Joe Strike looks at daytime TV successes of 2003 in the U.S and what we can expect from 2004. He talks to industry vet Fred Seibert and network pundits at Kids WB!, FOX BOX, Disney/ABC, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, as well as Linda Simensky, in her new role at PBS.
Whether directly imported from Japan (Yu-Gi-Oh!) or just influenced by (Xiaolin Showdown), anime was undeniably huge in 2003. Yu-Gi-Oh! © 4Kids Entertainment. Xiaolin Showdown © Warner Bros. Television.
Janus, the twin-headed Roman god who gave his name to the first month of the year, was able to look backwards at the departing year and ahead to the new one at the same time. Here at the start of the 21st century hed need a few extra heads to keep track of what the many TV channels programming cartoons were up to last year, or what they have up their sleeves for 2004.
With more than 20 years under his belt producing groundbreaking TV animation, Frederators Fred Seibert is as in good a position as anyone to judge whats going on. Were in the midst of an embarrassment of riches, which is sort of the consequence of 10-15 years of creatively and business-wise doing better and better. We have had a couple of tough years but overall its been a good time.
Its also not like anything thrilling is happening. When youre doing really well like were doing you dont have that joy of the new, the exciting and the oh my goodness its been bad for so long look how great it is now. Like we all take it for granted that its doing well.
Exactly; for John Hardman, Kids WB!s svp of programming, his biggest problem for 2004 may have been the success his channel enjoyed the year before. Last year was an anomaly for us. We had three new series premiere in the fall of 2002 [¡Mucha Lucha!, Ozzy & Drix and Whats New Scooby-Doo?] and Yu-Gi-Oh! was white-hot at the time. They brought a lot of attention and new viewers to the network; what happened was we had our most successful year to date. We far outshined anything we had ever seen.
We didnt truly expect to maintain the same momentum this year. We came back with a lineup of all returning series, with nothing new to hype. All the other networks had series premieres in September, some of them had entirely revamped their slate. Kids did a lot of sampling the first few weeks of the season, they were going elsewhere.
It was probably late October before the ratings started to settle down and become consistent week to week. Then, at the beginning of November, we introduced two new series. It turned out to be perfect timing for us, and thats when we started to see the growth in our own ratings.
According to Hardman, both shows debuted to strong ratings. Since then the martial arts themed Xiaolin Showdown has seen its ratings increase, while the superheroes of Teen Titans are about to take over the 9:00 am Saturday morning tent pole position.
That those two new shows both originate from corporate sibling Warner Bros. Animation demonstrates the programming synergy Time Warner can bring to its kid-directed efforts. Titans is a co-development, co-production deal with the media giants best known animation outlet, Cartoon Network. The series premiered as a high-profile original on the cable channel then enjoyed a second window on Kids WB!, a playoff pattern that was reversed for the new Scooby-Doo series. Its an arrangement thats worked well for both networks, with Hardman looking to co-develop at least one series a year with Cartoon Network from the WB Animation studio.
A second batch of KWB shows Yu-Gi-Oh!, Jackie Chan and others run on Cartoon Network via a sub-licensing arrangement. The advantages in cross-promotion and amortizing production costs are obvious, and while the shows air concurrently on both nets, all involved make sure its never in the same timeslot. In fact, according to Hardman, Cartoon Network counter-programs when theyre up against us in the exact same time periods. They go after a different audience and that way we dont cannibalize each other.
Of course, having a daily afternoon kids block that helps deliver kids to Saturday morning, while not having to deal with the FCCs weekly three-hour educational programming requirement (a responsibility assumed by the channels local affiliates) help as well. Kids WB! holds the number-one position over all its competition in attracting boys 6-11, tweens (9-14) and male tweens. In the smaller broadcast universe, KWB is also number one with kids 2-11, boys 2-11 and kids 6-11. The network dominates the Saturday morning top 10 show lists for boys 6-11, overall tweens, and claims the top 11 slots for male tweens.
Its a lofty perch, one that Hardman intends to hold onto in 04 with a barrage of new programming. This month has already seen the relaunch of Osamu Tezukas Astro Boy, the beloved grandfather of all anime series. Its an acquisition from Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan, and KWB plans to air 25 episodes in the shows first season. If kids can absorb the shows complex backstory (and if their parents and older animation fans tune in out of childhood nostalgia) Astro Boy could shape up as a major attention-getter.
The inner-city superhero series Static Shock also returned for its fourth season in January. Its a show we love here in Programming, says Hardman, and its grown every single year since it premiered in 2000. The channel also has 26 episodes of the within-the-Internet adventure, MegaMan: NT Warrior, on hand. Hardman enthuses that were going to have a lot of original programming in the first, second and third quarters this year. A 13-episode summertime CGI series is also in the works, along with a 90-minute live-action special (with some CGI elements) that may serve as the basis of a future series.
For those who automatically associate the WB shield with the slapstick comedy of the studios classic Looney Tunes, Hardman gently suggests they seek out those shorts on Cartoon Network and its spin-off Boomerang. He goes on to point out that KWB shows like ¡Mucha Lucha! and Jackie Chan Adventures all have tremendous comedy elements, but our core audience is boys 6-11 and high adventure is the type of programming that really appeals to them.
So its highly unlikely that Bugs and friends will ever be seen on Kids WB! again? I wouldnt say that at all. We continue to work with Warner Bros. on some of the classic franchises to see what we might bring back to our audience. We always have something like that in development and were always talking to kids about what would they like to see come back and how would they like to see it updated for them. You never know, we may just have something on the schedule in the fall. You never know.
When FOX TV bailed out of the childrens programming game in the fall of 2002, 4 Kids Entertainment took over the networks 8:00 am to noon Saturday morning block and renamed it the FOX BOX. In essence, 4 Kids runs the FOX BOX as a turnkey operation, paying a flat fee to FOX for the airtime, then acquires and schedules shows, selling the ad time and keeps the revenues it brings in. As a result, the FOX BOX has far different goals from its Kids WB! competition.
We raised our ratings slightly this past year in a market where broadcasters are supposedly continuing to lose viewers, says Al Kahn, 4 Kids ceo. Ratings-wise were about a 1.6, wed like to be a 1.8 in kids 6-11, thats the minimum were shooting for. Overall wed like to be a 2, but thats going to take a little more time until we get there.
Kahn and 4 Kids faced some serious challenges when they took over from FOX. When FOX knew they were selling the block they stopped promoting it and the ratings went down substantially. Were starting to build them back up; were not up to where they were when FOX was running promos for their kid shows on The Simpsons and across a weekday strip, but weve made some inroads.
I think we made the competition on Saturday morning that much greater. Everybody uses it as a battleground now, everybodys stepped up the competitive field, that means theyve been promoting more during the week and theyve been doing more different things on Saturdays. All thats been more exciting for the viewer and been more difficult for us, but thats part of the game youre playing in so you have to deal with it.
To make matters worse, FOXs kids programming inventory went over to ABC as part of the networks sale of their Family cable channel. Meanwhile, the network returned the after school time to its affiliates, leaving 4 Kids without a weekday strip to program and cross promote its schedule. To add to its challenge, FOXs contract with 4 Kids requires one of the eight shows to meet the FCCs educational content requirement.
The company has entered the fray with an assortment of acquired and localized (redubbed and edited to U.S. standards) anime programming, including Shaman King and the video-game inspired Kirby and Sonic X. Kahn says its a style we like because you can do many more shows for the same money as opposed to doing less shows in traditional 2D.
Although anime is in these days, Kahn prefers to play down its import as a genre in its own right within the FOX BOX schedule: I think the term anime is misleading; I think kids dont know from whence we cometh. By the time we localize the programs kids dont even know theyre from Japan any more. We as adults tend to label this stuff, but kids dont really know it.
In addition to its acquisitions 4 Kids also produces a pair of original series for the FOX BOX: a new version of the classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the CGI-animated, Pokémon-influenced robots of Cubix. Speaking of which, 4 Kids is in the unusual position of supplying two highly successful shows to rival WB!: Pokémon: Advanced (still a major ratings winner according to Kids WB!s Hardman) and the equally popular Yu-Gi-Oh! Certainly wed love to have them on FOX, but were not going to break contracts, says Kahn. At the time we made those deals we didnt have the FOX BOX. And if you look at the adult world, a lot of shows are produced by studios run by networks, but the networks dont want the shows and they wind up being sold to the highest bidder; Warner Bros. does Friends, but it doesnt run on the WB.
Kahn acknowledges that licensing is an important part of 4 Kids overall game plan and key to making the FOX BOX a profitable enterprise. Absolutely, were a licensing company 4 Kids Licensing. The real reality for us is we use television as a launcher for these properties. We have a great track record in this area, with properties like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and the Ninja Turtles relaunch. While he notes, the videogame related shows have been extraordinarily successful for us, hes quick to add that its content content, content, content. The content is first and foremost. That will eventually also work to a licensing position. But before that can happen, kids have to like what they see and want to emulate what they see.
Kahn sees the morning leadoff 8:00 am timeslot where hes forced to program the FCC-friendly half-hour as his biggest problem. The networks we compete against dont have to, so they can put on something very powerful against us, which gives us a tough way to start the morning off. WB puts on Yu-Gi-Oh! against us. Cubix, with its robot-building premise and science content is 4 Kids FCC-friendly sacrificial lamb. While a discussion guide is available as a classroom aid to interested teachers, Kahn acknowledges that the show has been the one thats most disappointing for us; if Cubix doesnt have the zoom and bang of a more action-oriented show to start with, it certainly doesnt have it against Yu-Gi-Oh!
In 2004, Kahn plans to focus on what he sees is an underserved demographic in the Saturday morning arena. Most people seem to have taken a boys action, or a neuter position. Its obvious our business is not only entertainment but merchandising as well, and we think theres a real void in whats available for girls. Its an area where theres a lack of product in the U.S. Were going to be adding a couple of those types of shows to the FOX BOX in 04.
Kahns hopes to focus on a pair of intriguingly titled shows, Winx Club (set for a springtime premiere) and Hollywood Mew Mew to follow later in the year. The imported and localized shows (Hollywood Mew Mew was originally Tokyo Mew Mew) are intended to attract both genders by empowering girls while giving boys cute babes and plenty of action to look at. Even though the shows have girl-skewed merchandising opportunities, we certainly believe boys will watch them as well, says Kahn. I think if its an action adventure show youre okay. Xena had a large male audience, and look at PowerPuff Girls, boys watch that as well. The girls in Mew Mew [coffee house waitresses by day, animal eared- and tailed-crimefighters by night] are tough. Theres a lot of action and there are guy characters in these shows as well. We think that will work for us to build our girls comp, which currently is much lower than our boys comp.
Now that hes out to win the girls audience via anime, has Kahn given thought to importing some of the genres more challenging, older-skewing series for a different or new programming outlet? Its interesting, network TV is always complaining about the loss of their 18- to 35-year-old males. It was a big story a couple of months ago with the Nielsens; all the networks were very hard pressed. If you look at the anime ratings, even the stuff on Saturday morning, you will find that primetime ratings dont do any better than us, even with our much smaller base. All of which suggests that much older boys will watch anime.
I believe anime products that are much more aggressive and sensual are going to become more available in the appropriate timeslots. Certainly we, as a company, are looking at how we can expand our programming opportunities in order to do different things at different times.
At the beginning of 2003, Disney split its TV Animation division into two separate entities. The portion responsible for producing sequels to the companys animated theatrical features and its direct-to-video originals was renamed DisneyToon Studios and became part of the companys feature film division, while the units that actually create series for ABC Kids and the Disney Channel (along with the occasional theatrical release based on a series, like the recently premiered Teachers Pet) joined the ABC Cable Networks Group.
It might seem hard to believe, but Disneys TV Animation division now has a 19-year track record (beginning with 1984s Gummie Bears and Wuzzles shows) and will celebrate its 20th birthday in November 2004. For the last 10 of those years its president has been Barry Blumberg, and he sees nothing but advantages in his divisions reorganization.
2003 was a fantastic year for us. We were very excited to become part of the Cable Networks Group and work for Anne Sweeney [the groups president]. To be really connected to our programming departments wants and needs is a great way for things to be.
We had a great year on the TV side with Kim Possible and the debut of the Lilo & Stitch series. Before that we had a terrific film in August with Stitch! The Movie.
Has Disney already conquered the female kid demographic that Kahn has his eyes on? Were trying to target kids of all ages while aiming squarely in the middle of the 6-14 demographic. The channels obviously had fantastic success with shows like Thats So Raven and Lizzie McGuire that attract a more teenage girl demographic, but we try to have as broad an audience as possible. If anything, we aim more at the boys side because we already have the girls and we want it to be even broader than it is now.
Disney Channel and Kids ABC have a relationship similar to Cartoon Network and Kids WB! However, where the playoff pattern goes both ways at the Time-Warner channels, the Disney shows as of late tend to premiere on the Disney Channel and move to broadcast for their second window. Now that the Disney Channel is in over 80 million households, its a great place to premiere, notes Blumberg. And again like the competition, Disney has Toon Disney as a potential third window for its new series, should that outlets distribution increase from its current 40 million households. (The recently-acquired-from-FOX ABC Family programs its morning kids block from its pre-existing inventory and carries nothing from the Disney library.)
With a decade behind the same desk, perhaps its not surprising that Blumberg is most proud of the fact that we have a very strong relationship with our artists, we have a lot of people who have lots of longevity here, including the senior executives who have been together a long time.
Even though his divisions output to date has been almost entirely 2D, Blumberg rejects a suggestion that Walt Disney TV Animation will become the keepers of the 2D torch. I dont know about that Im not abandoning anything, nor do I want to be looked at as sort of the keeper of the flame, and we certainly are looking for opportunities to develop shows that are not traditionally executed.
We just make cartoons here at TV Animation. We try not to think too seriously about 2D or 3D, because its about character and story and comedy. Whether its produced in clay animation or cel animation or CGI animation, I really think thats what drives this business. I think every person in this country knows about SpongeBob and thats not a very technology-driven property. More to the point here, Lilo & Stitch came out a few years ago. It was cel, 2D animated, it did very well at the box office and it has gone on to perform extremely well on TV for us.
When asked what factor determines which theatrical features best lend themselves to spin-offs and followups, Blumberg admits that we like to make series from the successful ones, but acknowledges its not a hard and fast rule: Chances are something that wasnt successful at the theaters isnt going to be a successful series, but then again Ozzy & Drix on Kids WB! is a very successful animated series from the movie Osmosis Jones, which failed at the box office; again, it all comes down to execution. We always look to the library of animated features to consider development. Sometimes its not the ones that you think of first.
Beginning with The Return of Jafar, one hat trick the TV Animation Division has perfected is creating a sequel to a theatrical feature that serves as the basis of an ongoing TV series. Its most recent success was the direct-to-video Stitch! The Movie. According to Blumberg, it was the first one with a really novel premise that drives our series, one that wasnt touched upon in the feature film: if Stitch is Experiment 626, what happened to the other 625?
I think creatively we continue to push the Disney envelope. When I started here, shows like Recess were sort of outside of the typical purview of Disney, all the way up to something like our new show Dave the Barbarian, which you really couldnt imagine doing here 10 years ago.
Dave is the Disney Channels first new series of 2004. Unscreened as of this writing, the shows concept and design have a definite Jay Ward-ish absurdist vibe, beginning with its title character, a reluctant warrior whod rather be a gourmet chef. Writer Douglas Langdale and director Howy Parkins have an impressive array of credits between them, from Darkwing Duck and The Return of Jafar through Recess and the Buzz Lightyear TV series.
Beyond Dave, Blumberg is tight-lipped about Disney TV Animations future plans; other than new episodes of Kim Possible in store, all hell admit is that two new animated series will premiere in the fall and that the division is developing more projects than ever before. We really dont hint. Well usually tell you exactly what were doing when the timing is appropriate. You dont want to go hey look, were doing shows about kids who play basketball, and then the potential is there for Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network or anybody else to say hey we need basketball series. But when asked if there are any projects based on Disney inventory they havent considered yet, his response is No. Im doing them all already.
Bob Higgins joined Cartoon Network midway through 2003, but still managed to have a terrific, disappointment-free year at the channel. We did phenomenally well the last six months of the year. Our ratings were up and we ended the year in great shape. We put our best stuff on in the daytime during the Christmas break when the kids were home and got a lot of high sampling, which bodes well for the coming year.
We premiered three shows in 03. Codename: Kids Next Door actually began in December, just at the end of the year and took off in 03; it became our highest rated show in the first or second quarter and has stayed there ever since. Its a huge kid empowerment show that takes an unexpected approach and revels in its silliness.
While Higgins is also happy with Cartoon Networks newest DC Comics franchise Teen Titans, he admits, its not our number two show. Its definitely in top 10 or top five depending on the week. Its been well received by critics, fans and by the viewers. Its driven our Saturday night action franchise since it premiered in the summer and its our ratings leader for night.
Higgins is also pleased with Daffy Ducks return to his classic Chuck Jones Duck Dodgers persona in the channels third new series of last year. The show has done great. Its a funny show and it was a big risk in trying to recreate a classic. I think Spike [Brandt] & Tony [Cervone, the series supervising producers] did a phenomenal job. This was their passion project for years and they pulled it off.
The flipside of the Dodgers series is the diminishing presence of the classic Looney Tunes themselves, a move that Higgins admits is a conscious decision on the channels part. Apart from a growing inventory of original, Cartoon Network-branded characters and programming to fill airtime, theres a station we have called Boomerang, which is all about classic characters. Were trying to grow Boomerang, and by moving those characters there were hopefully going to make it an alternate destination that people will be asking their cable operators to add to their lineups.
One surprise for Higgins and the channel was the popularity of a pair suburban kids and their buddy the Grim Reaper. After two years on Cartoon Network as part of The Grim and Evil Show, The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy was spun off into its own series this past June (as was the perpetually frustrated, would-be world dictator Evil Con Carne). This is the little show that could, says a proud Higgins. It came on without much fanfare and these two characters just really popped. The decision was made to give them their own show and Evil Con Carne got his own show as well. It just continues to increase its ratings week after week, exhibition after exhibition and we have huge amounts of hope for it. Its just a great funny little show.
Like his competition and colleagues, Higgins has a batch of new programming in the works for 2004. Although he took over at the network in mid 03, he is partial to one new show called Megas XLR, set to premiere in May. Its the one I was able to put the most imprint on. Its a real different show if there was ever a show thats made by fanboys for fanboys, this is it. I dont think its fanboy exclusive, but it pokes fun at pop comic book and cartoon culture in the way a South Park would, but not dirty like South Park.
Its really a show for gamers, for cartoonists and all their friends. The characters in it are funny and relatable and we have huge hopes for this show. Its about two Jersey guys who happen to find a giant robot in the local dump The Iron Giant meets Clerks, but without the profanity.
Saturday nights were going to be targeting boys were putting a real concerted effort behind building Saturdays, and Megas goes right after every 9-14 boy out there.
Other plans for the first half of 2004 include new seasons of Teen Titans, Kids Next Door, Billy and Mandy, Duck Dodgers and the return of Johnny Bravo, beginning with a new 30-minute, guest star-filled special, Johnny Goes Hollywood. He had been on hiatus for a while, reports Higgins, but then the network decided he went away too soon, and wanted to bring him back. We ordered 13 new half hours that will be premiering over the next six to nine months.
The channel has a few programming stunts up their sleeve as well. Johnny and fellow cartoon lothario Pepé LePew join up for a Valentines Day marathon, while the Great (and green) Gazoo hosts a close-to-St. Patricks Day block of Flintstones episodes.
In yet another demonstration of corporate synergy, Cartoon Network is planning a mid-February NBA All-Star Slam. Live-action NBA players will be coaching the Networks stars in interstitial segments created by the channels on-air promotion department. The interstitials wrap around first runs of sports-themed cartoons while leading up to (and cross-promoting) that evenings TNT airing of the NBA All-Star game.
Going from the micro to the macro, the final 10 micro-episodes of Star Wars: Clone Wars and a one-hour, Easter-themed Baby Looney Tunes special air in the spring. In February, however, the channel unveils Party Wagon, an original feature length animated movie from Hey Arnold creator Craig Bartlett. Its a comedy Western with tons of adventure, says Higgins. It has a real Indiana Jones feel to it; its about fun, not fighting. It started over year ago under Mike Lazzo as a potential Adult Swim project. We realized it had broader appeal, a huge amount of kid appeal, so its going on the general network. Who knows, maybe because people heard we were doing Party Wagon that westerns are now coming into vogue.
Speaking of Adult Swim, the late night block will see a new anime series join its ranks, Witch Hunter Robin together with 10 new episodes of Harvey Birdman, Attorney and Law. As for the remainder of the year, Higgins promises more news at its Upfront presentation to the advertising industry in late February. When asked about his wish list, Higgins is optimistic. Everythings going to come in time. Do I wish we had Nickelodeons ratings? Sure I do. Were a lot younger than Nick and Im sure thats happen over time; Im sure someday theyre going to be saying I wish we had Cartoon Networks ratings. Other than that, my only other wish is that we had The Simpsons on the network.
2003 was a very good year for Nickelodeon veteran Eric Coleman, apart from his August promotion to vp of animation development and production. In an exceptionally competitive marketplace, Nickelodeon has been very carefully nurturing and exploiting its core assets while bringing new product into its animation mix.
The Rugrats spin-off, All Grown Up, was our highest-rated premiere ever, it was huge, says Coleman. It was great news for us to see that kids are still embracing these characters. Our audience has grown up with them and they want to see what theyre up to. The series premiered a couple of weeks ago and so far the ratings have been solid.
Coleman also describes the anime-influenced My Life as a Teenage Robot, Nicks other 03 premiere as performing solidly and notes that it led the TV pack in Annie Award nominations. Were quite pleased with how our shows are doing and now were focusing on maintaining our momentum for the upcoming year.
Theres a lot of heat around our top-rated shows. SpongeBob SquarePants is still a runaway hit and theres no sign going away any time soon. In fact, the SpongeBob House Party episode was the highest-rated SpongeBob ever and we were very pleased with that. Fairly OddParents is coming on strong and its now our second highest rated show on Nick and I believe on all of kids TV as well. Its gaining a lot of momentum and we plan to begin stripping it in September.
Nicks move into occasional mini feature-length, hour-long episodes of its most popular shows has paid off as well. The Operation: Rescue Jet Fusion! episode of Jimmy Neutron was that series highest rated episode, leading the way for four more to air over the summer, according to Coleman. Well be showing The Jimmy/Timmy Power Hour, a crossover between Jimmy Neutron and Timmy from Fairly OddParents. It will actually switch back and forth between CG and 2D, for all those people who ever wondered what Timmy looks like in 3D and Jimmy looks like in 2D.
Speaking of the OddParents, were following the huge success of last years Abracatastrophe special with another one called Channel Changers. Were also doing an hour-long All Grown Up and the first As Told By Ginger TV movie. We run these in the summer because thats when kids have more energy and more time; theres more of an appetite for big entertainment with all the blockbuster movies out there in the summer.
Colemans has high hopes for Danny Phantom, Nicks upcoming new series from Fairly OddParents creator Butch Hartman. Danny Phantom or I should say Fenton is a regular kid who has a little accident in his dads lab and now has ghost powers. Theyre 22-minute stories, which is a different storytelling format for us. Its set to premiere in April, right after the Kids Choice Awards, which is like our post-Super Bowl timeslot.
Danny Phantom is the only new series on Nicks 2004 schedule for the moment. Were just finishing production on five pilots that were excited about. Well be making some decisions and moving onto production; at least one of them should be on the air in the fall and others will follow in 05. Deciding which one to go with first is tough - theyre all looking really good. Its a good problem to have.
Like his competitors, Coleman is tight-lipped as to the new shows subject matter, but will allow, theyre along the spectrum of broad, slapstick comedy. Were kind of pushing the boundaries a little bit from what we normally do and experimenting with what we call comic adventure: shows with strong characters, good humor but with a little more velocity. Were heading down that road with Danny Phantom, but theyll all still be humor-based; thats why were not calling them action adventure.
These pilots are all 2D, but we have a pretty full development slate beyond them. Were working on some 3D stuff as well that will probably see the light of day in 05. Whats interesting about this time in animation is that we have the artists catching up with the technology, so its not just programmers and technical folk who know how to use the software. Now artists are swearing by it and its great to see they know what to do with it.
Coleman will not confirm or deny rumors that one of Nickelodeons strangest series will soon be out on DVD, but does say flat out that there are no plans for Invader Zim to resume production of original episodes. Come year end, Nick will be competing with (not to mention cross-promoting) SpongeBob SquarePants theatrical feature debut. Like Zim, there are no plans for new SpongeBob TV episodes, but unlike Zim, the thought is never far from Colemeans mind. Its something weve been talking about since the day they left to go work on the movie, and its something well continue to look into.
Year-end 2003 marked a major change for Cartoon Networks Linda Simensky: she became PBSs Linda Simensky, specifically its senior director of childrens programming. The woman who shepherded The Powerpuff Girls from a handful of shorts to a multi-million dollar franchise series, and who brought Klasky Csupo into Nickelodeons orbit began to see things differently once she had a rugrat of her own to look after.
I have a three year old, and I have a different take now on what kids that age need from TV. I took this job with a mission to make programming that Id want my son to watch. Hes seen the Powerpuffs, but theres also a lot out there that I wouldnt want him to watch. When you realize how a three year old can learn from TV, you want to figure out how to do shows that are interesting and exciting, but also have an educational element and dont depend on good versus evil. I saw the potential to do things here that you couldnt do elsewhere.
Joining PBS meant leaving behind Cartoon Network and Nickelodeons anything goes sensibility, but Simensky didnt see it as that much of a loss. Ive only done that wacky kid of programming, so I was really ready to learn something new.
PBS Kids definitely qualifies as a change of pace from a highly structured cable channel. Its actually two separate but overlapping entities: a programming smorgasboard that local PBS affiliates can pick and choose from (Simensky notes that the childrens schedule on WNET in New York is entirely different from WGBH in Boston) and the PBS Kids digital cable channel that carries all of the services offerings. Thats why I wanted the job. Youre supplying programming to a bunch of different channels. You have to figure out what their needs are, what their commonalities are and how to fulfill them.
While kids broadcasters have to worry about scheduling those FCC-mandated three hours of educational programming, PBS Kids schedule has to be wall-to-wall educational, and at the same time entertaining enough to go head-on against its commercial competition - or perhaps surpass them, at least when its time to hand out the statues: PBS Kids 10 Daytime Emmys bested its competition in childrens programming for the sixth year in a row.
PBS Kids strength is in its appeal to the preschool, 2-5 year old audience, where they claim five of the top 10 shows. In 2003, it capitalized on Clifford the Big Red Dog, the number one show in that demographic, with Cliffords Puppy Days, a spin-off series that claimed the number two spot. The channel also premiered the CGI-animated Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks, an Irish farm-set show featuring a large voice cast that includes Mel Brooks as a visiting American sheep.
PBS is aiming a little higher in 2004, with two new shows targeted at 6-8 year olds set to premiere in the fall. Just as Clifford begat his Puppy Days, Postcards from Buster is a spin-off from the PBS Kids hit, Arthur. The amiable aardvarks rabbit friend Buster will be traveling around the U.S. with his airline pilot dad, sending video postcards back home for Arthur to share with the viewers. Simensky describes the show as one-quarter animation and three-quarters live-action. People talk to the camera we call it the Bustercam and he talks back to them in the show. Theres actually a picture of Buster on the camera when theyre taping so people can feel like they really are talking to Buster.
The second show is a cross-cultural animated comedy, The Misadventures of Maya and Miguel focusing on a pair of 10-year-old first generation Hispanic twins. The shows goal is to encourage Spanish speakers to learn English. Simensky says the English-language show features some Spanish enough that someone whos learning English will be able to follow the story. If youre learning Spanish youll probably be able to pick up a few words too. Just to play it safe, however, the show will be broadcast with a Spanish-language SAP track.
Charlies Angels and C.H.i.P.s fans will also be glad to hear that Lucy Liu and Erik Estrada are among the voice talent. Simensky notes that one of the initiatives for the new year is to grow the 6-8 audience via an afternoon block which is basically these two shows plus Arthur, the animated math show Cyberchase and Zoom, which Im sure youll remember.
With the PBS Kids 2004 schedule essentially locked in place, Simensky is looking ahead to 2005 and a possible new series that, like Postcards from Buster, would be a live-action/animation combination. As for the overall programming mix, there are certain shows that I really like and some that may not be as strong as the others. My goal is to find a quiet, unobtrusive home for the weaker ones and emphasize the ones I feel are the strongest. Simensky sums up her mission by observing, PBS has always had the goal of developing iconic characters for kids and to find the next kids icon the next Arthur, or the next Big Bird. Or perhaps, the next Powerpuff Girls.
From his vantage point, Seibert sees another big Pokémon-style breakout hit somewhere just over the horizon. Its been a few years. SpongeBob was the last real one. Hes really the first superstar character of the modern generation, which is really interesting; in 10 years of unbelievable successes, only one superstar has emerged from the pack. Yu-Gi-Oh! tried, it did really well, but didnt really break out in a permanent way.
Technology-wise, Seibert predicts, were going to see a lot more CGI and CGI-influenced stuff on TV. Its getting easier and easier for traditionally trained people to make their way in the CGI world. Clearly costs are going down in CGI production. Youre able to do more CGI stuff on a TV budget.
I also think were close to the end of The Simpsons. How thats going to shake out in terms of replacements, well see. More and more cable people are coming on in primetime animation next year. Itll be interesting to see what the role of cable will be, but its clear that theres still a lot of adult primetime animation to come.
Joe Strike is a NYC-based writer/producer with a background in TV promotion and a lifelong interest in animation. He is writing a childrens novel.