Monthly Archives: September 2011

Worthless

Last week, the Guardian reported about the sale of many beloved children’s TV characters, with some of the larger rights owners seemingly in ongoing financial difficulties. Well, times are tough for everyone, right?

Yes. But it’s more than that.

As the Guardian says, “increasingly broadcasters expect to pay nothing for children’s television shows”. Which puts the value of the producing, writing, directing, animating, and everything else involved in making a show roughly at around zero in real terms.

That would seem to say that a show, in itself, is worthless.

That deserves a sad face:

It wouldn’t be right to blame the broadcasters here. Traditionally, television has been an ad-supported medium. But with ever-expanding media outlets, ad revenue has been split. More importantly, many places are putting restrictions on advertising to children and I can tell you that many parents are hoping for more restrictions. If a broadcaster isn’t funded by license fees, that can leave some with little direct revenue from children’s shows.

The real value of television changed when show producers and distributors began to see secondary revenue streams in licensing and merchandising. Sure, the show itself may not bring in money but the lunchboxes? Pyjamas? Playsets? Oh, that’s a goldmine! The show becomes a loss leader. And let’s not forget that this isn’t new – some fondly remembered cartoons from the ’80s were shameless toy ads. But, hey, that’s where the money is.

Or is it?

Sure, there’s Dora. But go down the line a little and the model just doesn’t quite seem to be working like Dora does. Many of these loss leaders are just plain losses. And even though these properties have buyers, which suggests some faith in this model (the brands are not worthless), it all seems rather fragile. Possibly now broken.

Maybe it has always been broken?

When you think about it, that idea should not be hugely surprising. When secondary revenue streams become primary revenue streams, priorities change and a conflict arises, because the needs of what is still the core element (the show) no longer match the needs of where the money is coming from (licensing and merchandising). And with some bigger companies, because they have more to lose, they want to make sure that a property works across all areas, something that weeds out the oddities, the anomalies ‘ or, in other words, what could make a show really interesting and different. So there is a conflict and a compromise built into the model.

If toys were toys and shows were shows, this would never be a issue. But then the initial problem would still remain – that a show, in itself, is worthless.

It’s a depressing thought, isn’t it?

Well, it would be if it were true. You see, whether ‘worthless’ from a commercial point of view, and I don’t even think that is quite true, I think it is very important to acknowledge that children’s television is not worthless. Far from it.

Television makes children smile and laugh. Even, at times, get up and dance. We all love to be entertained. Children also learn from television. Television can be an invaluable teaching tool, going hand in hand with entertainment and working with parents in delivering good messages, new experiences, positivity and educational material to children.

Who among us having grown up on Sesame Street could ever call television worthless?

No, children’s television is not worthless. We may just need to see the value in a different way. Perhaps accept that not every area in life needs to become a billion-dollar business, or is even better for it. Look to what would be our ‘end users’ ‘ children and parents ‘ and ask what we can give them. It’s why children’s television needs strong local government support. Working with broadcasters to deliver something really good for children, the new generation. Relevant content for each country, each community, each child and each parent. Shows that have value well beyond those once-secondary revenue streams.

And perhaps, as things change and this current model evolves or even completely breaks down (which maybe it will, maybe it won’t), we’ll find a new way of looking at content. A whole new model that allows that real value to shine through. Who knows, maybe that will open up a whole new revenue stream, one not secondary, not conflicting or compromising, and we’ll all do rather well out of it.

Children will always want to be entertained. More and more, parents are looking for good content. Old ways changing or breaking down may not spell doom – it could actually be the start of something rather exciting.

The Cartoon Forum in Sopot, Poland, was a meeting of animation producers, broadcasters, distributors, creators and more from all over Europe, over 700 participants in all. 66 animation projects were pitched.

One of those was Cosmo.

After a short introduction, I would have to get up in front of a room full of people and show them why I thought Cosmo totally rocks. Actually, that’s not quite true ‘ I didn’t have to get up. But I’ve presented four times already at the Forum and, each time, I sat behind that desk and you know what? It’s restrictive. It turns people into a mumbly head and shoulders. I didn’t spend all that time working up a presentation to become a mumbly head and shoulders. Not this time.

And so I got up…

Almost 30 minutes later, I wrapped it up. I was done.

Wow, that felt quick.

I really want to thank everyone who came up at the end to let me know they enjoyed what they saw of the show, or the presentation itself. With all the work trying to boil down the essence of the show, the second-guessing, the pre-presentation nerves (and, oh, there were nerves!), it meant a huge amount personally to hear those kind words. So thank you, each and every one of you.

But, of course, it was about the show. Now even before the presentation, it was a real kick to see Cosmo get this excellent feature in Kidscreen Magazine (thanks Kidscreen!):

And after the presentation? Well, the reaction to Cosmo was fantastic. There seemed to be a real buzz about the show – the fun, the songs and, of course, the planets too. It all still has to come together so some way to go yet, but the Cartoon Forum turned out to be really great for Cosmo.

And not just for Cosmo.

Monster Animation, Cosmo’s production company, was awarded the Cartoon European Producer of the Year Award. Irish broadcaster RTÉ, with possibly Cosmo’s strongest adult supporter in the form of the wonderful Sheila de Courcy (Commissioning Editor for Young Peoples Programming), picked up the Broadcaster of the Year Award. And on top of all that, I found the end of a packet of fruit Polos at the bottom of my bag.

So a pretty good Cartoon Forum, right?

I must say, even without all that, I love the Cartoon Forum. I always have, since my first Forum in Bayern ten years ago. The Forum has so much going on and yet, with being so well-organised, always feels relaxed. Smooth. So thank you to all the Cartoon people for yet another enjoyable Cartoon Forum! With working on Cosmo, I didn’t get to see many other presentations but there were a few projects that looked great ‘ Boj & Buddies from Pesky Productions, Fungi from StorFisk and, while I missed Zig & Zag (I bailed early, anticipating a post-presentation crash), I reckon it was going to be good! Hope you all get your projects away and I look forward to some new top-quality shows for children hitting television soon.

And Sopot, Poland? What a lovely place. I’ll admit I had never heard of it until the Forum but I could totally go back there for a holiday. Lovely town, beautiful beach and who wouldn’t love the tune belted out by that church at 12 noon?

It was also great to catch up with some cartoon people I rarely see and make some new acquaintances along the way.

All in all, a great Cartoon Forum in a great location.

I’m presenting Cosmo to the Cartoon Forum in Poland this week, to broadcasters, distributors and peers. It’s a pretty big deal. Right now, it feels like everything has been leading to Cosmo. Not just the close to two years of solid development I have put into the show, but the years getting there.

I have been Creative Director of Monster Animation for over 10 years now. In that time, with some incredibly talented colleagues and friends, I built a studio, creating and refining production systems that would work for me and the types of projects I make.

Through commericals, short films all the way to children’s television, leading the creative vision has been a journey. Not always an easy one and it took quite some time for me to really find where that vision was going. Some of the early stuff that we did along the way? It’s not great. The truth is, I didn’t really know where it was all going until I got to direct the 39 episodes of the wonderful Roobarb & Custard Too.

Then I knew. And I created Fluffy Gardens.

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Fluffy Gardens was a whole different experience. That was my show. The words, the look, the feel, production methods. From empty page all the way to television.

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And it worked. Everything came together on that show. I found myself working with some amazing creative talents, each one adding a layer of their own to the show ‘ reminding me that I was not alone. I didn’t do it alone. Every single person on our team brought something wonderful to that show.

I found myself striving to do better. Better quality, better storytelling, better content for children, better systems.

With Ballybraddan, 40 more Fluffy Gardens episodes and then Punky, the methods were put to the test, refined further, streamlined and polished. Meanwhile, I studied children’s television, broke down the shows, dug up the research (and there is a lot of research), looked at what worked and what didn’t and why, questioned, prodded, looked deeper, beyond the accepted wisdom to find real understanding.

All to create a better show. Not just better, a special show. A show that children would love. A show that would be good for those children.

Right now, that show is Cosmo.

Cosmo still has some way to go. It’s going to require people sharing the vision. And, yes, there will be other stories, other shows. There are some simmering away in the background. But, right now, Cosmo is that special show and, if we can make it happen, I think it’s going to be excellent. Of course, I’m biased.

If you’re at the Forum, please do come along to our presentation. I’m hoping it will be fun.

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And to everyone who has worked so hard on Cosmo with me over the last few months, you who delivered above and beyond, who brought brilliance and were striving for excellence every step of the way, who made the whole process a pleasure – thank you. You all rock.

I’ll admit, as a parent, I had some reservations about Yo Gabba Gabba.

Having a very sensitive daughter, prone to nightmares, I’ve wondered about the designs of some of the main characters and the dreams they inspire. I’ve wondered if some of the familiar adult faces and bands aren’t just a little bit self-indulgent. I know my daughter didn’t get Biz’s Beat Of The Day whatsoever and, when I tried to get her to take part, it just freaked her out. And I wondered about the age-old pace/attention span issue that has been talked about since the dawn of children’s television (though only wondered, because research does not seem to back up that concern).

I enjoyed it but I wasn’t all that sure my little girl was getting as much from it as I was.

But Yo Gabba Gabba totally won me over.

The show is colourful, has some great songs, is very playful and who couldn’t love DJ Lance? But the show won me over on something far more important than that – the messages.

Yo Gabba Gabba covers messages to children that I simply haven’t seen anywhere else. Don’t just take stuff from your friends. Don’t throw stuff at your friends. Don’t bite your friends. Seriously, don’t bite your friends. Just don’t do it. This is something that some young children do and yet I can’t think of another show that just comes out and says don’t do it.

The messages in Yo Gabba Gabba are relevant and, importantly, different to the messages children are getting elsewhere. For such a seemingly wacky show, it tackles subjects far more grounded and real than many other shows. As a father of two, where an older child can terrorise a younger one (or vice versa), I appreciate those messages. The show can actually be a useful parenting tool – working with parents. Any reservations I once had have long since been put aside. And, now, their ‘Be Nice To Everyone’ song is one of my favourite songs from television.

I love the show. And, as my daughter got a little older, and was joined by her little sister, I found she began to get as much from it as I did.

So, Yo Gabba Gabba, I salute you!