Grown-up dilemmas

Downturn in kiddie output hinders breakout potential

The 12th edition of Mipcom Jr. unspools this week amidst great uncertainty: too much product chasing ever more fickle, kids auds, and ever more antsy TV execs ready to let the ax fall on so-so shows.

There are 709 participants registered for the weekend sales bazaar, representing 367 companies from 49 countries.

Market organizers estimate that of the 790 programs scheduled to screen, 343 are new shows and represent a significant rise over last year.

Still, a difficult business climate is likely to temper any exuberance.

Warns Deborah Forte, prexy of Scholastic Entertainment: “There are slots available but they are programmed with the same programs all sharing windows. It’s not surprising that the number of overall kids programs has decreased 47% between 1998-2003.”

This shrinkage has contributed to a preschool market saturated with children’s programming. Further, market fragmentation is causing pubcasters around the world to target much narrower demographics.

It has become harder to garner a home run in this hit-driven business.

“There’s a lot of pressure on shows to get ratings more quickly. Broadcasters don’t want to wait,” says Forte.

Adds Benoit Runel of Jetix Europe: “People aren’t out there chasing after shows. They are looking for hits that bring ratings and ad money. There is no room for an average investment.”

“But,” says Helen McAleor, director of global programming for BBC Kids, “The biggest hits have always been big surprises that would not have happened without a commitment from a broadcaster to stay the course.”

Deals are more complex and there is less money from terrestrial TV to sweeten the pot. Brian Lacey, of 4Kids, says that it used to take only three or four transactions to put a deal together, whereas now it takes 8-12.

“We use to get $300,000-$450,000 per half-hour episode of animation. Now they budget $200K-$250K. The people who drive the business now are the 24-hour satellite services, such as Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney and Fox Kids.”

The buzz in the industry is that it’s hard to show a profit without off-screen partners. Mart organizers obviously got the message. This year’s slate of seminars and conferences focuses on the ABC’s of merchandising and licensing and will be led by industry luminaries, including a conference titled “Building Beyond the Box: Strategies for Licensing and Merchandising Your Television Products.”

At this year’s Mipcom Jr., animation represents the lion’s share of product screened with 557 programs, followed by drama (67) and education (59). What remains is a smorgasbord of genres that include culture, music, art, docs and feature films.

“It’s popular to put girls in lead roles,” says Estelle Hughes, editor at U.K.-based CITV (U.K.) and mentions “Atomic Betty” as a hot property in line with current action heroes.

Another animated series, “Jane and the Dragon,” also features a strong female lead whose challenges are more in sync with today’s kids than previous counterparts.

Another noteworthy series featuring a female lead is the BBC’s “Shoes Boxes,” a half- hour live-action/animated series. The show focuses on a girl who grieves over her mother’s death and finds herself in a secondhand shop where a cast of fantasy characters come to life.

“At the BBC we are committed to putting kids first. Everything we do, whether on the screen or as a licensing deal, has to reflect that,” says McAleor.

Capitalizing on its rich library, Warner Bros. is rolling out an animated version of the Batman franchise capped by a theme song by U2’s the Edge.

Says Sander Schwartz, president of WB Animation, “The challenge is to provide a fresh contemporary look and experience.”

Some producers are adopting defensive strategies in reaction to cutthroat competition.

DIC’s new animated series concept “Trollz,” based on the 1960s hit toy, will, for example, launch as an online community.

Says DIC topper Andy Heyward: “We’ve created an integrated tapestry. There is no other way to reach kids in such a cannibalized world.”