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Kid properties take new shape to drive revs

Weak ad market has producers looking to sell to non-U.S. markets first

HOLLYWOOD — When boy genius James Isaac Neutron was but a glimmer in the eyes of execs at Nickelodeon, television was not the first priority. Neutron first emerged online, then showed up in a theatrical release, “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” garnering an Oscar nom and $80 million at the U.S. box office.

Those early train stops provided Nickelodeon with the marketing clout to pre-sell a series with a slightly more elaborate title, “The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” to networks in 28 key international markets before it showed up on Nick’s flagship channel in the U.S.

Kicking off a product with a splashy movie release isn’t about to become a run-of-the-mill occurrence at Nickelodeon — or probably any other media company. But it’s one example of the changes afoot for North American producers and distributors of children’s programming.

Kathleen Hricik, MTV Networks Intl. exec VP, explains: “For us, it’s no longer about the selling of TV programming for top dollars. As a kid’s distributor, it’s become more about thinking of our programs as a property. That’s a significant change in our thinking.”

Clearly, there’s never been a better time for kids TV series to ride on the coattails of another popular product.

Crazy like a Fox

New York-based 4 Kids Entertainment can look forward to some added marketing clout at Mip due to its Fox Box Saturday morning programming block in the U.S. But even so, TV syndication is no cake walk.

Al Kahn, chairman and CEO of 4 Kids, notes, “It’s becoming more difficult to sell shows in different markets because broadcasters are trying to cut down on the amount of money they spend on children’s programming.”

That’s a direct result of the weaker ad market for kids shows — a situation that holds true in the States as well.

Kahn notes that there are some 1,000 episodes of kids shows televised in the U.S. every week — and most of the programs, if not all, are seeking overseas sales.

Five years ago, kids producers could expect to get 90%-100% of their budgets covered in the U.S. Now, roughly 60% of a given property’s revenue comes from offshore licensing, with the balance from the U.S., comments Joy Tashjian, VP of global sales and marketing for Mainframe Entertainment.

That’s one reason why another North American kids supplier, Mike Young Prods., squared deals for its “Pet Alien” series on TF1 in France and GMTV in the U.K. before finding a home for it Stateside.

“In this case, the U.S. is an aftermarket,” says CEO Mike Young. “That kind of situation is becoming more prevalent.”

The shifting sands have changed the raison d’etre of Mip for North American purveyors of kids content. Sure, selling TV shows is still important, but Hricik says one of her chief reasons for attending the mart is to discuss and square away licensing deals.

Similarly, Kahn says that he’ll be developing marketing plans for 4 Kids’ key products in various markets.

Certainly, there’s more give-and-take of ideas nowadays.

Cross promotion

“I think people are working more collaboratively now and are very interested in promoting a video to a CD-ROM to a TV show to a book,” says Linda Kahn, senior VP for New York-based Scholastic Entertainment.

New product at Mip from 4 Kids will include a special based on the bestselling book about a lost baby fruit bat, “Stellaluna,” as well as “Clifford’s Puppy Days,” which is a spinoff from Scholastic’s series “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” which in turn was spun off from another bestselling Scholastic book franchise.

As kids producers try to figure out creative solutions to their financial situations, there’s the danger that programs will be merely deal-driven and not creatively driven, notes Tom Lynch, CEO of the Tom Lynch Co.

“I think the world of kids programming has been in flux because of a lack of imagination,” says Lynch.

By extension, buyers may be looking for innovative children’s programming, but they tend to fall back on the tried and true.

Drawing conclusions

International buyers certainly have a great variety of content to consider — not just in terms of storylines and characters, but animation styles.

“Everyone is seeking out a different look, which is so critical to having a point of difference in your product,” says Tashjian. By mixing up the schedule with traditional cel animation, CGI, 2-D, cutout and flash animation, networks have the ability to bring the price point down.

Overseas buyers have additional clout because many times they can bring co-production deals to the table as well.

“There’s much more acceptance, both creatively and financially, of ideas from all over the world,” notes Scholastic’s Kahn.