Kids' TV opens to northern exposure

Canada emerges as a major player in the lucrative game of US children's

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If you're an American with a TV set and a young child, you're probably familiar with programs such as the book-to-cartoon shows "Arthur" and "Babar," animated "Theodore Tugboat," and "Zoboomafoo," a lively mix of animals and animation featuring the zany Kratt brothers and their lemur cohost.

But what you might not know is that these shows, along with a host of other popular preschool fare, are either produced, created, or animated by Canadian companies. And more are on the way, thanks to a combination of the Canadian government's longtime support of children's programming and the commercial possibilities originally created by Barney the dinosaur.

It's also a situation that has started to raise the ire of independent children's programming companies in the US, who worry about losing business to what they see as unfair competition from their northern rivals.

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US public broadcaster PBS demonstrated the interest that American networks have in Canadian children's programs earlier this month when it hired Toronto-based Nelvana to produce its entire Saturday morning lineup: six new series based on books by popular children's authors including Maurice Sendak, William Joyce, Rosemary Wells, and Andrea Beck.

Currently, Canadian animation studios produce about two dozen series for US networks. Nelvana, for instance, provides the entire Saturday morning block for CBS, as well as Nickelodeon's Nick Jr preschool programming, which includes the popular cartoons "Franklin," and "Little Bear."

Why all the interest in Canadian shows?

"We were drawn to the track record that Nelvana had as a producer, particularly with shows like 'Magic School Bus.' And the content they were offering included some wonderful children's authors," says John Wilson, senior vice-president of programming with PBS.

Yet it's the role that the Canadian government has played over the years that divides opinion over the growing use of Canadian children's fare by US networks.

Kealy Wilkinson of the Alliance for Children's Television, which is based in Toronto, says it's no surprise that the US is coming to Canada looking for quality children's programming, because so is the rest of the world.

"Canada is now the second largest exporter of video products in the world," she says. "Almost 200 countries run Canadian children's programming. We did a global survey a few years ago and we asked people around the world if they liked Canadian programming, and the answer came back a resounding 'Yes' and 'Send us more!' "

Ms. Wilkinson says the Canadian government saw the industry as "a national investment."

BUT the answer is not quite that easy, according to David Kleeman, executive director of the American Center for Children and the Media. "The Canadian government offers a fairly strong package of financial incentives if the show contains Canadian content," says Mr. Kleeman. "And there is a fairly broad definition of what 'Canadian content' is, so a lot of programming qualifies. If you're a US animation company, it's hard to compete in an environment where the other guys have strong government subsidies."

Another development that helped Canadian companies, according to Doug Barnes, the head of content services for Halifax-based Cochran Entertainment and former deputy head of children's programming for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was a 1996 decision by the US Federal Communications Commission. The directive required American broadcasters to provide a minimum of three hours per week of "informative, thought-provoking" television for children, and sent networks scrambling for content to meet the requirements.

But the change that really opened the doors for Canadian shows came when PBS started running "Barney and Friends" in 1992.

"Barney was one of the first shows that well-intentioned teachers helped design," says Mr. Barnes. "It put young children were they wanted to be. It was about things that kids like to do - lots of hugging and lots of singing.

"And it made money. A lot of money, because they started merchandising right away. And when the American networks saw 'Barney,' they knew there was a lot of similar programming available in Canada, for a very good price." Forbes Magazine estimated 1993 sales of Barney merchandise at $500 million.

This combination of quality shows that could be easily merchandised, yet cost less due to government incentives and a lower dollar in Canada, played a role in PBS's purchase of Canadian programs, says the network's Mr. Wilson. "These kinds of shows are expensive to produce, and they are not getting any cheaper. If we want to remain competitive we have to be smart about the deals that we put together," he comments.

British-produced "Teletubbies" on PBS is another example of a highly popular series for young children that is raking in millions through merchandising rights - between $400- and $600 million in 1997 and 1998, according to the trade magazine, Toy Book. A show for slightly older children, "Tweenies," will hit British TV this fall, and will eventually make its way to the US.

Meanwhile, if the US wants to help American companies, according to children's media analyst Kleeman, the best approach is not to start a "trade war," but to adopt a support model for the children's programming industry like those in Canada, Australia, and England.

Children's programming advocate Wilkinson is blunter in her assessment. "If the US is concerned, maybe the first thing it needs is to strengthen its own infrasructure that supports children's programming. And yes, they could take a page out of our books if they want to see how it's done."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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