Private ‘casters vs. spec for kid ratings

With a first season under their belt, the newest crop of tier three kidcasters are playing it safe in year two with only minor tweaks to their schedules, whereas veteran ytv is taking some chances and freshening up its image with an onslaught of new programming.

Somewhere in between, straddling middle ground, are the private conventional broadcasters, which are trying to find their niche in the expanding kids’ programming market.

Teletoon is building on last year’s success by sticking with series renewals, rather than opting for new shows.

‘We started out with a very aggressive slate of new series in the first year and they were well received,’ says vp of programming Kevin Wright. ‘A new service is vulnerable to risk, so it’s smart to be cautious, build on the popularity of these shows rather than launch more franchises.’

In the after-school zone, Teletoon’s top shows are pulling in ratings of up to 200,000 for 2+ audiences. ‘This exceeds our expectations of where we thought we would be in just a year,’ says Wright. ‘We didn’t expect to see these numbers until after two or three years.’

Teletoon’s ’98/99 renewals represent more than $5 million in original Canadian production. Top returning programs include Cinar’s Caillou, Nelvana’s Ned’s Newt, Donkey Kong Country and Pippi Longstocking, as well as Alliance Atlantis’ Captain Star and Red Giant Productions’ Splat!

One-off specials are also making up an important component of this season’s schedule. Upcoming projects include The Snow Cat, a half-hour National Film Board coproduction directed by Academy Award-winning director Sheldon Cohen (The Sweater); The True Meaning of Crumbfest, a Christmas tale centering on a brave little mouse coproduced by Catalyst Entertainment and Cellar Door Productions; and Something From Nothing, a coventure between Portfolio Entertainment and Fun Bag Animation based on Toronto author Phoebe Gilman’s book about a young boy’s favorite blanket.

Another new innovation is a feature film slot the first Saturday of each month. First up is the broadcast premiere of Nelvana’s animated Pippi Longstocking feature.

Almost 50% of Teletoon’s viewership is over the age of 18, and Wright says the network will be more consciously programming for these older audiences in its evening slots. ‘We are looking to augment some of the adult material – it is a real growth area. There are not many animated alternatives for adults out there.’

Treehouse adding

parent block

Treehouse tv launched its second season flagging Nelvana’s Little Bear; St. Bear’s Dolls Hospital, a coproduction with Montreal’s Norma Denys Productions; Fennec from Montreal’s Cactus Animation; Funny Farm, a series of shorts from Redcap Productions in Toronto; Iris, The Happy Professor, a live-action/puppet series, and Little Star, both from Montreal’s Desclez Productions.

In January, Treehouse will also have the first Canadian nationwide broadcast of Teletubbies, which up to now has aired only on some of the provincial stations.

Pirates, a new series based on marine stories, is in development with Salter Street Films.

Looking ahead, vp and gm Susan Ross says the preschool station plans to expand its four-and-a-half-hour program wheel to six hours, allowing for more shelf space. Also in the works is a new block of after 9 p.m. programming for parents, which will offer both information and light entertainment, such as vintage family comedies in the vein of Father Knows Best, to be packaged with wraparounds.

Family beefs up comedy, long-form

A year ago, Family Channel moved from its spot as a pay-per-view station to the third tier of specialty channels.

‘It has been an interesting transition,’ says Wright. ‘Overnight we went from 400,000 subscribers to several million.’

However, the switch has not resulted in any major programming changes thus far, although Wright says now that the network has access to Nielsen Media Research ratings, they can program more strategically. ‘This has led to a more viewer-friendly, popular-oriented Family Channel, more responsive to the viewership,’ he says.

Family’s relationship with Disney has been renewed and new titles added to refresh the service. ‘The Disney product sets the tone for the network,’ says Wright.

Long-form drama and comedies are the particular strengths of Family, says Wright, and these areas will continue to be beefed up to help the station continue to carve out a unique niche.

57 new shows at YTV

Faced with this influx of new kids’ broadcasting options, ytv is responding with a hefty slate of first-run original programming, adding a whopping 57 new shows to the fall schedule.

Premieres include Mainframe Entertainment’s Shadow Raiders; the Jim Henson/Decode Entertainment coventure Brats of the Lost Nebula, a half-hour computer-animated puppet adventure series where a group of alien kids form a rebel gang; Nelvana’s Dumb Bunnies; Shavick Entertainment’s The New Addams Family; and The Worst Witch, a 13 half-hour, live-action comedy series coproduced by Montreal’s Galafilm and Global Arts Productions of London, Eng. about the adventures of a bumbling trainee witch.

‘For its first nine years, ytv was the only kids’ channel [in Canada], and now there’s Teletoon, Family Channel, and the public broadcasters like cbc and tvo are coming on quite strong,’ says Peter Moss, ytv vp of programming and production. ‘With the fragmentation of the audience and plethora of viewing choices we needed to come on air with a strong identity to distinguish our programming.’

To keep the schedule fresh, ytv will launch a new program every eight weeks and then reshuffle the schedule after the Christmas break.

New shows premiering later this year include aac’s Sixth Grade Alien; Tele-Action’s Radio Active, a live-action sitcom surrounding a group of students who host their high school’s radio station; Mainframe’s Weirdos, Nelvana’s Anitoles and in-house sketch comedy System Crash.

Theme days, such as Wicked Wednesdays, Spine Chilling Saturday Nights and special event programming like Dark Night for Halloween continue to be a key part of the programming strategy.

A new slogan – ‘Keep It Weird’ – was chosen to accompany the new lineup after intense research and test marketing was conducted among young viewers. It is a way to brand the station’s programming as cutting-edge, off-the-wall and unique, says Moss, ‘as opposed to `Nice’ – that word is the kiss of death among kids.’

The new approach appears to be working.

In the four weeks following its launch, ytv’s market share rose from 11 to 15.2, says Moss. In comparison, he points to Teletoon, which started at a 10 point share and rose to 11.4.

With the launch of sister station Treehouse last fall, ytv has rebranded its 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. preschool block, now titled YTV Junior, with six hours of commercial-free preschool programming, including the new in-house production Fuzzpaws and the launch of two puppet series’ coproduced with Radical Sheep – Ruffus The Dog, about a wisecracking, street-smart dog who leads viewers through his bookstore home, and Panda Bear Daycare.

Looking beyond animation

Primetime drama and the launch of Sportsnet was the big push at ctv this fall, but the network’s children’s programming block is now becoming top of mind, says Susanne Boyce, senior vp of programming.

‘Right now we are evaluating our Saturday and Sunday morning block for next season,’ she says. ‘Teletoon and ytv have done a terrific job with animation so we are trying to figure out where we want to fit into this environment.’

This season the popular Master Control has been expanded to a half-hour and a number of new kids’ series are in development out of the Vancouver office. The projects include Decode’s Angela Anaconda, a six-part, half-hour animated series about a spunky young girl who gets herself into all sorts of scrapes; D’Myna Leagues from Studio b in Vancouver, a half-hour animated comedy about a minor league baseball team; and Vancouver author Linda Bailey’s kid detective book series The Stevie Diamond Mysteries are being adapted for tv by Pacific Motion Pictures. Shirley Holmes creator Susin Nielson is writing the pilot. ctv is on board and u.k. and u.s.. financing is currently being secured to put the program into production.

A half-hour, news-oriented show for youths titled Early Prime is in the works with Julie Lee of Slate Films in Vancouver. The program is being created by kids, for kids.

Boyce adds that ctv’s Halifax development office, headed by Joanna Montgomery, is looking for kids’ projects from East Coast producers.

Concentrating on tweens

In response to the wide range of preschool programming available across the dial, CanWest Global has been reducing its slots for the age two-to-11 demographic and expanding its tween programming, says vp programming Doug Hoover.

‘There is a lot of programming out there for preschoolers,’ explains Hoover, ‘so we decided to move our target audiences a little older and make it more compatible with our other programming like That 70s Show and Dawson Creek.’