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Script competition

Sporting chances

With the London Olympics fast approaching, Jesse Whittock assesses what impact sports and get-fit programming is having on the children’s television business.

Basketeers

Basketeers

Sport content and children’s television have long been uneasy bedfellows. The massive annual audiences the Superbowl scores in the US and English Premier League (EPL) football attracts globally has never been replicated in the kids’ sport space. A successful long-running property has yet to emerge (although the niche genre of sports manga has been big in Japan for decades).

The question, according to Stephen Green, co-founder of distributor Corinthian Entertainment, is why producers and broadcasters would want to create shows that are solely about sport in the first place. “If you wanted to watch [straight-laced UK football comic strip] Roy of the Rovers, you’d tune into the Champions League or the World Cup, because the drama there is real.”

Philippe Alessandri

Philippe Alessandri

“When we started in this space in 2006 it was really tough,” says Philippe Alessandri, president of Zodiak Media-owned Télé Images Productions. “Broadcasters used to tell us kids preferred to watch real sports, that football was interesting to boys but girls hated it, or that because there weren’t any shows in the market it didn’t work.”

Télé Images and Green’s former company Galleon Entertainment are two of the more prolific producers in this space, the former for toons such as French net Gulli’s Street Football and M6’s The Basketeers. Galleon’s efforts include Super Soccer Star, an international reality football format produced with Chelsea FC in which young hopefuls battled for professional contracts; and Sokator-442, an animated online game and broadcast TV show.

Stephen Green

Stephen Green

“The sport in a cartoon really needs to be more of a theme and the entertainment has to tick all of the boxes. It has to have great characters; it’s probably going to be boy-biased as it’s sport, which is gladiatorial; and it has to have great action and be good-vs-evil,” says Green.

“The thing about creating animated sports series is to not make them 100% about sports,” confirms Alessandri. “You need to tell a true story and have true characters. That’s the difference from Japanese animé, which is all about competition.”

French prodcos are among the most prolific in the animated sport-themed programme space, with Télé Images, Gaumont Alphanim (Galactik Football) and Moonscoop (Wild Grinders) among those active in the market. To a point this is due to the country’s favourable tax credits for animation.

Alessandri says that the challenge for French production companies “is to get the shows away in the US, as other territories receive our animation very well.” But seasoned toon producer Mike Young, CEO of Moonscoop USA, says getting any broadcaster interested is a challenge.

Last year, Moonscoop, Dutch prodco Kids Workout Factory and Ireland’s Telegael launched sports and get-fit live-action/CGI hybrid series Super Sportlets on Nickelodeon Holland, Belgian network VRT and Moonscoop-owned US video-on-demand platform Kabillion.

Despite what Young says were excellent ratings on each platform – for example, growing its US audience 10-fold in four months – “there was a very lukewarm response when we debuted the show to market.

“Children look at content through different eyes and I always say to broadcasters to go back to when they were eight years old when they watch something new and experimental. But we still had great difficulty selling the show,” he adds.

Young says the “overriding” reason for creating Sportlets was to encourage children to play sport – a savvy move, as childhood obesity is considered one of the global social challenges of today. “It is still early days and we hope once the audience data from Europe and the US comes back, other broadcasters will take a chance on it.”

Despite this perceived apprehension about sports and get-fit content, there has been a groundswell of activity in the sector this past year. In September 2011, Turner Broadcasting System Europe announced it had acquired the Icelandic production outfit behind preschool series LazyTown and is preparing a new season for its Cartoonito networks.

Elsewhere, new Portuguese company Sport Stars Media (SSM) has purchased image rights to football manager José Mourinho and is developing toon series Mourinho & the Special Ones around him. In the US, former Nickelodeon chief Kit Laybourne is fronting upcoming online TV channel The Whistle, dubbed by commentators as ‘ESPN for kids.’

“We strongly believe there is a huge opportunity in this area,” says SSM CEO Ruben Dias. His company floated on London’s Alternative Investment Market in February and raised £1.6m (US$2.6m) for Mourinho & the Special Ones, its debut show. Unusually, it plans to produce the series in economically stricken Portugal to tap its skilled but under-used labour pool.

“It is our plan and business proposal to continue exploring sports-based characters and we wouldn’t be surprised if other production companies and platforms join us in this vision in the coming months. There are many sports to be explored,” says Dias.

2012 is, of course, an Olympic year and the London games this summer present a huge opportunity to develop and/or create themed content, he claims. “The Olympics will be an excellent showcase to identify potential projects for us.” Moonscoop’s Young adds: “The Olympics is a stunning opportunity for companies like ours.” He hopes the event will push buyers towards the unusual Sportlets format over the “kill-’em-dead shows and broad comedies” they often go for.

Another facet of the kids’ sports genre – especially with toons – is attaching a well-known name, as is the case with The Basketeers and Mourinho & the Special Ones. Moonscoop USA is also developing Master Blasters, a cricket-based toon featuring popular batsman Sachin Tendulkar that’s set in a future of robot umpires and giant stadiums.

The star vehicle can aid production and create an “extremely lucrative business” if the producer recognises local territories’ tastes, says Moonscoop’s Young. Master Blasters is coproduced with unnamed Indian investors and distributors and aimed at the 14 cricket-playing countries, such as Australia, South Africa and the UK.

“My partners in America think I’ve lost it but what America in general doesn’t realise is you can be super famous and super rich in just one country, as Sachin is in India. If you’ve got 14 cricketing countries and have a successful show in those with ancillary rights, you’ve got a lucrative business.”

Télé Images’ Alessandri notes that having NBA star Tony Parker attached to The Basketeers was “not vital” but adds that as a marketing tool in basketball-loving France and the US, his name was “very useful” in making sales. In other territories, the name was played down.

SSM’s Dias adds that while the Mourinho moniker is important, smart business decisions and monetising are the pressing issues. Along with the basic presales and licensing and merchandising route, he has “other ideas for monetising the project. We will explore distribution vehicles like the internet and we’re looking to the social media sectors. The choices we make in the next few months will be critical.”

Dias claims there is a bright future in sports-themed kids’ content. “In sport, there is action and passion. What better formula for creating highly engaging entertainment?”

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