WarnerMedia’s Leslie Lee

India landed its first-ever International Emmy Kids Award nomination this year, with Lamput up for the best kids animation award. The Cartoon Network Asia commission is heading into its third season and reflects the success of the channel’s efforts to cultivate and promote animation talent within the region. As VP of kids’ content for WarnerMedia Entertainment Networks Asia Pacific, Leslie Lee is leading the charge to spot compelling IP from Asia that can supplement the global originals coming out of Cartoon Network Studios. Lee speaks to TV Kids about his programming strategy for Cartoon Network, Boomerang and POGO.

TV KIDS: How does the content strategy differ across Cartoon Network, Boomerang and POGO?
LEE: Cartoon Network and Boomerang are our regional plays. With Cartoon Network, we are slightly more boy-skewing, with lots of way-out comedy; it’s very quirky, surprising and funny. There is some action-adventure, but always with a layer of comedy. [The shows are] always character-led. We want Boomerang to be more accessible to generational co-viewing. There’s a lot of non-dialogue and physical humor. It’s the home for a lot of our Warner Bros. animation—things like Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes.

POGO is only in South Asia. It’s very much a local proposition that we’re trying to build. I’m looking at local IP. We’ve had some successes with shows like Chhota Bheem. We want to add a few more of these local IPs. We have two new originals that we’re looking to launch next year and more after that. We’ve appointed Abhishek Dutta as senior director and network head for kids in India. He’ll be overseeing Cartoon Network and POGO [in South Asia]. That will help to strengthen our leadership and place in the Indian market.

TV KIDS: Are you supplementing the global originals and acquisitions with regional and local buys?
LEE: We look at things that supplement our originals pipeline. Certain markets are more dependent on acquisitions than others, but by and large, acquisitions serve a specific niche in our channel proposition, and that is looking at things that are not necessarily dialogue-driven comedies. A lot of the Cartoon Network originals are very character-led, with an emphasis on verbal comedy. We try to build upon the comedy angle by looking at other things in the market. Oggy and the Cockroaches and Mr. Bean are great examples of things that we are currently not doing on the original slate [so work well as acquired titles internationally]. Similarly, on Boomerang, Taffy and Grizzy & the Lemmings are shows that everyone in our programming teams across the globe love and think have a place on our channels. Another layer we look at is anime. It’s a very interesting genre of content that we acquire. Not a lot of international kids’ channels do that. We understand that kids in our territories love good anime. We look at one or two a year, at the most.

TV KIDS: Which of those layers does Super Shiro fall into?
LEE: Super Shiro is an interesting case study of an acquisition and a collaboration with TV Asahi in terms of getting the sensibility of the show right for our channel. We worked very closely with TV Asahi in terms of the creative direction. At the same time, in the whole way it was negotiated, it’s not a production that [we commissioned]. It’s more of a pre-buy collaboration model. Actually, these days, categories like that don’t really matter. It’s more important for us to be able to find a comfort level in terms of collaboration with all our creative partners.

TV KIDS: How complicated have negotiations become as you seek to acquire the entire suite of rights you need for multiple platforms across your footprint?
LEE: As much as possible, we try to negotiate for all rights, all territories. That doesn’t always happen, so we’ll need to sacrifice some markets or some windows, or look at a longer holdback on exclusivity. It’s more about negotiating and being flexible and looking at what works for our platforms.

TV KIDS: Tell us about your original programming strategy.
LEE: Lamput is continuing, Monster Beach is continuing in terms of production. We’re working on a couple of shows in India for 2020. There are a couple of other long-term productions that I’m looking at for India for 2021. And then from a regional level for APAC, I’m working on some new things. It’s really about franchise-building and IP ownership. And then the originals that come out of Cartoon Network Studios and Warner Bros. will remain a big priority for us.

TV KIDS: How do you craft your premiere and marketing strategies in a fragmented landscape?
LEE: We’re doing really well on the linear side with campaigns on air like Shriektober. We have So Much Christmas coming up in December; that does a lot of fronting of our tentpoles. When we premiere a big show, like DC Super Hero Girls, we create many assets and we cross-promote across all our sister channels and make the premiere an event that drives buzz for us, [not only with our audiences but also with] kids who have not tuned into our channels yet but want to come into the tentpole. For example, with DC Super Hero Girls, we’re promoting it with Warner TV. The other component is the reach and engagement beyond the channel. So we’re looking at a multiplatform strategy, working with partners such as HBO GO to drive awareness and tune-in to our shows. And then the third point would be about characters, franchises and brand-awareness beyond linear, so it’s working with retail, with our affiliates, with our cable partners, on events on-air and on the ground. It’s a three-pronged approach.

TV KIDS: Do you sometimes do digital-first premieres?
LEE: We’re experimenting with different premiere methods. In the U.S., the first episode of Mao Mao: Heroes of Pure Heart was made available on YouTube before the linear broadcast. It helped with driving awareness with a new audience. Research has shown that there’s very little duplication between the linear and digital audience, so [a YouTube premiere] helps to build awareness and drives tune-in to upcoming episodes. It’s not just about putting an episode up on a nonlinear platform and then hoping that people will discover it. It’s also about creating content for new shows and putting that on our social media platforms and YouTube.

TV KIDS: How are you sourcing new talent, and what will you be looking out for at the ATF Animation Pitch this year?
LEE: We have a very long history of nurturing new talent, and we’re looking at fine-tuning the ecosystem of productions in Asia. We have Cartoon Network Imagination Studios, one of our tentpole events [in which our original production and development teams meet with animators], which we’ve done in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. Some of the things that have come out of Imagination Studios will see light next year, specifically one or two projects that were sourced and discovered out of the Singapore event.  ATF is a great platform for us to look at discovering new talent. I also work with associations and organizations like MDEC and IMDA on getting referrals and introductions to new and up-and-coming production houses and animators and creators. I want them to come to us as the first port of call for any new projects that they have. The other thing is working with universities, looking at masterclasses, to nurture and develop the ecosystem a bit more in our region. There’s a lot of untapped potential when it comes to creators. We want to look beyond Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. Where else can we find talent? The Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand are probably the next horizons we should be looking at when it comes to creative talent as well as ideas. India is another big territory that we are always very interested in.