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Kate Taylor’s Part 2: Canadian children’s programs a hit, both here and abroad

In Canada on September 26, 2010 at 07:41
Back to Part 2: Canadian children’s programs a hit, both here and abroad

Part 2: Canadian children’s programs a hit, both here and abroad

September 24, 2010

Kate Taylor

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Eric Needles (brown hair) and his sidekicks dive intot the world of superheroes in YTV’s Sidekick, wich premiered in September.

NELVANA/CORUS

In a dimly lit Toronto office, the funny pictures on Joey So‘s computer screen shine brightly. So is a director at the Canadian animation company Nelvana and co-creator of a cartoon called Sidekick, which premiered on YTV this month. Showing off the storyboards for the series, he demonstrates how, with a few flicks of an electronic stylus, the befuddled young Eric Needles can be reproduced in the next frame, saving the animator the bother of redrawing the figure.

Eric is an orphan who’s all set to work for the superhero Maxum Man, but Maxum has gone missing, and now Eric must find his own way in a mysterious world in which grown-ups can leap tall buildings in a single bound. “He is sort of winging it in the superhero world,” observes So.

Sidekick is aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds. The exploits on those storyboards should allow kids to identify with the young hero, but they go easy on the violence.

“We have a good sense of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable,” says So, who has worked at Nelvana for 15 years. “. We can’t do real violence, so we look to slapstick, physical action with a sense of humour, cartoon humour . . . Nobody gets hurt.”

Children’s television in general, and animation in particular, is a real Canadian forte. Treehouse and YTV, the specialty channels owned by Nelvana’s parent company, Corus, pack their schedules with Canadian cartoons to meet their respective 70- and 60-per-cent Canadian content requirements. In 2009, eight of the 10 most watched shows for English-speaking 2- to 6-six-year-olds were either Canadian or Canadian co-productions, all of them aired in heavy rotation on Treehouse, while for the 6 to 12s, three of the top 10 were Canadian.

Meanwhile, Canadian kids’ shows produced by everyone from animation giants like Nelvana and Cookie Jar to a live-action newcomer such as Sinking Ship are shown around the world, and international producers eagerly seek out Canadians as co-production partners.

In Ontario, where much of the industry is located, media producers earned 83 per cent of their sales revenue in the children’s category in 2009, most of it from outside Canada.

“Kids animated shows are the most popular audiovisual export of this country,” says Chris Bartleman, an executive vice-president at DHX Kids, which co-produces such public-broadcaster favourites as Super Why!, Animal Mechanicals, Martha Speaks and Dirtgirlworld.

It shouldn’t be long before Sidekick, which has already been sold to a South African broadcaster, goes global, but when it does it won’t be carrying the flag. There will be nothing to identify it as particularly Canadian — no canoes, no hockey arenas — except perhaps So’s sense of both humour and propriety.

“Why do people internationally look up to Canadian content for kids? It has to with with the values,” says Michael Hirsh, one of the original founders of Nelvana and now CEO of Cookie Jar.

Children’s television is the only area in audiovisual culture where people still feel comfortable talking about values and how public funding supports them. Few funders and fewer creators want to dictate what message a TV program for adults should convey; many critics feel the CBC’s obligation to contribute to a shared national identity is naively prescriptive.

But the children’s realm is all about role models and educational content. It is one rare cultural area where Canada can claim to be exporting its values to the world.

“Canadians have different values,” continues Hirsh. We are a cross between the European and the American. For example, we are more ethical than some, so that’s reflected in the programs, and people like that for their kids.”

These distinctions may sound far-fetched or self-congratulatory, but researchers at the University of Montreal’s Centre for Youth and Media Studies who are analyzing the content aimed at 2- to 12-year-olds on both specialty channels and public networks have found the shows (the majority of which would be Canadian and all of which are chosen by Canadian programmers) belie stereotypes of violent kid vids.

The shows score low on violence and very high on informal education, happy characters and scenes depicting social relationships, ecological behaviour and cultural activities.

The Canadian content is popular with children but it is also sought after by foreign broadcasters who like to pair up with Canadians on co-productions.

“(We have) shared social and cultural values — ” writes Adrian Mills, head of business and planning for BBC Children’s, in an email exchange, “a passion and deep-rooted respect for the audience. . . I think that’s about provenance — both U.K. and Canadian children’s content grew from the public-service tradition. And in spite of the huge economic forces that now drive the industry, we’ve managed to hold on to those values.”

Mills adds that European broadcasters also like the way “Canadian producers can bring an ‘American’ sensibility to a program — particularly in animation or live-action drama for older kids — but in a toned-down, safer kind of way which some consider more palatable than the undiluted product.”

Of course, those tax credits and grants don’t hurt either: Canadian producers’ ability to bring government funding to the table gives them clout in the international markets. British producers have been looking for new money since advertisers pulled back from children’s programs after a 2006 law banned advertising junk food to kids.

Since 1996, the American broadcast regulator has set quotas for educational content, a gift for Canadian producers: Cookie Jar, an increasingly transnational company, is responsible for programming the Saturday morning block on CBS.

Although the international market has become fiercely competitive with the flood of Asian cartoons available, Canadian producers believe they will maintain their place by offering quality work.

“You know who the good producers are and where the quality product is,” says Jocelyn Hamilton, vice-president of programming at Corus Kids, “and in this case it’s in Canada.”

Inside Canada, however, broadcasters’ spending on children’s television is dropping, as is children’s share of the Canadian Media Fund (which underwrites TV programming using levies on cable revenues and tax dollars). Hamilton attributes the decline to an artificial high created in the late 1990s as the new specialty channels built up their inventory.

The Alliance for Children and Television, on the other hand, believes it reflects a complacency about the success of kids TV and notes with surprise that children’s fare was not even mentioned in the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s most recent decision about expenditures on Canadian programming.

Alliance executive director Caroline Fortier says international numbers are softening too as Canadian producers have less product to offer their partners.

Can we keep asking commercial success in international markets to underwrite our children’s television?

“If they sell around the world, that’s gravy, but let’s remember 50 per cent of the budget comes from Canadian taxpayers,” says J.J. Johnson of Sinking Ship Entertainment, the small Toronto company that has reinvigorated live-action programming with shows such as This is Daniel Cook and Are We There Yet? “What sometimes happens when you have an eye on the international market, you make it a little more universal, you soften it around the edges. Are you serving a Canadian audience?”

Johnson has first-hand experience of that pressure to compromise. With the American kids channel Nick Jr. as a co-producer, his company creates an educational show called Dino Dan, in which live human characters meet up with animated dinosaurs. Coprolites — or fossilized dinosaur dung — are a major source of information on the show.

“Nick Jr. has never said poo on air,” he explains. “It was a four-month discussion back and forth and finally we were allowed to do it. In Canada, the broadcasters, it was no problem . . .

“We have a policy the show is more important than the broadcaster. Nick Jr. is a great partner, but they are 20 per cent of the budget and the rest is Canadian. Canada should have final say.”

The dino poo stayed, offering one small example of Canada wielding what the U.S. State Department would call soft power.

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