Deborah Reber takes a look at three companies, CINAR Animation, Porchlight Entertainment and Big Idea Productions, that are making a living out of the growing market of wholesome family entertainment.
As a kid, my parents were fairly strict when it came to my intake of television programming. My father laid down the law, decreeing which programs were and were not acceptable for his two young impressionable daughters to be watching. Let it be known that I rarely agreed with his decisions. Try being the only 10 year-old on the block not allowed to watch Laverne and Shirley because there were too many "adult" themes. And my parents had it easy in comparison. Welcome to the 1990s, where the discourse continues over what does and doesn't constitute family-friendly television programming. In today's age of countless channel possibilities, sorting through television's current offerings can be more than a daunting task. Regulation of the television industry, an ever-growing supply of gore, horror and sexual content in programming, and the passing of new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations in 1997 mandating minimum broadcast hours of child-friendly, educational programming, brought the notion of family programming to the forefront. Networks began scrambling to find shows that fit the FCC's guidelines, often bending the definition to accommodate their own broadcast schedules. Beyond broadcast television, there's also cable and satellite channels that have thousands of programming hours to fill -- the Family Channel, the Learning Channel, PAX TV Network, the Angel Satellite Network, and so on. The market for a wholesome, completely inoffensive, utterly positive brand of programming has blossomed. Most people would name Disney as the model for creators of family-appropriate programming, but conservative organizations like the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis, Minnesota, find that even Disney's animated fare doesn't always make the cut for programming appropriate for all ages. So who are the companies producing wholesome, family-friendly, all-age appropriate animated programming? And what can be said for companies creating programs free of violence, strong language, sexual themes or illegal behavior, and full of quality, educational content and traditional values like honesty, courage, and responsibility?
Nobody Does It Better Than CINAR
The international leader in family programming is indisputably the Montreal-based company, CINAR Animation. Founded in 1976 by husband and wife team Ronald Weinberg and Michelline Charest, CINAR aims to produce and distribute "quality, non-violent programming and educational products for the global marketplace." When they founded CINAR, Weinberg and Charest took a gamble that their company was in a perfect position to fill a gap in children's programming, for at the time there wasn't much competition. They had no way of knowing that their gamble would pay off so well. Despite today's plethora of family programming production companies in the international marketplace, CINAR is at the top of their game, and is the clear leader in the family programming industry.
CINAR is perhaps best known for its Emmy-award winning animated television series for preschoolers, Arthur, which follows the life of an 8 year-old aardvark and his group of friends. The PBS series, based on the best-selling books by Marc Brown, draws its praise from critics who appreciate the fact that the protagonist is just a "regular kid," and one with which its young audience can relate. This makes it easy for Arthur to be a role model for children as he deals with some serious issues like cheating and lying. The success of Arthur has spread to ancillary products tied in with the show, including toys, home videos and interactive software. CINAR's other top-rated animated programs include The Busy World of Richard Scarry and The Adventures of Paddington Bear. Their newest hit, a puppet program for preschoolers, Wimzie's House, won the 1997 Parent's Choice Gold Award for National Television Programming.
One of the secrets behind CINAR's success is that the company hasn't limited itself to producing only television programming. CINAR has become one of the foremost international distributors of high quality children's television and film programs, reaching more than 150 countries through these ventures. Major international partners include the BBC (UK), France 2 and France 3 and Germany's RTL. CINAR is also the largest outside supplier of programming to the number one kids network in the US, Nickelodeon.
CINAR has also found great success in adding more depth to the company in recent years. A new division, CINAR Education, takes advantage of the expertise of the recently acquired educational publisher Carson-Dellosa, and HighReach Learning, a supplier of curriculum-based resources for teachers. CINAR Education will focus on supporting and promoting their original educational properties. Again, CINAR's instincts were right on with this recent expansion. Revenues for the company increased 71% from August 1997 to August 1998, and the publicly-owned company's stock continues to rise with every licensing deal they make.
Porchlight Entertainment Up And Coming
CINAR presents a successful model for any young, growing company to follow, and Porchlight Entertainment is doing just that. "I'm not going to fool you. It's a very tough business to enter and be successful in," says Bruce Johnson, co-founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-based family programming company.
Founded in 1995, Porchlight is perhaps best known for its highly acclaimed animated series, Adventures from the Book of Virtues, broadcast nationally on PBS. The show follows the adventures of Zach and Annie, 11 and 10 years-old respectively, on their visits to Plato's Peak, where friends Plato, Sock (Socrates), and Ari (Aristotle), share with them Greek myths, Asian legends and American folklore. Each episode focuses on a particular virtue; such as courage, loyalty, faith, humility, perseverance and respect.
Adventures from the Book of Virtues has been met with great success, and has enabled Porchlight to diversify through associations with Simon & Schuster Publishing for companion books, Digital Domain for CD-ROM and interactive products, and Turner Home Entertainment for home video distribution, to name just a few. "There is definitely an audience out there, and we've had a great response to our brand of programming. Increasingly, it is through that, that we're becoming commercially successful," said Johnson.
In Adventures from the Book of Virtues, and their newest animated series for preschoolers, Jay Jay the Jet Plane (which premiered on The Learning Channel in November 1998), Johnson seems to have reached his primary goals in creating the company. "I wanted to create high-quality, family programming that is safe, and will have both parents and kids responding positively," says Johnson.
Quality is certainly something not lacking in any of Porchlight's productions. Adventures from the Book of Virtues often gets big-name voiceover talent, and Jay Jay the Jet Plane is introducing a breakthrough animation technique with the help of Los Angeles-based motion capture house Modern Cartoons, which has so far brought Porchlight great response at television markets this year.
Big Idea Takes Big Steps
When examining family television programming, there is a growing group of suppliers in the marketplace that is making itself known -- those creating non-secular or religious-based programming. Chicago-based Big Idea Productions, founded in 1993, has built-up their name by creating "values-oriented media that matches in quality the best that Hollywood has to offer."
Big Idea, whose motto is "Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun," has found a substantial audience with its VeggieTales video series. In 3D computer animation, characters Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber, and all their vegetable friends tell stories through song, dance, and humor in half-hour episodes. Titles include "Where's God When I'm Scared?" and "The Toy That Saved Christmas." The latter of these will be broadcast this holiday season on PAX TV Network, a new cable network launched this fall with a mandate to broadcast only family programming.
Regarding his aspirations in creating Big Idea, founder Phil Vischer says, "I have a hard time finding television shows or videos that I want my children to watch, and that I want to watch with them. This, plus my desire to prepare my kids for life in an imperfect society, has been a constant inspiration."
Big Idea has big goals for the future, including nothing less than elevating the company to recognition and status levels on par with Disney and the Jim Henson Company. If recent sales figures are any indication, they're well on their way. Although Vischer says he wants to focus on the viewer and improve their lives rather than the ebb and flow of the company's stock value, the company has grown leaps and bounds due to its breakthrough into the secular marketplace, allowing Big Idea to begin to compete with some of the "big boys." National U.S. outlets such as Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Target are now selling Big Idea's "Veggie Tales" videos. In just the past year, the company has seen an increase in video sales of over 300%.
A Growing Field
The list of companies producing family programming fare doesn't come close to stopping here. There are always the old familiars like Barney, broadcast on PBS. While newcomers on the preschool television market like Blue's Clues and Teletubbies have given the purple dinosaur a run for his money, Barney remains a profitable property. In addition to the traditionally licensed hard and soft goods that accompany any hit show, the recently released Barney's Big Adventure: The Movie (released theatrically in April, on home video this past September), is generating a healthy profit, with projected revenues marked to be between $69 and $114 million dollars.
Cabbage Patch Kids, a craze which began a whopping 15 years ago, has stood the test of time to demonstrate the longevity and potential shelf life for well-conceived and well-directed family programming properties. A video series, distributed by BMG Video, is animated in stop-motion by Flying Films (UK), and brings the popular dolls to life with stories and songs. The best-selling video series is so popular that HBO and Showtime actually broadcast The Cabbage Patch Film Festival this past summer.
We have profiled a select number of companies here, but these few paint a clear picture -- the world of animation has found a permanent place in the family programming community; one that will most likely grow as the number of outlets for non-G rated programming continues to expand. Plus, digital television, interactive television, and other inventions just around the bend lend themselves wonderfully to animation, making the likelihood that new family programming production companies will continue to spring up and create new and innovative animation, a great one.
Deborah Reber manages Ancillary Projects for Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues and is a freelance writer based in New York.