Kids animation making bigger international play

Variety Junior 2011

Over the past several years, much of the focus in kids’ TV has been on the popularity of live-action programs, spurred by the success of such shows as Disney’s “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical” and Nickelodeon’s “iCarly.” But at this year’s Mipcom Junior, animation is front and center.

Animation is still important, still strong and still the easiest way to capture the broadest audience,” says Steve Greider, exec veep of Nickelodeon and program sales at Viacom International Media Networks. “Even if kids grow into live action sooner than they used to, animation still grabs the largest audience.”

The advantages of animation in a global market are many. The art form easily crosses boundaries, entertaining kids of all cultures and territories. The technology needed to produce animation has evolved exponentially, making it easier and more cost-effective to produce cutting-edge shows that include computer-generated effects, such as Warner Bros.’ upcoming TV version of its “Green Lantern” franchise, which will air as part of Cartoon Network’s new DC Nation block.

“Animation has always been at the center of our business,” says Jules Borkent, head of Nick’s global programming and acquisitions team.

Nickelodeon has several big entries to show off this year. One is DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness,” which is being spun out of DreamWorks’ successful animated features. That follows in the footsteps of another DreamWorks’ production, “Penguins of Madagascar,” which turned in ratings second only to Nick veteran “SpongeBob SquarePants” when it debuted in 2009. Another is “T.U.F.F. Puppy,” voiced by Jerry Trainor of “iCarly” and targeted at kids ages 3 to 8.

But even global brand Nickelodeon is looking abroad to complete its rosters, importing “Kikoriki” from Russia’s Riki Group and “Pocoyo” — about a small blue boy, his dog Loula and his other animal friends — from Spain’s Zinkia Entertainment.

“Until a child is modified by their environment, the same themes will work with kids all around the world,” says Maria Doolan, m.d. of brand and business development for Zinkia, which strategically developed “Pocoyo” to appeal as a global brand. Today, “Pocoyo” is in more than 150 territories and is distributed in many markets by the U.K.’s Cake.

Shows like “Kikoriki” and “Pocoyo” benefit from the challenging global economic environment, which is forcing established companies to look outward to find new programs. Tough economics combined with generous subsidies and tax breaks in territories such as Canada and France also are encouraging co-productions.

Historically, co-productions were something people talked about more than they did,” says Richard Goldsmith, EVP of global distribution for the Jim Henson Co. “In the past couple of years, it’s really become quite the opposite. They are something that’s very important to our business.”

Henson is bringing to Mipcom Junior 26 halfhours of “Pajanimals,” co-produced with Northern Ireland’s Sixteen South and U.S. kids’ network Sprout. “Pajanimals” pleasantly escorts preschoolers with songs and fun through all of their daily routines, from waking up to falling asleep.

Besides “Pajanimals,” Henson also is bringing new episodes of “Dinosaur Train” and “Sid the Science Kid,” known to U.S. viewers through their PBS airings. Henson works with Singapore’s Sparky Animation on “Sid.”

Clearly, the biggest reason to do co-productions are the financial incentives,” says Goldsmith. “You can access government incentives that presently are not available in the U.S. At the end of the day, when you look at your budgets and you can get 10% to 40% of your budgets from these incentives, that changes the economics of the series.

Co-productions also are important because your content can then often qualify in the EU and Canada as locally produced content, so you have more chance of selling your show locally.”

Several companies that typically have done all of their production on their own in the U.S., such as Cartoon Network, are now reaching out to producers in other countries. Cartoon Network is bringing “The Amazing World of Gumball,” its first show entirely produced in the U.K., to Mipcom after a successful U.S. debut last spring. “Gumball,” created and produced by French producer Ben Bocquelet, is about a boy whose best friend is a goldfish and whose stay-at-home dad is a giant pink rabbit.

One major kids’ industry executive recently said he felt that animation is dead in the business, but I think that’s a load of hogwash,” says Cake chief content officer and m.d. Ed Galton. “Mediocre shows are dead in the business. Kids know the difference between a show that’s really good and one that’s not.”

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