The UK's kids are spoilt for choice when it comes to multichannel programming, as they are living in Europe's most competitive children's TV environment. More than 20 channels battle for their attention and, as ITV prepares to enter the arena with its own dedicated kids' channel, the fight is set to get tougher.
Commercially, kids' TV can be a lucrative market, with huge merchandising and licensing potential, but advertising in the sector is under pressure as Ofcom reviews food marketing to kids.
Media Week assesses five of the key players targeting kids in the multi-channel environment as they prepare for a shake-up.
Kids' Channels: Nickelodeon, Nicktoons, Nick Jr, Nick Replay
Audience ratings: (Nickelodeon total: Sept 2005, Barb): 0.26 units
Ownership: Joint venture between BSkyB and MTV Networks
Media Agency: Universal McCann
EPG listing: 604
Most popular shows: Drake & Josh, SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer
Core audience: 2 to 12-year-olds; Nick Jr - pre-school
"If kids ruled the world," is the new Nickelodeon UK motto, following a recent "brand refreshment" exercise. "We put kids at the heart of everything we do," says David Lynn, managing director. If a child-relevant issue hits the news, you can be sure Nickelodeon will have a response. When the spotlight was turned on child obesity, Nickelodeon poured £1m into Nicktrition, a series of events and programming strands designed to get kids active.
Its sales department now has a specialist children-focused unit, which concentrates on understanding kids and how they relate to advertising. It recently invited the marketing department of toy manufacturer Mattel to attend Nick's School, where marketers were set challenges to see how they relate to kids, and all staff at the company are obliged to spend a day as a classroom assistant in a local school.
Nickelodeon was in talks to form a joint venture with ITV to launch a free-to-air kids' channel, but talks broke down. As ITV goes it alone with a dedicated children's channel, Lynn is relying on Nickelodeon's 12 years of kids' broadcasting to hold onto its market share.
The company plans to increase investment in programming and will use every platform available to talk to its audience. Nickelodeon is available on Vodafone's mobile television platform, and the channel plans to expand its web presence in the future.
Kids' Channels: Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Toonami
Audience ratings: (Cartoon Network total: Sept 2005, Barb): 0.21 units
Ownership: Turner Broadcasting
Media Agency: MediaCom
EPG listing: 601/602/603/622
Most popular shows: CN: Robot Boy. Boomerang: Camp Lazlo. Toonami: Static Shock
Core audience: 4 to 9-year-olds; Toonami - boys
Being both content provider and broadcaster allows Turner's kids' channels a unique place in the marketplace, according to Simon Cox, vice-president and UK sales director at Turner Broadcasting.
"Recently, we had a Mad Hair Day, and brought in shampoo clients as sponsors," he says. "I just have to walk down one flight of stairs to talk to the programming people."
And as a pan-regional company, it has a greater spread of feeds than many of its UK rivals, allowing it to offer economies of scale and a range of territories to its client base.
Historically, the company was more boy-focused, but is now more evenly spread between the genders. It relies on kids' advertising more than its key competitors and prides itself on its closeness to its market base. Following recent price-squeezing at retail level, Turner has begun to help some of its key clients by working closely with the big stores in the sector, driving footfall through on-air competitions and in-store promotions for products. "We have an open dialogue with retailers," says Cox.
"We have to make our clients successful or our business will be affected."
Turner is investigating non-linear programming and technological opportunities in order to maintain and build its share of the market. It runs an ETV gaming area through Sky and is expected to develop video on demand and broadband offerings in the future
Kids' Channels: Disney Channel, Playhouse Disney, Toon Disney
Audience ratings: (Disney Total, Sept 2005, Barb): 0.21 units
Ownership: The Walt Disney Company
Media Agency: Carat
EPG listing: 611/612/613/614
Most popular shows: That's so Raven, Recess, American Dragon: Jake Long
Core audience: Disney - 8 to 12; Playhouse - 2 to 5; Toon - 6 to 9-year-olds
Disney is unique in the commercial kids' channel market in that it is completely free of advertising, relying solely on subscription. As possibly the most famous children's entertainment brand in the world, it relies on its rich history and core values of trust and quality story-telling. But even the strongest reputation in the market cannot stand still and John Hardie, executive vice-president and managing director, of Walt Disney Television, Europe Middle East and Africa, ensures the company keeps up with its changing audience.
"Kids are the most savvy consumers around," he says.
"In the incredibly competitive market of children's TV, we have to make sure we are delivering what they want, when they want to watch it.
"In terms of how they'll be watching in future, none of us can know for sure. We are keeping all our options open and concentrating on continuing to make the best content around."
Its UK website had four-million unique users during 2004, and the channel is now moving into the mobile space. On Valentine's Day it ran a mobile promotional campaign around its show Lizzy McGuire, which received 50,000 text replies from kids, and The Disney Mobile Service will launch in the next 12 months
Kids' Channels: Jetix
Audience share: (Jetix Total, Barb, Sept 2005, Kids 4-15): 0.14 units
Ownership: launched by Jetix Europe (formerly Fox Kids) and The Walt Disney Company in 2004; Disney has 70% ownership
Media agency: MGOMD
EPG listing: 609/610
Most popular shows: Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Core audience: boys 7 to 11
Content, content, content is the mantra at Jetix, whose rebrand last year (following Fox Kids' takeover by Disney) was followed by a huge investment in programming. Due down a pipe near you soon is the latest raft of new programming deals, including Oban Star-Racers, Get Ed, and Pukka. "At the end of the day, the modern child is driven by content, not a channel," says Mel Alcock, senior vice-president of commercial affairs.
He adds that the average child consumes one-and-a-half-hours of media in an hour, simultaneously watching TV, gaming, surfing or using their mobiles. Thus it is imperative for children's brands to ensure a presence on all devices. "When we look to launch we don't necessarily restrict ourselves to the broadcast environment," Alcock says.
Jetix already has the print platform covered with the launch of Jetix magazine, through Future Publishing, and it is in discussions to launch on a mobile platform in the UK.
Its online platform is attracting the likes of Lego, who recently ran a joint campaign across TV and online. "The days of the 30-second spot are long gone," says Alcock, who sees advertisers in this space embracing content-driven solutions in the future.
Kids' Channels: Pop and Tiny Pop
Audience rating: (Pop Total, Sept 2005, Barb): 0.08 units
Ownership: Chart Show Channels Ltd
Media Agency: n/a
EPG listing: 619/620
Most popular shows: Sonic the Hedgehog, Care Bears
Core audience: Pop: 4 to 9-year-olds; Tiny Pop: pre-school
Pop was launched in 2003 by Chart Show Channels Ltd, with a combination of cartoons and music editorialised for kids. It broadcasts Top 40 hits interspersed with animations. But unlike some of the other music channels in the multi-channel arena, there are no gyrating pelvises here. Likewise, its mix of cartoons avoids the kick-em-up, beat-em-up US-style characters.
Any conflict in stories told through cartoons on the channel will be resolved at the end of the cartoon. Taking a moral line with its choice of content allows Pop a unique position in the marketplace, according to Keith MacMillan, managing director.
"The channels are aimed at parents," he says. "We make them feel safe through our choice of cartoons and music. I'm a parent myself and know what I will and won't let my children watch. I use that as a benchmark."
Both Pop and Tiny Pop rely on animated presenters, which are developed in-house. At Pop, Rory the Green Dragon guides older kids through the content, while on Tiny Pop, Three Cheeky Monkeys lead pre-schoolers through music and cartoons from the likes of Bob The Builder, Tellytubbies and The Wombles.
The channels entered the market at a difficult time, when food advertisers were pulling out of kids' advertising. The business has thus been built without any reliance on food advertisers, and McMillan says that its successful formula will help it build market share in the future. Pop claims to be the largest, privately owned independent multi-channel company in the UK and operates nine channels in total, including Sky's music channels.