MEDIA FORUM: Ten years on, has kids' TV come of age?

The growth of dedicated children's TV has been matched by a competitive advertising sector, Alasdair Reid writes.

Children's television has come a long way since the days when Blue Peter was almost compulsory viewing and Disney cartoons were a treat you only got on TV on Bank Holidays. Now there are more than 20 channels in the children's section of the Sky Digital programme guide and 15 of them are funded by advertising.

But sometimes we forget just how long the grey old world of compulsory worthiness actually managed to survive. The modern era really only started ten years ago this month when Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network launched within weeks of each other, joining The Children's Channel (now defunct), which had launched in January 1993. And we've only had a true embarrassment of riches in children's television since the digital explosion began in 1998.

It's still a lively market with the next launch never far away - the latest offering is Toonami, an animated action adventure channel aimed at boys, which launched at the start of September.

Have the dedicated channels been good news from an advertising point of view? And what is the future likely to bring for this volatile sector?

Paul Lindley, the deputy managing director at Nickelodeon UK, says that dedicated children's channels have grown the children's ad market over the past ten years. He comments: "Dedicated channels are able to offer more bespoke solutions to advertisers as our brands and channel environment are wholly focused on children, and we can use this expertise to enhance advertisers' value by using our resources to create spots, sponsorship credits and competition spots."

David Walker, the media director of Kellogg, says the company has been a supporter of channels such as Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network from day one. He says: "What they give us is a chance to target the audience in an all-day environment, though I'm not sure they've actually created a new audience. They've brought a lot to the market in terms of programming and expertise and they've spurred on other broadcasters such as ITV and the BBC."

Unfortunately, some might say, the latter has been spurred on more than the former - and Walker admits that the launch of the likes of CBeebies has had a huge impact. Many advertisers say they'd like ITV to put more resources into this, both in terms of programming and marketing.

GMTV, though, has been fighting hard. It has to, because one third of its income comes from children's advertising.

Clive Crouch, the director of sales and marketing at GMTV, agrees that the most significant thing that's happened recently is the launch of CBeebies.

But he argues that it impacts more on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon than on terrestrial TV. "The dedicated channels could never have envisaged the fact that the BBC could become bigger than the two of them put together so quickly. It must give them concern. But yes, the BBC's entry affects the whole commercial sector. On the other hand, as supply has exceeded demand, prices have risen," he says.

GMTV's strategy seems to be to focus on cartoon spin-offs from the big comic or feature film properties - Masters of the Universe, Spider-Man - which tends to mean that the GMTV audience is skewed towards boys. That isn't a disaster, because boys watch a lot more television than girls.

And, say some, it shows that the terrestrial stations can weigh in heavily if they choose to. Andy Zonfrillo, the broadcast buying director of MindShare, agrees that the entry of the BBC has been the biggest single factor in the children's television market in recent memory, and he would like to see ITV fighting back.

Zonfrillo points out that the new channels - and the audience fragmentation they bring - can have downsides. "Broadcasters are more able to cater for specific audiences - older, younger, boys, girls - and that will probably be viewed differently by different advertisers. For some toy manufacturers it's good because, although it's not quite as straightforward as this, Barbie is aimed at girls and Hot Wheels is aimed at boys. For companies who have products that target the whole children's audience, it's not so good."

So what does the future hold? It's uncertain, says Zonfrillo. "Some sort of European Union ban in, say, the area of food advertising aimed at children, would have a significant effect on the market. Another interesting question is whether the Disney channels might start to take advertising - that could also put a strain on the market."

- "Looking into the crystal ball, we think interactive television is a great opportunity to increase the value of advertisers' airtime as we can create more entertainment to keep children across breaks, enhancing the break-through of advertisements." Paul Lindley deputy managing director, Nickelodeon UK

- "The strength of these stations is the wide range of programming they have to offer and the numbers of ways you can become involved. Another benefit they bring is the flexibility they are able to offer, for instance in terms of sponsorship or joint promotional activity." David Walker media director, Kellogg

- "The toy business, in particular, markets aggressively. The market as a whole is more structured across the year and in this, sectors such as cereals are important. They don't have to reinvent themselves each year. With toys you have to keep coming up with something new." Clive Crouch director of sales and marketing, GMTV

- "I'm not so sure about growth. There's limited revenue in this market. It hasn't grown over the past three or four years and I can't see it growing much over the next few. The worry is that in the future we may even see a ban on certain types of advertising targeting children." Andy Zonfrillo broadcast buying director, MindShare.

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