It’s Showtime!

Andy Fry hears from leading buyers and commissioners about their programming needs. 

As Netflix, Amazon and YouTube become ever more influential players in the kids’ content business, pay-TV and free-to-air broadcasters are redoubling their efforts to acquire or originate the best children’s programming from across the globe.

“We’re operating in a world where there is more on offer than ever before, and we have to keep investing in quality content to cut through,” observes Cecilia Persson, VP of programming and content strategy for Turner’s kids’ platforms in EMEA and international acquisitions and co-productions.

“Investing in content is a key business priority,” reports Jules Borkent, Nickelodeon’s executive VP for content and network management at Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN). “Our budget has grown, and we are committed to experimenting with new models that maximize our investment. We are expanding our international partnerships across all touchpoints and screens.”

Persson acknowledges that in this increasingly crowded landscape, “getting new projects off the ground is getting harder. What we need are more production incentives and tax credits.” However, she goes on to say that “we’ve been finding and working with some amazingly creative talent in Europe and across the globe. We’re especially proud to have increased our European content investment by around 30 percent from 2016 to 2017—ensuring our channels deliver strong local relevance while complementing the amazing pipeline of U.S. content from Cartoon Network Studios and Warner Bros.”

As a specific example, Persson mentions the Cartoon Network global original OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes. “The show started its life as a [short] called Lakewood Plaza Turbo, which we launched in EMEA over the summer, and we’ll be introducing a console game and a series of shorts around the series premiere. We’re also about to launch an EMEA-produced live-action game show called Ben 10 Challenge, which is based on our hugely popular Ben 10 franchise.”

Overall, says Persson, Turner’s content budget is increasing, with its second flagship channel, Boomerang, also benefiting. “We’re in production on season two of our first Boomerang original, The Happos Family, produced by Cyber Group Studios, and will see episodes extended from 2.5 to 7 minutes. We’re also rolling out two new series from Warner Bros., based on very well-known, heritage IPs: Dorothy & the Wizard of Oz and Wacky Races.”

Persson says that a key way to secure the best third-party content is to get in early with regard to relationships with producers. “Earlier this year we joined forces with Cyber Group Studios to create a series for Boomerang called Taffy. Taffy came about from a development deal with Cyber Group, and is a good example of the importance we place on getting on board early with our partners to develop a show that fits with the unique values of our channels. Grizzy & the Lemmings, our first global acquisition for Boomerang, is another.”

Like Turner, Nickelodeon has a new flagship property that comes from a non-traditional source, and another that is an extension of an existing franchise. “Welcome to the Wayne started as a digital series and will now be premiering globally as a full-length series,” Borkent explains. “It follows the adventures of two 10-year-old boys exploring the unpredictable world inside their New York apartment building. We are also looking forward to the animated spinoff of our hit show Henry Danger, which will give our fans the opportunity to see some of their favorite Nickelodeon characters in fresh ways.”

Live action has been less prominent on kids’ pay-TV channels in recent years, but Borkent flags the second season of the mystery adventure series Hunter Street, which will return to the Netherlands for filming. “Hunter Street is a great example of our co-pro efforts, having been co-developed with the Nick Netherlands series De Ludwigs before airing across our channels globally.”

Co-productions are also proving important at The Walt Disney Company. “Some of our most successful, brand-defining series in EMEA are co-productions,” says David Levine, the VP of programming, production and strategic development for Disney Channels EMEA and general manager for Disney Channels UK and Ireland, mentioning Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir and PJ Masks. “Both have been greenlit for multiple seasons. We have a strong track record of working with independent producers and distributors across EMEA, and we will continue to collaborate with partners to deliver great content.”

Among Disney’s exciting new business models, Levine singles out Penny on M.A.R.S., a project with 3Zero2, the Milan-based production company behind Disney Channel’s Alex & Co. “This is the first time we are producing an English-language series in Italy for use across the region, leveraging the expertise of 3Zero2 and our U.K. team.”

Levine is also excited about two book-based series for Disney Junior and an original concept for Disney XD. “Gigantosaurus, based on a book by Jonny Duddle and produced by Cyber Group, will come to Disney Junior in 2019. So will Claude, which is based on the books by Alex T. Smith and produced by Sixteen South. Space Chickens in Space will debut in 2018 on Disney XD and tells the story of a trio of chickens enrolled in an elite intergalactic military academy.”

At France’s Lagardère Active, the parent company of Gulli, Canal J and TiJi, upcoming highlights include the return of Xilam Animation’s Oggy and the Cockroaches and a slew of DreamWorks Animation series following last year’s deal with the company. Caroline Cochaux, the managing director for France and international at Lagardère Active TV and CEO of Gulli, also mentions the Korean series Badanamu Cadets and the return of flagships like Power Rangers, Pokémon, Zig & Sharko and Franky.

While Lagardère Active acquires finished programs, it also invests in shows via prebuys and co-pros so that it can have some creative input. Recent examples include Maya the Bee, Sonic Boom, Zak Storm and Magiki. “We are also very excited to launch Arthur and the Minimoys, the first animated series produced by EuropaCorp and Studio 100 and inspired by the Luc Besson trilogy,” Cochaux says. “Others are still in progress, like Ricky Zoom and Lilybuds. Currently we are involved in 19 creations, including three new development agreements at this time.”

Cochaux says her main goal is “to keep a clear focus on the editorial positioning of our brands. We need to remain coherent for our channels’ target audience by offering the best programs we can get.”

In France, Lagardère Active’s biggest competitor in the kids’ space is public broadcaster France Télévisions. Similarly, in Germany, a big commercial channel and a pubcaster are battling it out for pole position.

According to Frank Dietz, SUPER RTL’s deputy program director and head of acquisitions and co-productions, the channel is currently the market leader, with a 21-percent share among kids aged 3 to 13 in the 6 a.m. to 8:15 p.m. time period. Only KiKA, with a 20.4-percent share, comes close.

Dietz attributes that success to two factors. The first is brand loyalty. “We’re a trusted family brand with a strong tradition,” he says. “We’ve reached the point now where there is a generation of new parents introducing their children to SUPER RTL.”

The second factor is shrewd program selection since SUPER RTL lost Disney—a 50-percent owner in the channel—as a content supplier when the company opted to launch its own branded service in Germany. “Disney shows accounted for 35 percent of our lineup, so it was a big job to replace them,” says Dietz. “The way we did it was to create a series of content supply deals with leading U.S. players like DreamWorks, Turner and Warner Bros., as well as with many other suppliers from Canada, France and Asia. It was important for us to act quickly so that we didn’t lose share at the younger end of the audience to new players like YouTube. And it has worked well, because we are no longer bound by one major studio’s output.”

DreamWorks Animation is the most prominent supplier of shows to SUPER RTL, with hit series such as Dragons. Other titles on the schedule include DHX Media’s Inspector Gadget, LEGO’s Ninjago, Warner Bros.’ The Tom and Jerry Show, 9 Story’s Wild Kratts and CAKE’s Angelo Rules. Shows targeted at preschoolers via the channel’s Toggolino sub-brand include Octonauts, Caillou and Bob the Builder.

One of the channel’s other significant strengths is that it continues to be a major player in Germany’s licensing-and-merchandising business. “Very often, we act as the agent for producers and distributors,” says Dietz, “which is an attractive factor when you combine it with the exposure we can provide on TV. That’s one reason we have been able to secure a show like Nickelodeon’s PAW Patrol, despite the fact that Nickelodeon also has a kids’ channel in Germany.”

A key editorial change in the post-Disney era is a reduced reliance on live action, says Dietz. “Disney and Nick tend to dominate this area, and they still produce a significant amount. For now, we carry more animation because they air live action on their own channels, which leads us to focus on this genre. It’s also worth noting that animation generally has a longer shelf life.” While live action has reduced in significance, Dietz says that the channel still commissions some factual content around subjects such as knowledge and animals. “These shows work well for us because they have extremely popular and recognizable hosts.”

Neck and neck with SUPER RTL in Germany is KiKA, the kids’ channel owned by public broadcasters ARD and ZDF. Sebastian Debertin, KiKA’s head of fiction, acquisitions and co-productions, says the channel is prioritizing a mix of originals and “strong brands and characters that have the potential to be re-created, like the new Blinky Bill animated CGI series. We loved the original brand very much, so we decided with our partners at Studio 100 Media and Flying Bark Productions to truly update it and to make it a series for older kids.”

According to Debertin, “the stories are fast-paced and great fun for kids 6 to 10-plus, and have a strong appeal for parents. On top of that, it was important to keep social media in mind. So we have hilarious scenes that work in a shorter format for Facebook, YouTube, etc.”

Other key projects cited by Debertin include Super Wings, a co-production with EBS, CJ E&M, Little Airplane Productions, FunnyFlux and China’s QianQi Animation, “which was a huge success on KiKA’s linear TV as well as on-demand and other platforms. We had a wonderful response on KiKA’s own website, on YouTube and on Facebook. Also important is Yakari, which we built up as a successful brand on the channel.”

Children’s public broadcasting is also in excellent form in the U.K. “People might have noticed the announcement that our director, Alice Webb, made recently about additional funding for BBC Children’s,” says Jackie Edwards, the head of acquisitions and independent animation for CBeebies and CBBC. “It’s tremendous news, but still too early to say exactly how this will be used—so, for now, our acquisitions budget remains unchanged.”

Some of BBC Children’s big performers include The Next Step, the DreamWorks Dragons franchise and The Deep on CBBC; and Hey Duggee, Peter Rabbit, Bing and Clangers on CBeebies. “We are also very excited about a couple of ‘coming soons.’ These include Dennis & Gnasher: Unleashed!, a 52-part CG series that will bring Dennis up to date for the next generation of fans. Re-developed by Jen Upton-Allin, the new episodes are feisty, fast-paced and funny, and will air on CBBC this autumn.” For CBeebies, Edwards picks out Pablo, from Belfast-based Paper Owl Films. “Pablo is a little boy on the autism spectrum. He uses magic crayons to turn his life challenges into amazing adventures and his feelings into fantastic characters to face the real world with confidence.”

According to all the programmers surveyed here, success is not just about finding the right content—it’s also about coming up with the best multiplatform strategy to make sure that the shows are reaching kids wherever they are.

“Our audiences are made up of digital natives, so we have to adapt to their use,” says Lagardère’s Cochaux. Gulli has been especially strong in digital, she adds. “In 2016, it had 30 million views each month and its free app was downloaded 5 million times.”

BBC’s Edwards references the tremendous success of the iPlayer with young audiences. “Some of our brands rack up tens or even hundreds of millions of views on this platform,” Edwards says. “We’ve had catch-up rights in our acquisitions contracts for a number of years, so no change there. We are and will be spending more time looking at brand extensions for our acquired titles. We look at shows on a case-by-case basis and are looking at commissioning additional content, games, short-form, etc., at pre-greenlight stage wherever possible. There are additional funds available for the right ideas, so we are having conversations with producers much earlier.”

Nickelodeon is also insistent on nonlinear rights. “As Nickelodeon’s international audience watches our content on so many different platforms and services, it is key that we ensure we have the necessary rights to give them that opportunity,” Borkent notes. “We need to be everywhere our young fans are.”

Disney’s Levine agrees with his peers that one of the big challenges is making sure the brand is wherever audiences are. “We are always aware of kids’ viewing habits, as well as looking to give our fans a first look at content with exclusive windowing on owned platforms like the Disney Channel app and DisneyLife. Our audiences are accessing content in more ways than ever before, and our mission is to make sure that our content is available where they are. Our content needs to go further than ever before, so we look to optimize our production budgets to deliver not only linear content but social, short-form, interstitial and micro content.”

Similarly, Dietz says that SUPER RTL targets kids across a range of digital and real-world touchpoints. One of these is Kividoo, a kids’ SVOD service that launched in 2015. Accordingly, SUPER RTL acquires show rights for both TV and its SVOD platform. A case in point was a recent deal with Nelvana, under which Hotel Transylvania: The Series, Ranger Rob and Stanley Dynamic were picked up for use across platforms.

One bone of contention for KiKA continues to be restrictions on what the station can do with on-demand. “By law, we simply cannot broadcast licensed content on-demand,” Debertin explains. “That limits our online and nonlinear possibilities heavily, especially compared to our commercial competitors. We need a fair, balanced situation for the sake of a strong production landscape.”

Debertin says his programming budget has remained fairly constant, “but we have to face the fact that the costs go up heavily. We all have to play the game on a much bigger playground with all the new platforms, so smart thinking and solutions outside the box are a must. We have a new structure that means we are more prepared for the digital era, allowing us to create and produce according to digital needs.”

He says that KiKA is on the hunt for series, animated or live action, targeting the 6-to-9 set, “for example, animated dramedies. The market needs series that tell great stories with identifiable and lovable characters—with 26 or 52 compelling episodes that can work, if possible, on all platforms. But we are also working on projects ourselves; for example, our co-pro Mystery Museum with Hahn Film.”

SUPER RTL’s Dietz is on the lookout for a wide variety of shows, but he does stress that “relatable comedies connected to everyday life work well.” He says the channel is also exploring ways to work with German production companies, “though this is a slower process because of limited budgets and the need to find co-production partners to finance shows.”

Lagardère’s Cochaux also has a broad remit. “We are attached to our values: friendship, humor, respect, tolerance. We are open-minded to every project, as long as it has creative values and fits our audiences.”

At Turner, Persson is focusing on “finding new shows for Boomerang to join our pipeline of slapstick, animated comedies for kids 4 to 7 and their families.”

Disney’s Levine, meanwhile, is keeping an eye out for “real heart and optimism at the core of the stories we tell, brought to life with great characters, a fresh creative point and a dash of magic. For animation, we are mainly looking for gender-balanced comedies for kids 6 and up. Live action should be relatable, relevant, contemporary and lighthearted, mainly for kids 6 to 9.”

Comedies are also on the wish list for BBC’s Edwards. “It can be hard to find comedy that feels relevant to the CBBC audience, so we’re always interested in something that has the potential to make us titter.”

Edwards adds, “It’s fair to say that every show’s funding is different, and we are continually impressed with the invention and creativity that producers bring to the financing of shows. We try to be flexible and helpful where we can be, but as a PSB, there are certain constraints we have to observe.”

Financial considerations aside, one of the key influencers in decision-making is audience research, Nickelodeon’s Borkent notes. “We listen to kids first, because it’s important that our content celebrates and reflects the realities of being a kid. We are looking for broad comedy, both in animation and live action. New and interesting formats are also high on the agenda. We are constantly looking for creative ideas and content formats that allow us to tell stories in a different way, and ideas that could come from any part of the world. We’re also finding the web to be an incubator for great talent and a way of seeing what resonates with our different fans around the world.”

Pictured: DreamWorks Animation’s All Hail King Julien.