Eyes on the Prize

Andy Fry hears from leading commissioners at global and local channels about budgets, wish lists and digital initiatives.

From the global pay-TV behemoths to market-leading commercial channels and pubcasters, the pressure has never been greater for programmers to deliver compelling, engaging content for kids amid heightened competition from OTT, YouTube and a million other digital distractions.

The good news for content makers and distributors is that, for the most part, channels have maintained their levels of investments in children’s programming.

“Lagardère Active’s youth channels are profitable,” reports Caroline Cochaux, managing director of TV at the French channels operator and president of its DTT service Gulli. “Gulli is in the top three most profitable DTT channels. Each year we invest 10 percent of our turnover in animation, including linear and nonlinear rights. This is a good performance in a market transformed by digital developments.”

Sebastian Debertin, the head of fiction, acquisitions and co-productions at German kids’ pubcaster KiKA, says budgets have not changed—but there is additional pressure because digital activities need to be financed with the existing pot of money.

Jackie Edwards, the head of acquisitions and independent animation at BBC Children’s, reflects a similar sentiment when she states, “Our budget for acquisitions and independent animation has stayed the same over the last few years, but there is more funding for digital commissions.”

All kids’ linear channels have stepped up their online and on-demand activities to keep up with constant changes in viewing habits. So securing as many rights to a show as possible is crucial.

“Consumer patterns are changing and we must adapt,” Cochaux notes. “We have learned to work with new [platforms], such as Netflix and YouTube. For example, our DreamWorks series have the first window on Netflix before arriving as linear exclusives on Gulli and Canal J. These series remain very efficient on our channels despite this first window. We are also present on YouTube with thematic channels that sometimes promote programs even before they are launched on linear.”

“We know we need to be everywhere our young, mobile fans are, so we don’t manage linear and nonlinear rights separately,” says Layla Lewis, the senior VP of global acquisitions and content partnerships at Nickelodeon. “The management of different rights creates opportunities for us to program across an entire ecosystem and also launch specifically focused, targeted and curated services, such as localized content unique to different markets in Noggin, our educational SVOD preschoolers app in Latin America and the U.S.”

Lewis’s view is backed up by Orion Ross, the VP of content, animation, digital and acquisitions, at Disney Channels EMEA. “The way we manage linear and nonlinear rights is continuing to evolve. The rights we take may differ dramatically on a show to show basis. If a series is a co-production, we may have the flexibility to share rights with partners. The biggest challenge is trying to make our deals future-proof.”

Frank Dietz, the deputy program director and head of acquisitions and co-productions at Germany’s Super RTL, adds, “One of our most important objectives is to reach kids on every possible content platform and to create sustainable excitement for our brands. We are strong believers in controlling the rights to our own IP and always try to gain rights for our own SVOD platform, Kividoo.”

As Dietz notes, investing in digital is not just about making sure you can window effectively—it’s also about developing content exclusively for nonlinear services. “We invest in digital content significantly—apps, short-form content, etc.,” he says.

“With the launch of Viacom Digital Studios, producing original premium digital programming is a big priority across all Viacom brands,” adds Lewis. “This is taking shape in a variety of ways, including the new JoJo and BowBow Show Show.”

Patricia Hidalgo, chief content officer for EMEA kids and international kids strategy at Turner, references The Heroic Quest of the Valiant Prince Ivandoe as a good example of how Turner is experimenting with digital formats. “The ten comedy shorts launched as part of an interactive web game. The ability to launch new content on digital platforms allows us to experiment with how we put content out and get almost instant feedback.”

As the market evolves and channels have to stretch their budgets over linear and digital platforms, partnerships have become increasingly important across the kids’ channel landscape.

Lewis explains that while Nickelodeon draws on a robust pipeline of shows from the U.S., the company can also be “flexible and partner with content creators in a number of different ways with different deal structures. A recent example is the prebuy acquisition we did for Becca’s Bunch from JAM Media, which we committed to very early on and then got involved in the production.”

Lewis says Nickelodeon is also developing a new CGI-animated series called Deer Run with iQiyi, China’s largest video streaming platform. “It’s the first time Nickelodeon has taken a Chinese original series from its conception stage. Overall, we are always looking for new ideas and formats that allow us to tell stories in a different way.”

Disney balances its in-house production activities with third-party collaborations, says Ross. “We create content by working with independent companies and studios across Europe. For co-productions, we work with independent studios in a way that lets them hold onto some of their IP.”

Expanding on this theme, Ross adds, “We have several financing models and every series is different. We always look to set up a co-production structure that gives us the biggest budget we can achieve within the constraints of how the series is financed. We have more competition than ever and we have to deliver quality content, but that doesn’t mean throwing money at something; it can mean structuring the production in a smarter way.”

Cochaux at Lagardère says her channel group is involved with a raft of collaborations with French and international animation studios, including Squish with Cottonwood Media and Bionic Max with Gaumont.

Debertin at KiKA also points to the importance of co-productions. “We are very happy to have teamed up with Komixx for the animated series Dog Loves Books,” he says. “For Christmas, we are also looking forward to Lupus Films’ The Lost Letter, which tells the story of an enthusiastic boy and a lonely old lady who share a love for Christmas.”

The KiKA exec also mentions Hope Works, a project initiated by BBC Children’s and Sky Kids. “Hope Works brings together broadcasters and production companies from all over the world to work on a series of short films for children aged 4 to 12. KiKA will work with Sixteen South on Rise, which explores the impact social networks can have on children when used uncontrolled.”

Regardless of the funding model, kids’ commissioners are on the hunt for an eclectic mix of ideas and styles.

“For CBeebies, animation, please—we are always looking for fresh, inventive concepts with great characters and compelling stories,” says Edwards. “We only prebuy for the preschool channel. For 6 to 16, live action and animation are always on the shopping list, as are shows with a strong female lead. We’re always happy to see non-pink girl shows.” Comedy is, of course, key, “but we’re also interested in a strong action adventure with a public-service heart,” she adds.

Comedy remains the focus at Cartoon Network. Likewise at sister channel Boomerang, Hidalgo says she’s “looking at classic, slapstick humor and less complicated characters and stories. Together with Cyber Group Studios, we have produced Taffy, an homage to the Hanna-Barbera style.” The focus at Boomerang, she continues, is “visually funny squash-and-stretch animation that we know is loved by the channel’s core audience target of kids 4 to 7.”

Cochaux also highlights comedy, but says Lagardère is “open to all projects, even the most atypical, as long as they match our values: openness, good humor and tolerance. We are delighted to find nuggets all over the world that represent our viewers’ diversity, whether in Rabat, Abidjan, Moscow or Paris.”

Concerning what Disney is looking for, Ross cites “character-driven and creator-driven comedies. Comedy is an essential component for Disney Channel and Disney XD audiences. Our focus for Disney Junior remains on storytelling that incorporates a sense of magic, optimism, adventure and, of course, humor. We are also looking at different formats such as short-form, limited series, mini­series and special events, because the standard series formats are not the only game in town.”

For Super RTL, Dietz has his eye on shows that are “not look-alikes and have a fresh fit in our portfolio.” The channel reinvented its programming lineup after it was forced to replace its pipeline of Disney content at the start of 2014. “As a result of that, we remain very active in every aspect of content sourcing,” Dietz says. “We will broadcast many originals over the next six months, some of which are co-produced or co-edited by Super RTL, and we have invested a lot of energy in the production process of these shows.”

At Super RTL’s main competitor, KiKA, Debertin is keeping an eye out for “appropriate, high-quality programs for 6- to 9-year-olds, although an outstanding preschool show could also make it on our shopping list. We’re putting a lot of effort into co-production because it is difficult to find appropriate shows that reflect today’s kids’ needs. Too often there are action-driven, violent boys’ shows or far too many  ‘pinkish’ girls’ shows on offer, which in terms of gender questions are very outdated.”

More generally, says Debertin, KiKA needs “kid-centric, character-driven, adventurous stories with a good portion of humor, reflecting issues like diversity. We are finishing the production and dubbing of Tib & Tumtum, a GO-N, TF1 and KiKA co-production that offers a wonderful new world for girls and boys. With Gerhard Hahn, we are preparing the first season of Mystery Museum. KiKA and Hahn Film are open to additional partners for co-production here.”

Debertin is also looking for new hits that can emulate shows like The Wild Adventures of Blinky Bill, Insectibles and Super Wings. “In other words, shows that have a great potential to work for the core target as well as reach younger and older kids with humor and adventure. We found Super Wings and Insectibles in Asia, so we keep a close eye on concepts from this part of the world. In general, KiKA is looking for appropriate, high-quality TV shows which we can co-develop, wherever they come from.”

While everyone is on the hunt for fresh, compelling ideas, there is still plenty of room on broadcaster schedules for shows based on existing IP.

Nickelodeon, for example, is launching Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which Lewis says “reinvents the franchise for a new generation of fans.”

Disney Channel has in the works 101 Dalmatian Street, inspired by Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel and Walt Disney’s 1961 film 101 Dalmatians. “Disney has a wealth of heritage properties, and that allows us to draw on a well of storytelling and reimagine classics for a new audience,” Ross says.

Cochaux at Lagardère Active is excited to roll out the Barbie animated series Barbie Dreamtopia and Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures via its long-term partnership with Mattel.

Even with the wealth of content, new and returning, on the market, there are still some things that are in short supply. Super RTL’s Dietz points to the limited availability of kids’ live-action “because the shows don’t have the same shelf life as their animation equivalents.”

Turner’s Hidalgo references a lack of “experimental content that incorporates the language and style of YouTube. That’s something we are focusing on at Turner. Our team in Latin America launched two formats that worked well, Another Week and Toontubers. We’re now looking at rolling these out across EMEA. We’re also excited to have our own Cartoon Network YouTuber in EMEA, Toony Tube (a puppet).”

Nickelodeon’s Lewis adds, “There is a plethora of serialized content, but we’d love to see something that works as standalone episodes and is fun and funny. We are always happy to partner early, so come and talk to us.”

Commissioners are also eager for shows that address pressing contemporary issues. “Diversity and inclusion are very much top of mind,” says Turner’s Hidalgo. “Relatability has always been key for us, but it’s great that we’re now seeing more and more diverse characters.”

KiKA’s Debertin says he wants to see “stories that capture kids’ attention while addressing diversity in a way that goes far beyond the gender issue. We need content that strengthens not only the self-confidence and self-awareness of children but also their respect for other people, no matter what culture, country or religion they represent.”

Pictured: Superights’ Pat the Dog.