David Wood hears from leading producers and distributors about how to keep kids’ shows fresh—season after season.
Broadcasters and platforms want volume, perhaps even more so in the kids’ content space than anywhere else. And fulfilling that desire is no easy feat, given the costs and long timelines involved in producing animation. Not to mention that fickle young ones are quick to move on to the next thing if they aren’t kept engaged.
“It’s very important to be in a position to offer broadcasters volume on kids’ series, because they need enough episodes to build their schedules,” says Hans Ulrich Stoef, the CEO of m4e and Studio 100 Media.
“And 13 episodes, which was considered to be a respectable first season 15 years ago, is not enough for most broadcasters now,” Stoef adds. “If you have just made 13 and it’s a success, that’s great, but you can’t suddenly pull another 13 out of the hat. In my view, the best case for broadcasters is 52 episodes, and producers should be thinking in terms of 26 to 52 episodes from the start. For half-hour formats, we don’t do less than 26 episodes. And for shorter preschool episodes, we are looking to do 52 straightaway.”
Micheline Azoury, the head of acquisitions and TV sales at Mondo TV Group, reveals that most of the company’s shows are developed as 52 11-minute episodes. “There is an exception—for Invention Story we are committed, along with our partner York Animation, to 104 11-minute episodes for five consecutive seasons. This idea of securing five seasons of one brand for the next five years seems to appeal to quite a few broadcasters.”
And it’s not just the broadcasters who benefit. “A 26-part series takes the same effort to sell as a one-hour special,” explains Jérôme Alby, the managing director of Mediatoon Distribution, which distributes long-running TV brands such as Minimighty Kids, Yakari, The Garfield Show and Bobby and Bill. “And the production cost of the second season of 26 episodes will cost just 30 percent of the first season, so the economies of scale make a lot of sense. Another way of looking at it is that at the start, a show will cost €10,000 ($11,900) to €14,000 ($16,600) per minute to produce, whereas the 39th episode will cost €8,000 ($9,500).”
So when do producers start planning for those additional seasons? “Very early on,” says Claus Tømming, the managing partner at INK Group. “Thanks to the story-driven approach of our brands, we’ll have at least two (and sometimes three) seasons mapped out even before we even start presales.”
Obviously, it would be a mistake to do too much detailed development before season one has started and broadcasters have been able to gauge its success. For Jetpack Distribution CEO Dominic Gardiner, the end of production on season one is one of the most critical times for shows, because it’s the point at which many find their feet.
“As the producer, you will have seen natural development in stories and characters, and that’s the point when you [explore] what worked and what didn’t work,” Gardiner says.
Vince Commisso, the president and CEO of 9 Story Media Group, says that at the end of season one, his teams carry out a detailed post-mortem and creative review. “It includes an appraisal of every character and every storyline, a rewrite of the bible and an assessment of what’s working or not working.”
Commisso insists that it’s an essential piece of analysis, with input from the broadcast partners and specialist researchers.
An indication of how seriously 9 Story takes this process is its relationship with producer Angela Santomero, the creator of Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood, among other shows.
“With Angela’s help, we use a combination of research, science and instinct to make sure that the content we create engages with kids,” says Commisso.
He adds that 9 Story conducts focus groups with fans of the show, as well as with kids who do not watch the series.
“We monitor them as they watch and get researchers—people with early childhood development specialties—who can decipher what the kids’ reactions mean. We feel like we have nailed it if we can identify the three big moments in a script. Is there a big funny moment making the kids laugh? Have we taught them something? Is there a feel-good moment that brings everyone closer together? We look especially hard at those moments because they are the things that distinguish the shows we produce.”
The appetite for new episodes is driven in part by the target audience. Preschoolers in the 2 to 4 age range are more likely to be happy with a greater number of repeats, while older viewers in the 6 to 12 age range will be looking for new episodes, new characters, more development and greater story progression.
Mediatoon’s Alby offers up Trotro, one of France’s best TV exports, as an example. The animated show about a young donkey has only amassed 78 3.5-minute episodes but remains a strong seller. “It’s true that there’s less pressure for new shows for 2- to 4-year-olds, whereas with older demos it’s very useful to have new ideas, and to try new things with the characters.”
Stoef at Studio 100 and m4e adds, “With preschoolers, it’s fine to reuse existing sets up to 100 11-minute episodes, but with the 6 to 9 age group and beyond, you need to add new, exciting storylines and new characters, good or evil, rather than just repeat, or else the older kids will disappear.”
One series from 9 Story that did undergo extensive change following in-depth research on viewers’ reactions to the first season was Camp Lakebottom, an animated show aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds now in its third season.
“We found that the stories were too complicated—not simple and clean enough for viewers,” Commisso says. “The research also showed that the monsters in the show needed to be more identifiable and goofier, too.”
The central character, McGee, was made into more of an ordinary kid who had situations thrust upon him, rather than being a superhero kid who could handle everything that was thrown at him. “That reframed him in the eye of the audience,” explains Commisso. “They began to see him more as ‘he’s like me—so if I am put in those situations, I will rise to the occasion too.’”
Stoef, whose combined portfolio of returning brands includes Mia and me and Maya the Bee, among others, emphasizes that innovation in character development is important for a number of reasons, particularly with shows aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds.
“First, you don’t want to lose your fans,” he says. “If it’s boring, the ratings will go down and the broadcaster could cancel the show, so the pressure is on to deliver creative content all the way through. It’s too risky to make it the same—because you can end up killing your brand. Also, innovation with new characters, new creatures and props is very important to help create new licensed goods. If kids have bought the toy for one season, you need something new and collectible for season two.”
Mondo TV’s Azoury agrees that adding new characters and elements to each season is key to a show’s development. “Otherwise, what are you bringing that makes this season different from the last? It’s especially important as kids are very focused on the specifics. You should never underestimate their scrupulous attention to detail. The main heroes or characters in shows have to be there, but so do new friends, characters, gadgets, adventures or locations—in every new season.”
The secret to continuing the success of the first season into subsequent runs is simple but not necessarily easy, insists INK’s Tømming. “The audience responds to the quality of the story and the characters. There are rare occurrences of a ‘chain reaction,’ when a show takes off for no apparent reason. When that happens, you just need to enjoy the ride and hope the sudden magic doesn’t fizzle out too soon. But usually, it’s a mixture of talent, inspiration and hard work.”
Mediatoon distributes some of the world’s biggest kids’ TV brands, including 156 episodes of Yakari and 214 episodes of The Garfield Show.
“Typically, innovation comes in different aesthetic treatments,” Alby says, referencing Yakari’s CGI with 2D render. Innovation can also come from “a bigger focus on peripheral characters and occasionally changing the format, with the production of specials around holidays or special occasions such as Halloween or Christmas. We have also changed our animation The Crumpets, about a very large oddball family, which had more than 100 characters in season one to focus on just half a dozen main characters in season two.”
Alby also notes the tweaks made to Futurikon’s Minimighty Kids. “While the first season focused on the individual problems of one kid, the second season switched to a group focus on five to six kids. Season three returned to the original concept of one kid’s problem per episode.”
Tweaking formats isn’t a problem, so long as the treatment stays true to the original DNA of the show, says Alby. “Avoid alienating viewers by keeping the core of what makes the brand or the character so special,” he advises. “Make sure the writing sticks to that formula.”
One of the best ways to ensure that a new series adheres to the secret sauce that made it work is to maintain the original creative team—the writers and directors in particular, says Alby, who points out that Yakari and Garfield have had the same director since episode one.
“Also, when you develop, don’t do it in isolation. The commissioning channel usually has a lead role in pointing the way forward. It’s also important to keep in mind the brand’s rights holders, who may want to approve any departures or changes. They will also understand the show’s original DNA better than most.”
One cartoon that has changed dramatically over the years, but has managed to preserve the core elements that made it a success, is Scooby-Doo, observes Jetpack’s Gardiner.
“Scooby-Doo has been produced every few years since 1969—everybody thinks the classic show is the one they watched as a kid! The animation style has changed, and they have introduced new characters like Scrappy-Doo when ratings flagged, but they have always managed to retain the key chemistry that made it work.”
Gardiner continues, “If a series makes it to four seasons it’s clearly a big hit, but at that point, you may be talking about finding new audiences as its original viewers move on. The important thing to remember is the old adage: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ You may improve your animation quality or other parts of your storytelling, but keep the core of the show’s successful formula.”
Indeed, seasons three and four are where things can go wrong, Gardiner reports. “People either think of it as a sausage factory and don’t innovate enough, or change things too much and ‘jump the shark,’” he says.
The secret to success is finding the sweet spot somewhere in between.
Pictured: 9 Story’s Nature Cat.