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Toons take a holiday as live-action powers Junior

Skeins aimed at tweens, teens become appealing int'l properties

As buyers and content providers prepare to converge on Cannes for the two-day screenfest Mipcom Junior, the biggest buzz is the lack of buzz.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of shakeout in the business and the broadcasters are buying more selectively now than they have in the past,” explains DIC chairman Andy Heyward. “Producers are keeping things closer to their chests.”

Even so, some loud murmuring can still be heard. While animation remains the primary fuel that powers kids television, live-action series aimed at tweens and teens have come into their own in recent years with programs such as “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody,” “Lizzie McGuire,” “That’s So Raven,” “Unfabulous” and “Zoey 101” becoming very appealing international properties. It’s a trend that’s expected to continue.

“We are hearing more and more that there’s growing interest globally for live-action kids and family programming,” says Disney Channel Intl. president Rich Ross. “As you’re looking around, there hasn’t been an animated hit in a while.

” ‘Yu-Gi-Oh’ (which aired in the U.S. on Kids WB) was the last big anime hit. The biggest animated hits internationally currently (are) Nickelodeon’s ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ and ‘Fairly Odd Parents,’ but you haven’t really seen a big hit after that. I think the market is starting to appreciate kids getting older and that’s why live-action programming is doing well.”

But attracting the upper end of the kids demo requires more sophisticated storytelling and authentic voices. It’s no coincidence the creative forces behind these shows happen to include many of the hottest producers in the children’s biz at the moment.

Among the shows expected to generate a lot of attention at Mipcom Junior is “Darcy’s Wild Life,” from Stan Rogow (“Lizzie McGuire,” “Flight 29 Down,” “State of Grace”), offered internationally by Granada. In the series, a pampered Malibu teen (Sara Paxton) must adjust to the culture shock of moving to the country. “Darcy” has become a surprise hit in the U.S., and Granada has high expectations.

MarVista Entertainment will launch “Makaha Surf” on the Croisette. Skein is from uberproducers David Brookwell and Sean McNamara, the team behind Disney Channel hits “Even Stevens,” “Phil of the Future” and “That’s So Raven.” Airing Stateside on Nickelodeon teen channel the N, the gritty series follows four girls pursuing their dream of becoming world-class surfers in a decidedly male-dominated sport.

Of particular note is that one of the writers on the series is former “Beverly Hills, 90210” co-producer Matt Dearborn. Likewise, Discovery Kids reality hit “Endurance,” a teen version of “Survivor,” was created by hot primetime reality producer J.D. Roth (“Beauty and the Geek,” “The Biggest Loser”).

Ross says more primetime writers and producers are migrating to kids’ entertainment. “The biggest change in the business is not so much the exec producers, it’s the writing talent. The kids nets have really come of age. We’ve had people coming up off of ‘Shrek’ and ‘Friends.’ ”

But while well-known producers can help generate interest in a show, content remains king, stresses DIC chair Heyward. “You could have a producer who brings you a discriminating cutting-edge product and the next product that comes from that producer is really cliched. We don’t look at the producer; we look at the product, the technology that is alongside it, the storytelling ability of the creator. In the end, it all depends on your product.”

The increased competitiveness in the kids market has prompted Heyward to adjust the way his company will do business this year, including doing some reconnaissance prior to the market.

“We’re doing a pre-Mipcom round where we’ll visit the U.K., Italy, France, Germany and Spain to see all the key broadcasters in advance in their own territories before we go to Cannes because there’s just not enough time at the market anymore. You have maybe 15 or 20 minutes in the little booth and everyone is rushing and thinking about something else. By the time you get settled, you only have a few minutes to try and do a proper presentation, which you really can’t. So this year we’ll just use Mipcom to finalize our deals.”

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