The evolution of a multi-screen animation destination

At 10, Teletoon is focused on growing from its original incarnation as a linear toon destination for a school-age TV audience to a multi-channel, multi-screen animation incubator for viewers of all ages.

The specialty channel received its licence in 1996, but president Len Cochrane says the idea for the channel was conceived back in 1995 by the board at Family Channel (which at the time was owned 50% by WIC Western International Communications and 50% Astral Media). At the same time, however, YTV, Cinar (now Cookie Jar Entertainment) and Nelvana had joined forces to pitch the CRTC for a licence to launch another all-toon channel.

After the CRTC rejected two applications, Cochrane called upon former Nelvana CEO Michael Hirsh (now CEO of Cookie Jar Group) to combine forces with his partners to make Teletoon a reality. They came on board, the pitch was successful, and the commission greenlit an October 1997 English-language launch date.

The French-language Télétoon bowed in Quebec a month earlier. The en francais station runs as a separately fed channel, and is programmed to fit the Quebecois marketplace. The programmers, however, look to acquire and coproduce bilingual shows for both channels whenever possible. This year, for example, the Quebecois satire Punch will be versioned for the English-language channel.

The original five partners (Astral, WIC, Cinar, YTV and Nelvana) each owned 20%, but that equation evolved over the years as consolidation changed Canada’s broadcast landscape.

When WIC was gobbled up by CanWest Global Communications in 2000, the commission stated its Teletoon share must go to Astral, increasing its ownership to 40%. Corus then doubled its share when it bought Nelvana in 2000, and the final 20% owned by Cinar was split between the two remaining owners in 2006 for a reported $96 million.

Cochrane says the Astral-Corus 50-50 ownership split provides synergistic services to keep the channel running. Astral, for example, provides the office space and its admin management, while Corus looks after ad sales, master control, uplinks and studio space for Teletoon’s in-house interstitial filming.

Much of the funding for the channel comes via ad dollars and subscriber fees, but production partnerships play a big role in Teletoon’s growth. It currently has a requirement to invest 47% of its gross revenues to support the Canadian animation industry (amounting to $23 million for English- and French-language productions in the 2006/07 fiscal year), upped from a 40% requirement in its first seven years. ‘That’s a huge amount of money,’ says Cochrane.

Trent Locke, VP of finance and planning, says the spending on national productions is a win-win, however. It helps Teletoon meet its investment and schedule goals (whereby 60% of its sked is Canadian programming) and opens doors for local toon producers to get coveted Canadian Television Fund funding. ‘[The CTF is] a huge partner,’ he says.

Cochrane says he’s now looking to local toon houses to start expanding into new demos beyond preschool and school age. The channel is actively soliciting scripts for young adults. Ten to 14 pitches will become fully funded pilots, and the audience will vote on the concept it wants to see evolve into a series.

‘Canadian producers make kids stuff very well, and our channel is only as good as our Canadian content, so there has to be Canada’s answer to Family Guy somewhere,’ says Cochrane.

Family Guy was in fact the launching pad for adult-skewed programming on Teletoon, which eventually evolved into The Detour evening block in September 2002.

Cochrane says the inspiration to offer adult toons came from meetings with advertisers, who had sought content for the 18- to 34-year-old demo. But there was also pressure to offer something new.

‘My son told me I should get Family Guy because every Sunday night he’d watch it with [school friends] before Fox dropped it,’ Cochrane says.

The suggestion paid off, and the young adult demo glommed onto the channel for Family Guy and Futurama.

In 2005, Teletoon looked to the success of the Adult Swim block on Cartoon Network in the U.S. to fill the slate with more zany, offbeat cartoons for the adult set.

‘We dipped our toe in the block by buying about half of the programs, and this year we bought the rest,’ Cochrane says.

While The Detour is targeted squarely at the 18-24 set, Teletoon wanted to explore the opportunities of appealing to an even older adult demo, while taking advantage of the growing trend of co-viewing between parents and their young kids.

As a result, digi Teletoon Retro bowed on Bell ExpressVu and Rogers digital cable in October. Locke says the Teletoon team didn’t raid the library for retro titles, but, rather, licensed products specifically for the channel.

‘It makes us different from other Category 2 channels out there, because we searched for the product to fit the channel,’ Locke says.

Moving forward, partnerships with national prodcos will involve more multimedia.

‘Our 2007 fiscal year was the first time we ventured into VOD and to mobile television, and we’re looking at broadband distribution,’ Locke says. ‘We really see that as the next revenue stream, but it will never make up for the advertising or subscriber dollars.’

Teletoon currently has four mobile channels on the Telus mobile platform: two preschool destinations and two mobile nets for school-aged children.

Cochrane says the channel plans to be available 24 hours a day on a mobile network in five to 10 years.

He also believes VOD and broadband will explode, and hints Teletoon is cooking up big plans for the Internet.

ISPs will need to increase bandwidth in order to meet the potential demand. ‘There will always be a linear channel,’ Cochrane says. ‘But we also have these great ideas for broadband, and technology just has to catch up.’