America's Hearst Entertainment and Venezuela's Cisneros Group are combining forces to form a new, 24-hour-a-day animation channel for Latin America. Harvey Deneroff reports.
In recent years, there has been a proliferation of specialized cable and satellite channels devoted to children's and/or animation programming. The most visible ones have been the US-based Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, which have made their presence felt internationally. These channels also have their counterparts around the world, ranging from South Korea to the UK. Thus, it is not surprising that Locomotion, a new all-animation service, would emerge aimed at the Latin American via the DirecTV satellite service.
A joint venture between the Hearst Corporation and Venezuela's Groupo Cisneros, Locomotion is a 24-hour channel will initially rely on the Hearst library for its programming. While not substantial, the library does features shows based on such popular comic book/strip characters as Phantom 2040, The Legend of Prince Valiant and Popeye; it also includes several new shows, including Quasimodo (based on Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Flash Gordon.
A Long History
Hearst, mainly known as a publishing company, does not have a very high profile within the animation industry; nevertheless, it has a long history in field. In fact, its short-lived, New York-based International Film Service, established in 1915, played a small but significant role in the early history of American animation. The operation was initially set up to exploit and publicize the comic strips that appeared in the Hearst newspapers, anticipating the type of promotional synergy so common today. The studio is perhaps best known for nurturing the talents of Gregory La Cava (who invented storyboarding and went on to gain fame in screwball comedies in the 1930s) and Walter Lantz, rather than for its films.
Hearst's most long-lived connection with animation has been through its King Features Syndicate, which has licensed such classic characters as Betty Boop and Popeye. In 1992, it set up what became Hearst Animation Productions in Los Angeles to produce TV series. Its initial production was the 26 half hour TV series, The Legend of Prince Valiant, which was co-produced with a French company, IBDH. Through this operation and other activities, Hearst has now built up a library of about 600 half hours, that also includes Krazy Kat, Cool McCool and G-Force, which will form the kernel of Locomotion's programming.
Stan Sagner, Director of Program Service Development for Hearst Entertainment & Syndication, sums up the fact that, "Hearst has been aggressively and actively producing over the last five years. We actually were producing long before then, as King Features Entertainment, and are continuing to develop and produce on an ongoing basis."
While these shows will form "the core of the programming," he admits they will "not be sufficient to program a whole network. So, we will be acquiring additional programming from around the world." For the immediate future, though, this does not include original shows made just for Locomotion. "For the time being," he says, "we're focusing on acquiring the best animation that suits the market."
Variances in Taste
Sagner suggests that there are some distinct differences between Locomotion and other cartoon/children's channels. "First of all," Sagner states, "it's not a children's channel. It's an animation channel. Second, unlike other channels, this one was created specifically for the Latin American market, and we're selecting animation that best suits that market."
I asked Sagner how the market in Central and South America differs from American or European markets. In response, he said that, "There are subtle variances in taste and exposure. There are certain types of animation that, I think, you would have a harder time showing, for example, on Saturday morning in the US. For example, Asian animation from Korea or Japan, or certain European animation that I think the Latin American market is much more open to. He further points out that, "there are some Japanese series that would probably never see the light of day in the United States that have done exceptionally well in Latin America. Nevertheless, without getting too specific, the intent is to program the channel with a sensitivity to that market, instead of just taking what we have here and playing it down there."
This comment is an indirect reference to Locomotion's most direct competition, the ubiquitous Cartoon Network, which already broadcasts to the Latin American marketplace on a split day with its sister channel, TNT. (The two channels have a similar arrangement in both Europe and Asia.) The Cartoon Network, of course, has ready access to the Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros. and MGM animation libraries, which are owned by its parent company, Time Warner.
Thus, it is obviously counting on its partnership with the Cisneros Group to help level the playing field. "They bring," Sagner states, an unprecedented, for us, level of expertise about the Latin American marketplace, about programming, distribution and marketing.
"Locomotion," he points out, "is a 50/50 joint venture. So, they've been involved every step of the way, from the beginning, in terms of the development of the channel; and they will certainly be involved every step of the way in running it with us."
This partnership, however, will not extend to commissioning original programming produced in Latin America for the foreseeable future. Though there has apparently been some very preliminary exploration of the capabilities of the Latin-American animation industry, Sagner points out that they are "not quite there" in being able to handle series production.
A Direct-to-Home Service
Locomotion itself will begin broadcasting this fall, "probably sometime in October, via GLA, Galaxy Latin America's DirecTV service. Galaxy, which is based in Nassau, Bahamas, has Hughes Electronics (a division of General Motors) as its majority shareholder. MVS Multivision, a Mexican pay-TV company, Groupo Cisneros and Televisão Abril, a Brazilian media company, are the minority partners. (GLA's main competition will be the Los Angeles-based Sky Entertainment Services, which is backed by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, Mexico's Groupo Televisia and Brazil's Organizaçõs Globo.)
"GLA," Sagner states, "provides direct-to-home service, and will make Locomotion available to all of the countries under its footprint, which will eventually number 23. The satellite service itself is brand new, so the countries are coming online one by one, and is only available now in Venezuela and Brazil. By the time we go on the air, I would expect that a number of other major territories, including Mexico, should be receiving the service; and most of the countries will be able to receive it by sometime by the middle of next year, ranging from Mexico down to the tip of Argentina."
The programming itself will be bilingual. Viewers will be able to hear programs through two audio channels either dubbed in Spanish or (for Brazil) in Portugese, or in their original language. "Thus," Sagner points out, "if the original program was American, British or Canadian, the secondary language will be English. If it's a French program, then mostly likely the secondary language will be French."
"It's our intention," he says, "to provide a variety of top quality animation that appeals to all ages. It's clear to us that there is an appetite for this type programming, not just for children, but for teenagers and adults as well. We think that we can fill that need. In other words, they'll be programming that appeals to adult sensibilities.
"For example," he points out, that besides a lot of very strong action-adventure programming from Japan, there are also shows from Europe that are a little more sophisticated," referring to such things as the new adult series being programmed by Britain's Channel 4.
Given the economic realities of today's Latin American marketplace, such satellite channels will, of necessity, aim for a relatively more upscale audience than views cable TV in the US or Canada. As such, its strategy to include more adult offerings than their North American counterparts makes a lot sense.
"Our intention," he explains, "is to also expand to cable and wireless services in about a year. Our hope is that DirecTV is going to grow very quickly, but it will certainly supplement the direct satellite broadcast."
Like a number of countries in Europe, most of Central and South America lacks the cable TV infrastructure so prevalent in the US and Canada. Sagner states that, "There are certain countries where cable is very well developed and obviously that would be a very smart route for us to take. However, there are others where there is little or no cable or wireless service available, and satellite systems are pretty much the only means of getting multichannel television."
It is certainly too early to tell how successful Locomotion will be. Nevertheless, its very existence, as an important component of a major new satellite broadcasting service is further indication of the importance being attached to animation in today's international marketplace. If it also fulfills its promise to be an animation and not just a children's channel, it can only help expand the market for more sophisticated fare.
Harvey Deneroff, in addition to his duties as Editor of Animation World Magazine, edits and publishes The Animation Report, an industry newsletter, which can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.