MIPJUNIOR: Top Channels Scour the Globe for the Next 'SpongeBob'

7:46 AM PST 10/05/2013 by Elizabeth Guider
"SpongeBob Squarepants"

Programmers are competing for children's attention in the increasingly fierce international market.

Young boys 6 to 8, even 4 to 8, are a killer demo: "They go straight from preschool to The Walking Dead."

So said Disney's Paul DeBenedittis in describing one of the key challenges in holding onto children's attention in the increasingly fierce international kids programming market.

The svp programming and acquisitions for the Mouse House was speaking on a panel called "What Do Buyers Want?", which unfolded on Saturday morning during the annual two-day MipJunior screening, networking and deal-making bazaar in Cannes. A crowd of 150 participants attended the session at the Carlton hotel.

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Not only are major programmers like Disney, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network facing competition from one another and other locally established outlets abroad, but increasingly they are grappling with YouTube and other entertainment options that kids are getting their hands on.

"We're spending a lot of time figuring out what and where kids are watching. They want things faster, and they want things new, exciting and funnier," added Adina Pitt. As vice president content acquisitions and co-productions at Cartoon, she too focuses largely on these young male viewers.

Both she and DeBenedittis agreed that it's a good time for third-party suppliers of concepts and projects to pitch to channels like theirs -- largely because of the pressure to turn around more and more content for children much more quickly -- and because money in house for production is not as readily available as it was 10 years ago.

Over at Nickelodeon, too, the concentration of late has been on determining what works with and for these technologically savvy, platform-agnostic post-millennials.

"These kids are on mobiles and iPads at two years old. They're moving faster than we are, so we really need to chip away at that two-year turnaround," said Jules Borkent, svp global acquisitions and programming at Nick's parent company, Viacom International Media Networks.

An instantly fertile ground for independent producers to seed will soon be Germany, where Disney is about to launch its own free-to-air children's channel while its erstwhile partner, Super RTL, will be looking to replace its former Mouse House content with other material.

"There'll be no more Phineas and Ferb or Good Luck Charlie on our channel," explained Frank Dietz, head of acquisitions and co-pros at Super RTL. Fortunately, he added, DreamWorks has stepped up and will be supplying some new kids series to the teutonic channel, but there's still room for third parties to take up some slack.

"We's gender-neutral and we know our own (local) kids. I think that's good news for indie producers. In the end, though, it's about the content -- not the origin of the material," Dietz added. Disney begins competing separately in the market in January.

Asked by The Hollywood Reporter where, geographically, some of the best new ideas and pitches in the kids area are coming from, panelists offered a variety of answers.

"From Iceland," suggested Super RTL's Dietz, who cited a successfully traveled series about healthy living called Lazy Town.

Borkent, who is Dutch himself, pointed to the wealth of format ideas coming out of Benelux in the kids space -- just as they have for the last 15 years on the nonfiction front. Pitt cited Denmark as a hotbed, while DeBenedittis put the accent on acquisitions for Disney's various kids platforms from Argentina (think the music-inflected kids tele novela Violeta), Ireland and Germany.

About the vast and still largely untapped-for-talent Chinese market, Debenedittis said Disney is "developing" a team there: "Hopefully the content we get can travel from there and that country's local talent gets exposed."

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Pitt added that Cartoon already received as many pitches from Chinese sources as from elsewhere. "If I had to generalize, I'd say their stories tend to be too complicated. They need less background and plotlines to travel well for us."

While that panel and other workshops unspooled in the salons of the Carlton, a couple of hundred other attendees gathered around monitors to preview upcoming shows on offer or chatted up agents and commissioning editors in the matchmaking lounge erected in the innards of the hotel.

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