Tuesday, July 15, 2008

One Percent

TV channels are suffering from declining audiences. That puts financial pressure on them to increase their viewership, which means that niche programs are often abandoned in favour of others promising larger audiences.

Like it or not, the children's audience is considered a niche that broadcasters have been abandoning for years. Some, like NBC, have abandoned it completely while others (Fox, CBS) have just leased out their children's timeslots rather than bother to originate programming themselves.

I recently spoke to a Canadian studio owner who said to me that while there are quotas for how much Canadian content a channel must broadcast, there's no requirement that the Canadian content be new. As overall audiences shrink (and the world heads into a recession), there's lots of incentive to avoid commissioning new children's programming. Here's an article from the Telegraph in the U.K. about the British situation.
There are 26 channels available to satellite and cable viewers that specifically cater for children. They include Cartoon Network, which shows the popular US-made cartoon Ben 10. However, the number of original and native programmes has plummeted. One per cent of the 113,000 hours of children's programmes broadcast last year were new commissions made in Britain.
The situation in Britain is complicated by a ban on junk food advertising during children's programming. That's undoubtedly good for children's health, but not so good for animation artists' bank accounts.

These pressures have also affected budgets. I heard from the same studio owner that producers are attempting to get half hour shows produced in China for $25,000. That price is only for the visuals, not scripts, boards, audio tracks and post-production, but I commented that in the 1970's in New York, Zander's Animation Parlour would get $30,000 for the visuals of a 30 second commercial. Commercials always had higher budgets per minute than the shows they interrupted, but it's hard to imagine how any studio could produce 22 minutes for $25,000.

Disney's recent live action successes have also reduced the amount of new TV animation being produced. The big question is whether this situation is temporary and will improve or if we're seeing the a permanent change in children's TV.

This might be a good time to be pitching puppet shows.


laughingwolf said...

jim henson comes easily to mind....

Pete Emslie said...

I know I tend to live in the past, but I maintain that entertainment was better and made so much more practical sense back in the 60s/70s, and perhaps throughout the 80s to a lesser degree. I can well recall when viewers of all ages would discuss the latest episode of M*A*S*H the following day at work or school. TV shows back then were a more communal event than they are now, as the audience today is so fragmented, mostly by virtue of age I think. I'm sure that I'm only one of many of my generation who has gradually tuned out from network TV, as nobody caters to our taste anymore.

I think it's a damn tragedy that even kids' entertainment is evolving away from the traditional TV cartoon fare. I'm not saying that the Hanna-Barbera product was great art (and that debate has been well covered by now) but when H-B and a few other studios dominated the Saturday morning market, at least there was a full slate of new cartoons each fall, offering working animators at least something to really DRAW. Nowadays, with every studio trying to produce something for practically nothing, the audience is getting visual "crumbs" of no lasting value. Either that or the glut of live-action "tween" shows that have taken away airtime from animation.

Thad said...

Pete, I don't think that's true at all. At school, work, or other gatherings, talk was always going on over the latest South Park, The Office, or Friends (yikes). Even earlier, I heard the older kids and adults talking about the latest Simpsons or Seinfeld. I heard some of my flightier women friends discussing Sex and the City. People of all ages were discussing television, so obviously they appealed and catered to a wide variety of people.

I think TV's decline is inevitable - I can say with most certainty, having watched lots of old TV, that the airwaves were flooded with an equal amount of junk in all eras. Sure there's saving graces throughout its history (Jack Benny, Dick Van Dyke, Jim Henson, Larry David all come to mind, and we'll add Monty Python from across the pond for good measure), but sooner or later humanity always evolves and realizes that the charlatans aren't worth putting up with for only a few cheap thrills, and it's happening now.

Thad said...

And don't get me started on children's programming! Jim Henson and Bill Melendez were the first people to ever actually care about quality in it, and that took at least twenty years. That doesn't speak well for that 'genre' at all.

Steve Schnier said...

Mark, once again you're right on the money. The long term trend seems to be away from kids programming and specifically animation.

While your comment about pitching puppet shows might have been made in jest - we, as artists working in a declining industry, have to create new kinds of shows.

Find new audiences. Find new ways of production. Don't abandon what you've learned - but find ways to adapt to a changing world.

Pete Emslie said...

Actually, Thad, I think most of those contemporary examples you cite prove my argument. Only Seinfeld and The Simpsons seem to have cut across all cultural and age barriers, appealing to a wide audience. Maybe, I'd add Friends in there too, but even that seemed pretty much skewed to the yuppies it portrayed. South Park is definitely not mainstream - at least it wasn't in the beginning, though tastes have maybe evolved a bit to bring in a larger audience over time. Sex in the City is definitely skewed to the female audience, no question. In my youth, everybody watched M*A*S*H, Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, etc.

Again, I'm not suggesting that some viewers from outside the target market won't like or understand these shows, but generally speaking, so many of today's shows are aimed at specific viewing groups. Frankly, I can relate to only a very few shows today, especially since this idiotic "reality" craze has eased out a lot of the hour long dramas like we used to have. I maintain that today's viewership is highly fragmented due to the sheer amount of channels available, especially all of the cable "specialty" channels with their specific target markets. For me TV is now the viewing equivalent of the line, "Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink"...

Anonymous said...

I wrote about the British side of the problem a few weeks ago for Imagine magazine. The issue is rarher starkly illustrated in a recent 'propaganda' film that uses the stop-motion characters the Wombles. If you're not familiar with the cartoon, there's an example of the 'real' Wombles here: it was shown in Britain in the 1970s, and many adults feel very nostalgic towards it.

and then the 'propaganda' film is here:

The point of this second film is that most of the cartoons on British TV today are American, so the film presents a shocking vision of what an American Wombles would be like!

Some comments from my article:

- The “Badass Wombles” film was made by the trade association Pact. Adam Minns, head of Pact’s Policy Development, admits the Wombles campaign was a blunt instrument, but these are critical times... 'Some US imports, such as Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer are fine cases of what anyone would call Public Service Programming, but many don’t have those values. PSB for children means programming that reflects the world around them, the lives they lead. When you’re down to 1% new British programming, you have to ask if that’s healthy.”

- Anthony Utley is Managing Director of Britain’s biggest animation studio, Cosgrove Hall Films [which made 'Dangermouse' and 'Duckula'] and also sits on a working group called “Save Kids’ TV.” He’s frank about the ways in which the new media environment has turned into a perfect storm for British animators. Even for Cosgrove Hall, the gestation time for new projects – those that are commissioned at all – is now three or four years. Meanwhile, the chronic shortage of funds in Britain means a “British” cartoon may not be British by the time it’s made. Studios increasingly have to take their work to foreign partners, so the cartoon can qualify for foreign tax breaks, only for a broadcaster like the BBC to deem it a foreign import.

...Even Ofcom has made life miserable for studios, imposing its advertising ban on junk-food adverting. Utley doubts the ban will help kids’ diets (he points to the failure of similar legislation in Canada). But it certainly helped kill the likes of CITV. “If we say, Do you realise the advertising ban means that fewer British programmes?, then the parent will say, That’s terrible, but my child’s health is more important. You can’t win the argument.”