show for nothing, like “Sumos.”

“DIC seemed to have its own reasons for wanting to get it on the air. It was an unusual deal,” she says. What’s paramount for Nick is to schedule shows that kids want first and foremost, so that the content is the driving force, not merchandise.

Suppliers may agree with that view, but they also must deal with a tough economic scenario.

“The broadcast license fees would pretty much cover the entire cost of production four or five years ago. You would look at merchandise as your profit center. But now we look at merchandising as a way to cover the cost of production,” explains Joy Tashjian, VP of worldwide sales and marketing for Mainframe Entertainment, a Vancouver-based company that specializes in computer animation.