Joe Strike talks to several animation production companies about the growing need for interstitial programming around the globe.
Once upon a time -- that time being Saturday morning 34 years ago on ABC-TV -- there was Multiplication Rock. The three-minute long cartoon math lessons set to music proved so popular, they led to similar series covering grammar, science, American history, money and computers under the umbrella title of Schoolhouse Rock.
The brief segments were there to provide an educational counterpoint to the morning's fun and games; an unintentional side effect of their presence was that their creativity and high spirits made the surrounding shows look anemic by comparison.
For many kids in the U.S., Schoolhouse Rock was their introduction to interstitials -- short form segments serving as a bridge between full-length programming. The overall quality of TV cartoons has risen dramatically since the 1970s -- and so has the demand for interstitials. Now some of those same kids are creating or commissioning the next generation of these short-form bursts of animation.
"We love interstitials and our audience does too," enthuses Michele Weiss, exec director of original programming for Playhouse Disney. The preschool block runs anywhere between seven and 10 different interstitial series at any given moment, the vast majority produced by Disney in partnership with outside production companies. Like many non-commercial outlets, Disney Channel and Playhouse Disney use shorts to fill out show times that run under 30 minutes and bridge the gap to the next program. "We want to entertain kids while they're waiting for the next show to come on. We definitely have a certain umbrella our shorts fall under. We look for interstitials built around interactivity and music -- those are strong aspects of what we do. They also need to be curriculum based."
One of Playhouse Disney's most popular interstitials is Lou and Lou: Safety Patrol, featuring Asian-American boy-and-girl twins who challenge their audience to spot potentially hazardous conditions during their three-minute segments. Music-based interstitials include pop singer Genevieve performing up-tempo numbers against a CGI background in Choo-Choo Soul, and Dan Zanes House Party, featuring a laid-back kids' singer whose videos often include animation.
Michele Weiss says she looks for "small [production] houses with neat styles that have something of a track record. It's a nice way to tap into the animation community." Lou and Lou's production company, Oddbot, definitely fits the description of a small outfit with a neat style. Christopher Hamilton, Oddbot's president, worked on Lou and Lou, along with other Playhouse Disney interstitials like Shanna's Show and Shane's Kindergarten Countdown before opening his company Oddbot. After Disney approached Hamilton to do an additional 10 Lou and Lou segments, Oddbot is earning a reputation as a `go-to' place for animated pre-school interstitials.
"Do I think it's growing?" Hamilton asks rhetorically. "I think it is. I've been able to keep my lights on doing mostly interstitials and shorts." The success of the safety-themed shorts have led to an assignment from Disney for a new, currently in-the-works interstitial package, even as the company produced 16 three-minute long segments of The Many Adventures of Mr. Mailman for PBS Kids Sprout. "When I was with the other company clients were ordering three, then five segments at a time. Then I started Oddbot and I immediately got the order for 16, way more than I was used to. We were very lucky when Playhouse called us. We went back and forth, but they wanted a batch of 10 segments. Then they ordered another show, another batch of 10. That was like `whoa,' with a larger order like that we can spend more time working on them, that's good.
"As a small studio, we're touch and go. We're just trying to get our name out there and pick up what we can. I've been really successful doing interstitials and preschool content. I love it, I'm really enjoying my time in it."
Many interstitial creators look upon interstitial projects as nothing short of a treat, particularly compared to longer form or commercial work. New York's Buzzco Assoc. has been dong interstitials since the 1980s for a host of clients including USA Network, Nickelodeon, ABC and PBS. "We like doing these, and you can write that in capital letters. You're not selling a product and you're helping educate a population. The creative side of these projects is usually wide open, which makes them a lot more fun."
Interstitials have always been more commonplace in European TV, where they can be as short as one minute. The French studio Xilam produces Rintindumb, a spin-off from the Western spoof Lucky Luke. Speaking to Sarah Baisley in a recent AWN interview, the studio's Marc du Pontavice explained, "In a format like this it's a very small team, eight to nine people max -- it's completely creator and talent driven."
Traditionally, interstitials are used as bridging segments between full-length shows, and very often their characters serve as hosts of a program block. Discovery Channel's "Ready Set Learn!" interstitials star Paz the Penguin and fill a lengthy eight-minute gap between its non-commercial shows. Paz's U.K.-produced segments are a combination of puppetry (from Open Mind Prods.) and animation (King Rollo Films).
"We could have used smaller interstitials," says Erin Wanner, the service's exec producer, "but we wanted kids to have a deeper experience. We conceived of ours as almost a mini-program. Shorter form programming is common in the international market, but is often used as interstitials in the U.S." Interestingly, Paz's segments begin on the hour and half-hour, leading into rather than following the full-length shows.
Nick Jr. and Noggin look on the interstitials as a development lab for new shows. "We often use new-to-us artists on them," says Teri Weiss, svp of production and development for Nickelodeon Preschool. "It's kind of like dating -- a small project can grow into something bigger." She offers the example of Josh Selig's Linny the guinea pig segments, which eventually evolved into Nick Jr.'s ultra-successful Wonder Pets series.
The channel's umbrella My World series is home to a variety of interstitials, with an "international flavor," according to Teri Weiss. Two projects in development are the intriguingly titled Downward Doghouse, where kids learn about Chinese culture and the Mandarin language, and The Mighty Bug 5, a team of insect superheroes. Neither is on the air yet (Downward Doghouse will premiere in October), but Nick Jr.'s website is already asking parents to offer their feedback on the shorts via Email.
Like Discovery Kids' Paz, Nickelodeon's Noggin service features Moose and Zee, a pair who serve as the overall channel hosts, weaving the shows and Noggin's other interstitials together. "They started as an experiment," Weiss explains, "and now navigate our air time. There are no formulas or restrictions on our development; we just see what people respond to."
Not all Nick Jr. or Noggin interstitials are developed in-house. Teri Weiss keeps an eye on the international film and TV markets for new characters. "There are so many wonderful things out there that we can use domestically," she said. "Non-verbal shows give us more flexibility, and we might acquire an existing package or pre-buy a series that looks promising. Also, if an Australian producer comes to Australia Nickelodeon with an idea, they'll pass word onto us if they think we'd be interested too."
The 21st century, short attention-span world of channel zapping and multiple platforms is perhaps the main factor driving the increased appetite for interstitials -- both original and lifted from longer-form shows, with segments `repurposed' to fill any platform's need. Calon TV, based in Wales produces a variety of interstitials as short as 30 seconds, primarily for mobile phones and websites. While some are based on existing shows (like its preschool series Hanna's Helpline), others feature original characters. Calon's Robin Lyons hopes, "to earn some revenue from these, but they're also a comparatively inexpensive way of launching characters."
Cake Ent. in London lifts self-contained jokes from its Scholastic series (Edgar & Ellen, Star Farm and Word Girl) for mobile and online use, while Germany's TV-Loonland has done the same with its Cramp Twins series. The expanding market for shorts and interstitials has led to "a whole new bunch of relationships" with companies like iTunes, Vivendi Mobile and YouTube, according to company spokesperson Justine Bannister.
Bannister notes that if a channel doesn't have its own branded characters, "it may be cheaper for them to buy a series of shorts with strong iconic characters than to create their own." The Dutch public broadcast channel BNN evidently didn't have a budget problem when they hired the Lawson & Whatshisname studio to create a series of 40 8-second shorts. Supposedly network IDs, the shorts are blackout gags starring college students Dennis and Dylan whose slovenly living room just happens to feature a BNN logo covering an entire wall.
"We approached these interstitials as the `world's shortest animation series' instead of an animated logo," says Lawson & Whatshisname's Jiek Weishut. "We needed to promote the broadcaster but knew that if we introduced convincing and identifiable characters in eight seconds we could implement the interstitials on a broader scale, keep the viewers' attention -- and give the broadcaster three animated mascots.
"Normally eight interstitials would have been enough, in this case we started with 40 episodes. They'll be available on Internet and as e-cards. Spin-offs and TV specials starring the characters are on the agenda. The beautiful thing," Weishut concludes, "and a tip for other producers, we used to compete for the programming budget, but we created this series from the [network's] communication [i.e., promotion] budget."
Canada's TELETOON cable channel is adding to its lineup of interstitial series and in the fall will be introducing Futz!, three-minute long segments produced for the channel by 9 Story Ent. in Toronto. A spokesperson for the channel notes that it can be a challenge to produce more mature animated series for "The Detour," its teen/adult block, due to the smaller number of outlets willing to run (and pay for) the programming; as a result, short-form content created for mobile and internet use wind up on the service as interstitials.
Back in the children's arena, Martha Speaks is an upcoming preschool series from WGBH Boston and Studio B in Vancouver Canada. With its inspiration a series of picture books starring a talking dog, the show's educational focus naturally falls on vocabulary and language skills.
PBS' children's series run a precise 28:46, with only 1:14 given over to local stations for identification and promos. It's an anomaly compared to other non-commercial children's TV outlets, where shows more often run 24 minutes and interstitials fill out the half hour. According to Carol Greenwald, the show's producer at WGBH, removable interstitials are built into PBS kid shows that "expand on a nugget of information" contained in the show. "Usually the interstitial segments are done in live action to provide a real-life connection to the stories" says Greenwald, citing PBS shows like Curious George, but "in Martha's case we felt animation gave us a better opportunity to support" the show's lessons.
Each Martha Speaks episode contains two interstitials, running between 30 and 45 seconds that explore the words used in the show. "They reinforce the episode's lesson," says Studio B producer Andrew Jiwa. "They tie into the regular story but they can be removed and work as standalone segments that run on different platforms."
PBS Kids Sprout -- a joint venture between Comcast Cable, PBS, HIT Entertainment and Sesame Workshop -- exists as a 24-hour digital channel, a video-on-demand service and an online broadband service. "American half-hour shows are very strange," according to Andrew Beecham, Sprout's svp of programming, claiming that kids lose interest seven or so minutes in. The channel "deconstructs" classic PBS series into short segments, and uses interstitials to link them together. Mr. Mailman began life as a wooden puppet on The Birthday Show, but his unexpected popularity turned him into the world-traveling 2D star of The Many Adventures of Mr. Mailman. Sprout Diner, another interstitial series uses redubbed footage of PBS stars like Barney and Bob the Builder calling the diner as a bridge into segments focusing on nutrition, information reinforced on the Sprout website, where recipes related to the segment are available. "It's all about the short form," Beecham sums up. We're programming to suit the audience, not the schedule."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.