No child's play

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By The children's channels are pulling out all the stops to win over their young viewers, says Aarti Dua
  • Published 18.02.06
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(From top) A scene from Cartoon Network’s Akbar & Birbal; M.A.D, a popular show on Pogo; Anshuman Misra, managing director, Turner International India

It was called Disney Magic and it was an instant hit with Indian schoolchildren around the country. Youthful audiences in six cities went berserk last month when Disney’s world-famous cartoon characters Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald and Goofy put up a musical extravaganza for them. Four shows were held in each city.

If Mickey and company tapped away to numbers like Hot Hot Hot and even danced to a medley of two Bollywood numbers, Just Chill and Dus Bahane, elsewhere kids across 800 schools in Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai were playing to the tune of Pogo Funtakshari. The song contest received over 90,000 entries in less than three weeks.

Or take Nick, one of the smaller children’s channels. Last month, it launched the Nick Takes Over Your Birthday initiative by going to little known Mata Gujri School in Delhi to celebrate student Divya Bariya’s 10th birthday. Divya’s class was entertained by the channel’s mascot SpongeBob SquarePants, the square yellow sea sponge character who always gets into trouble, and even got return gifts from the channel. The channel plans to hold one such celebration a month. “We want to take over every important aspect of a child’s life,” says Hema Govindan, vice-president and general manager, Nick India.

It’s a battle being fought both on air and off. Seven children’s channels ? up from only two in 2003 ? are in a no-holds-barred scrap for the attention of affluent youngsters. New channels like Hungama TV and Toon Disney are trying to wrest viewers from the Turner group’s Cartoon Network, the animated giant that rules the segment. Meanwhile, Turner’s other channel, Pogo has moved into second spot in the ratings war.

The action has only just begun and naturally the kids are lapping it up. The channels are coming up with plenty of new programmes for different age groups from Bob the Builder and the upcoming Fifi the Flowertots for tiny tots, to Japanese anime like Pokemon and Doreamon for the four to eight-year-olds.

At another level, there are shows like That’s So Raven for tweens (eight to 12-year-olds) Then there are the sports and game shows like the hugely popular Takeshi’s Castle on Pogo, the Japanese show where contestants participate in silly but challenging games. And Hungama TV has revived an old-time favourite Tele Match.

There’s a big market out there that the channels are trying to tap. After all, there are an estimated 336 million children up to the age of 14 in the country. Of this, only around 90 million to 120 million children have access to cable and satellite (C&S). And this number is bound to increase with the growth in C&S and direct-to-home (DTH) distribution. So on the cards are new programmes, including greater localised content, deeper penetration into non-metros, and more innovative and high-decibel marketing.

Hema Govindan, vice-president and general manager, Nick India and Nick mascot SpongeBob SquarePants (Top)

Take Disney, which has just completed a year with its Disney Channel and Toon Disney offerings. Says Rajat Jain, managing director, The Walt Disney Company (India), “We have done well for the first year, but it’s nowhere near our potential.”

The opportunities are clearly huge. Nachiket Pantvaidya, director, production and programming, Walt Disney Television International (India), points out that children still spend most of their time watching anything from sports to general entertainment to movies. Only 15 per cent to 17 per cent of their total TV viewing time in C&S homes today is spent with the kids’ channels.

Pantvaidya hopes to pull in the young viewers by plugging gaps such as the lack of content for nine-to 14-year-old girls. “Girls are moving out of animation faster than boys, and going to general entertainment in terms of movies and emotional drama. We need to provide a product that has emotional connect with girl audiences,” he says.

Already, Disney has differentiated its two channels. So Toon Disney is aimed at younger kids and skewed towards boys with its channel-driving Jetix block, which airs action programmes like Power Rangers. Disney Channel meanwhile is focused on tweeners and skewed towards girls with its driving shows, Lizzie McGuire and That’s So Raven. Says Pantvaidya, “People are not just looking at kids as a whole but various sub-segments within kids.”

Turner, on the other hand, has differentiated Cartoon Network and Pogo on the animation and live action platforms respectively. Pogo, which was created exclusively for India, has locally produced shows such as M.A.D. (Music, Art & Dance) and Bam! Bam! Bam! Gir Pade Hum, and Takeshi’s Castle.

Localisation, in fact, has become a buzzword. Says Pantvaidya, “One of the keys is to build local connect.” So Disney is producing local content for breaks and programmes such as Playhouse Disney and Studio Disney on Disney Channel. Meanwhile, Nick was among the first to spin off a Bollywood character, Jadoo from the Hrithik Roshan-starrer Koi Mil Gaya, and produce a live action-cum-animation show J Bole Toh Jadoo in 2004.

The market leader, Cartoon Network has had a headstart in local animation. It aired its first local animation serials, Pandavas ? The Five Warriors and Sinbad ? Beyond the Veil of Mists, in 2001. Since then, it has acquired a handful of local animation productions including Vikram-Betaal last year.

Zarina Mehta, programming head, Hungama TV(Top); Doraemon, the character from the eponymous cartoon on Hungama TV

This January, it premiered Akbar & Birbal and now has two more local animations on the anvil, Son of Aladdin and The Legend of Buddha. Also, it plans to acquire five more Indian animations this year.

That’s not all. By the middle of the year, the network will play its programming ace by launching the Indian version of Sesame Street on Cartoon Network and Pogo. Says Anshuman Misra, managing director, Turner International India, “It’s the largest kids’ programme in the world and as market leader, we didn’t want anyone else to have it.”

Meanwhile, Hungama TV, which has risen on the homegrown plank to become the third-largest channel in the country ? though Toon Disney has edged past it occasionally ? is not resting on its laurels either. Says Zarina Mehta, head of programming, Hungama TV, “We didn’t expect to get this response when the competition is so strong, and feel good that we are giving them a serious problem. But we have to get to number one or two.”

Apart from new interactive shows like Sanya, where the protagonist poses a dilemma to viewers at the end of each episode and then acts according to their responses, Mehta is gung-ho about the channel’s animation content. In fact, contrary to popular perception, animation accounts for 75 per cent of the total content on Hungama TV.

“It took us time to understand this segment but now our animation is really working,” says Mehta. Seven months into its launch in India, Doraemon is even giving Pokemon a run for its money.

Hungama TV’s other animation shows like Yu-gi-Oh! too are also catching up. Besides, Mehta has lined up several new shows including Fifi and the Flowertots by Keith Chapman, the creator of Bob the Builder. Fifi is the top programme for pre-schoolers in Britain.

It’s not just the big channels that are turning up the volume. Smaller ones like Nick too are upping the ante. In terms of channel share, Nick is ranked sixth out of the seven children’s channels currently. But Govindan intends to change that. Over the last few months, Nick India has put together the ingredients for its new growth strategy. It got a new management team in place, reworked its programming schedule, and introduced new blocks like Nick Toons. More importantly, it increased its distribution by 50 per cent and started a 24-hour Hindi feed last month. “We need to speak to kids in the language they speak,” says Govindan. To take it up the charts, the channel will roll out 10 new shows this year.

Nick has also turned aggressive on the marketing front. In November-December, it reached out to 5.5 lakh children through a contact programme in 743 schools in 18 cities such as Surat, Rohtak and Jabalpur. And currently, it is introducing SpongeBob to children in 210 schools in Mumbai and Delhi.

A scene from Power Rangers, an action-packed show on Toon Disney (Top); Nachiket Pantvaidya, director, production and programming, Walt Disney Television International India

In fact, the on-air competition has come out of the box with the channels vying to come up with bigger and more innovative events. After all, events, contests and school programmes are the primary modes of marketing kids channels. So if Disney had its Disney Magic shows, Turner served up the Pogo Amazing Kids Awards and Toon Cricket. Similarly, Hungama hosted a marathon ? the Hungamathon ? for kids. Even the Captain’s Hunt, where Hungama TV selects kids from around the country to form a board of directors and critique its content, helps build its brand.

And the marketing push is only getting bigger. Take the recent Jetix Power Your Rangers contest. Kids had to piece together a map and locate the hidden Dinogems, the source of the Rangers’ power. Apart from clues on air, the channel had an association on 10 million packs each of Britannia Treat and S M Foods’ Peppy snacks. The contest was pushed in over 500,000 retail outlets and through 500 schools.

And there was a contest-based mobile game download as well available to Reliance subscribers. “Consistent efforts of this nature make sure that you have tremendous brand resonance in your target group,” says Tushar Shah, director, marketing and communication, Walt Disney Television International (India).

Others are using mobiles too. So Hungama TV is available on GPRS mobile phones and Cartoon Network’s ringtones and games can be downloaded on Airtel. Last year, Cartoon Network even used Reliance Web World to virtually audition children from 12 cities for its nationwide hunt for live anchors on The Powerpuff Girls.

The result of all this action is that the viewership of children’s channels has shot up sharply. According to TAM Media Research, the genre’s share of total cable and satellite (C&S) television viewership almost doubled from 2 per cent in calendar 2004 to 3.8 per cent in 2005.

Inevitably, advertisers are also spending more on these channels. It’s reckoned that ad revenues on kids TV grew from around Rs 46 crore in 2004 to Rs 75 crore to Rs 80 crore in 2005. And last year, nearly 40 new categories such as fairness creams, inverters, educational institutions and spices advertised on these channels for the first time.

Is the market too crowded? Says Siddhartha Mukherjee, director, communications, TAM Media Research, “India is probably the only country in the world that is so terribly fragmented, which means that there is scope for any product to find some kind of demand and space.”

Certainly, the channels are confident about the future. UTV even plans to launch a kids channel in Tamil, possibly in partnership with Sun TV, this year. And Pantvaidya says, “We haven’t played all our cards yet.” That’s only going to mean more remote power for kids.

Photograph of Nachiket Pantvaidya by Gajanan Dudhalkar

What’s on offer

Cartoon Network

The market leader has all the big shows from Tom & Jerry, Pokemon and Beyblade V Force to Bob the Builder. Plus there’s local animation like Akbar & Birbal.

Pogo

Noddy, Barney, Osward and Kipper appear on Tiny TV. Pogo Prime brings Shaktiman while Pogo Family airs Takeshi’s Castle, Batman and Malgudi Days.

Nick

SpongeBob SquarePants is the channel ambassador. Other leading shows include Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer and Nick Dum Duma Dum, the local version of Double Dare.

Hungama TV

There are series like Sanya and Shakalaka Boom Boom, animation shows like Doraemon and game shows like Gol Gol Gullam.

Toon Disney

It’s the best of Disney from Mickey Mouse and Friends to The Legend of Tarzan. But the driver is action block Jetix with Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk and Power Rangers.

Disney Channel

This one brings Disney’s movies, series, dramas and adventures. There’s Playhouse Disney for pre-schoolers. For older kids, there are shows like Lizzie McGuire and That’s So Raven.

Animax

It’s the Japanese anime channel from Sony, but it’s yet to make a mark in India. There’s Godzilla The Series, Monkey Typhoon and Captain Tsubasa.