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Call to live-action

EVERMOORAlison Homewood speaks to broadcasters and producers about the impact that the new kids live-action tax break is having on a challenged UK industry

Six months ago, the last in a clutch of UK production tax breaks came into force, offering 25% relief on children’s TV shows complying with a points-based ‘UK Cultural Test’.

The main beneficiary was expected to be live-action drama, given that a similar scheme for high-end primetime drama introduced in 2013 has been a runaway success, resulting in £79 (US$122 million) million of tax credits being given out in the first year. Indigenous series including Sherlock and Downton Abbey benefitted, but also many foreign productions, including 24 and Game of Thrones, crossed the pond. The payout was against a production expenditure of £394 million in 2013/14, up from a mere £50 million in the previous year.

So will this gilt-edged incentive usher in a new golden age of UK children’s drama? Lime Pictures’ joint-managing director, Kate Little, thinks so.

“The children’s tax credit may stimulate drama production even more than in the primetime sector,” she says. “There was a far greater need for it within the children’s live-action environment than there was for high-end drama, so the success should be far greater.”

Anne Brogan, co-director of Kindle Entertainment, isn’t so sure. “Kids production is a different issue,” she says. “There is a decrease,  not an increase, in production. Foreign shows are unlikely to shoot here, as the overall budgets don’t usually make it an enticing economic proposition to move the cast and production team to another country, even with a tax break. So in the kids area, I very much doubt the tax break will increase production.”

Zodiak Kids Studios’ CEO, Michael Carrington, disagrees. “The minute it was announced, you could see people clambering for live-action production,” he says. “We’ve been contacted by indies and broadcasters in other countries; people are definitely looking at the UK now. We’ve already greenlit two series using it – Millie Inbetween and The Secret Life of Boys – and it has definitely helped us.

Both Zodiak shows are commissioned by CBBC. The channel, which serves 6-12 year-olds, is the main UK home for locally produced drama. In 2014, it aired 1,170 drama hours, of which 89 were original first-run and 990 were produced in the UK. Of CBBC’s £58 million commissioning budget, around 40% went on live-action.

“It’s becoming increasingly hard to fund drama at the level of sophistication we want to make it,” says CBBC controller Cheryl Taylor. “The audience demand and so the tax credit is important because closing the gap in the funding is often really hard to do; it’s instrumental in pushing that last piece through.”

Taylor is credited with re-invigorating CBBC kids drama since her arrival from BBC Comedy two years ago; commissions such as Wolfblood, 4 O’Clock Club, Hetty Feather and Hank Zipzer are hugely popular.

Recently she announced a new initiative: ‘Fewer Bigger Better’. “We’ve been too quick to commission new shows and have not been sweating our assets,” she says. “I want to reduce our level of churn, so for this year and next I’ve commissioned new series of existing shows to give them time to build. Then you can reward the viewers with extended runs, but also tell more complex stories and let the audience grow with them.”

DHX-Media---Hank-Zipzer-smallThis is great news for producers behind existing shows, but not for other industry players. Kindle is a beneficiary because the company is currently in production on the third series of both Dixi (see box below) and Hank Zipzer (above). The series is based on Henry ‘the Fonz’ Winkler’s best-selling books about the adventures of a 14-year-old dyslexic boy (distributed internationally by DHX Media). Anne Brogan warns, however: “Things are great for us as we have a lot of production on; but from an industry point of view, the contraction in commissioning hours is really quite devastating. With the commercial public service broadcasters doing almost nothing and the squeeze on the BBC, which we aren’t really even feeling yet, things are going to get worse than they are at the moment.”

Brogan also notes that the success of the high-end primetime drama sector has had an unwelcome knock-on effect on kids live-action production budgets, which she estimates have increased by 10% in the last two years. “Britain is a wonderful place to come and shoot drama, and the quality of the crew and the production teams is second-to-none: that’s recognised by companies around the world. But now skilled people are hugely in demand and can increase their rates, and there are some grades – script editors, producers, sound – where there’s a real shortfall.”

Trying to address that shortfall is Sarah Joyce, children’s TV partnership manger at Creative Skillset, a government-funded agency that uses the TV Skills Fund to train production staff. The BBC Academy is the biggest contributor to the fund, along with Channel 4. It also receives a small ammount from Channel 5, and £625,000 from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Productions that qualify for tax relief and contribute to the Skills Levy, a pot that is supposed to replace government funding that stops in March 2017, can take on subsidised trainees, as well as get funding to help junior staff transition to the next grade. Contributions to the Skills Levy are voluntary, however, and so far only one company has paid in, although Joyce is talking to four others. “It’s early days for children’s producers and we need to get the message out,” she says. “You get back 25% in tax credit and you invest 0.5% in skills, and there are loads of benefits on the production.”

Joyce echoes Brogan’s caution about the tax credit. “It’s fantastic, but unless there are more commissions from more broadcasters then it isn’t really going to make a difference,” she says. “It has had a huge impact on wider high-end drama, but we haven’t yet seen that trickle down with children’s, and I think that’s an issue.”

And therein lies the rub. A ban on junk-food advertising during children’s programming introduced in 2006 saw an almost instant withdrawal of ITV from kids TV, while Channel 4, another commercial PSB, largely ignores its remit to provide programming for teens. Milkshake! on Channel 5 is a preschool block that achieves high ratings through acquisitions rather than commissions; the older age group is not served. The claim that in terms of commissioning drama, CBBC is ‘the only game in town’ is heard all too regularly. But is it true?

One development has been the introduction of live-action drama to CBeebies by Controller Kay Benbow. Spurred on by her own childhood memories of watching Heidi and White Horses, she put a call out to the industry for drama pitches. “I wanted something that was considered drama or filmic in a way our other shows weren’t,” she says.

TOPSY&TIM-Family-GroupThe appeal resulted in Topsy and Tim (above), produced by Darrall Macqueen, and Katy Morag from Scotland’s Move On Up. Both have done well: Topsy and Tim is the channel’s top-rating show, while Katy Morag has won seven awards including the 2014 BAFTA for Best Children’s Drama. Benbow put the majority of the funding into both series. “I won’t pretend it’s been easy, it’s hard on a limited budget,” she says. “The challenge for preschool drama is that the content is sufficiently demanding, but not scary or worrying. Both those series have proved that our audience can deal with quite complex things, as they have quite complex things going on in their lives.”

A third series proposed to Benbow was Jamillah & Aladdin (below), an original idea from Kindle. Jamillah is a contemporary British Asian girl who finds a lamp in her attic, which takes her back to ancient Baghdad where she meets Aladdin. As Benbow was considering it, Cheryl Taylor joined CBBC, and the pair decided to co-commission it as a show that ‘bridges’ from CBeebies to CBBC. It was shot in South Africa to get the Baghdad sunshine; coproducer Toonz produced feature-quality special effects in its studios in southern India, and the soundtrack, by Montreal-based company Dazmo, uses Middle Eastern and American composers to bring an authentic fusion. The Muslim element was carefully considered. “Anne and the team talked to imams, and took it very seriously and there’s a range of diverse writers,” says Benbow. “You don’t want to sit there and think this is an all-white team making this, and it absolutely isn’t. It’s just there; it’s not something that’s particularly mentioned. The jeopardy and the tension come from Jamillah bringing 21st century things into that ancient world.”

Jamillah+Aladdin_ICONICIt took Brogan a long time to get the show into production. “There were a lot of times when people said no,” she says, “But I thought, ‘you’re wrong, I know kids will love it – magic, adventure, a boy and girl, contemporary, classical’ – I just knew it was a great combination.” Two 52x15mins series were commissioned back-to-back and distributor Imira Entertainment is launching it this MIPCOM.

The tax credit appears to have galvanised the two big US pay channels into action. “It has ‘unlocked’ our commissioning strategy – it was the linchpin for greenlighting The Evermoor Chronicles (pictured top) from Lime Pictures,” says David Levine, VP, programming and general manager of UK channels at Disney EMEA.

Lime’s Kate Little trumpets being the first company to sign up for the credit. “Evermoor is what tax breaks are all about,” she says. “Apart from the American lead, all the cast are British. We shoot in a stately home in the North West; the studio work is done in the middle of an industrial estate in Warrington, a town that’s definitely seen better times. You open a warehouse door and it’s like a mini-Burbank! We’re using the local resource – the steelworks opposite, local taxi firms and hotels – to deliver an extraordinary piece of television while investing in the local economy.”

Proving that this is indeed part of a new strategy, Disney EMEA has just announced North Star, a fully-funded 13x22mins commission from The Foundation, part of Zodiak Kids Studio. It is a remake of a successful Disney Israel format, and like The Foundation’s other productions, it will be shot in Northern Ireland, a part of the UK that is definitely benefitting from the increase in drama production. Disney’s Levine says: “We’re keen to develop complementary content to what is produced out of our LA hub, which tends to be sitcom formats. We know content that’s a bit more dramatic and that can be serialised has a strong appeal for our UK and European audiences.”

Nickelodeon International’s senior VP, production and development, Nina Hahn, agrees. The Viacom channel’s last big live-action series was the successful House of Anubis. “UK kids are raised on drama,” she says. “American kids and other kids around the world are not, so it’s our job to figure out how to make UK drama travel, and I think Anubis was one of the first to try and do that. We wouldn’t shoot a multi-cam sitcom in England – what comes from here are fantastic mysteries and iconography that the world adores.”

Hahn will shortly announce the company’s first UK “dramedy’ to be greenlit using the tax credit. “It’s such a great support of the production model here,” she says. “The direct hit on a per-episode basis is of immense interest to us given we are building a global content business that can supplement the full-freight LA Hollywood model.”

As the tax credit scheme shakes down, there will doubtless be tensions between broadcasters and producers as to where the benefit actually goes. Zodiak’s Carrington says: “There’s a danger people see it as revenue, and I don’t think the spirit of a tax credit is revenue. We are putting it on screen, not in our pockets, and broadcasters will have to think carefully about how much they fund us and not reduce their licence fees based on the tax credit we happen to get down the road. There’s pressure on them to get value for money and pressure on us to reduce production costs, and somewhere in all that we have to be grown up about it.”

One solution is more coproduction. CBBC’s Cheryl Taylor says kids are “used to these amazingly gorgeous games and copper-bottomed movies with special effects, and so their appetite for high-end is getting bigger and bigger, and we are going to be relying more and more on copros to keep up with that appetite”.

CBBC has even made two acquisitions: The Next Step, a dance-school reality drama from Temple Street Productions in Canada, and Nowhere Boys from NBCUniversal-owned Australian prodco Matchbox Pictures.

Unless the commercial PSBs can be persuaded to re-enter the children’s market via a new ‘contestable fund’ (see sidebar), UK drama producers pursuing local ideas will have to contend with the BBC’s finite cash and airtime hours. However, for companies with a more varied slate, the tax credit offers opportunities in the form of foreign broadcaster commissions, as long as they take the advice of Nickelodeon’s Hahn. “Our strategy is to make for the global taste-bud, and in order to do that, producers and creators who want a commission must come up with a voice, a POV and an idea that will be relevant to the global kid and not just the regional kid,” she says.

Lime Pictures’ Little is up for the challenge. “Kids’ drama is part of our international growth strategy,” she says. “What’s brilliant is being able to produce for the US market from the UK.”

“We’re working with new broadcasters, particularly Disney, so we feel stimulated,” says Zodiak’s Carrington. “We’ve also been talking to Netflix and Amazon. The top 20 programmes in the world for 4-15 year olds are mostly live-action shows, and all platforms want to deliver to their audience what they want, and they want live action.”

 

In focus: Dixi

dixiOne of CBBC’s most original drama offerings is an online series called Dixi. Created by Kindle Entertainment’s Melanie Stokes, a third series of 15 x 3’30’’ has just started production. “Dixi is an equivalent of Facebook,” says Stokes. “It’s a faux social website.”

The show was born after an online bullying incident upset Stokes’ 11-year-old daughter. “We were shocked, and it made me realise that this kind of behaviour goes on in schools all the time out of the teachers’ line of sight. The kids involved don’t make the connection between what they have written online and how the person concerned is affected. We wanted to create a show that’s an etiquette guide to living a life online that would do what the older generation isn’t doing yet: taking them by the hand to navigate them through that world and think about some of the things that might go wrong in that space, but also think about all the brilliant things you can do there.”

Stokes took it to CBBC’s Cheryl Taylor as a traditional TV show with longer episodes. Taylor said she would rather put it online, ‘the medium where it belongs’. “I had to make the episodes much shorter and get my head around what it means to create something that’s truly interactive,” says Stokes.. “You are engaging with the audience in a very different way. They have a more intimate, personal connection with the material. They have voice, they want to comment and share, feel involved.”

She decided a mystery storyline would provide the most interactive opportunities. Protagonist Shari’s ‘Dixi’ account is ‘jacked’, her memories deleted, her password stolen and mean graffiti posted over her page, and she can’t get back in to restore it. She feels online ego has been ‘murdered’, and she has to find the perpetrator.

Season one cost just over £400,000, fully funded by CBBC. It launched on Safer Internet Day, and two episodes were posted a day over 15 days on CBBC’s YouTube channel. “The audience just found it,” says Stokes. “Dixi was soon getting more hits than established brands.” CBBC’s Taylor backs this up: “Seasons one and two got over 300,000 unique visitors, with over 50% watching 75% of the assets, and we had 7,000 comments submitted on the ‘Join In’ page, with poems and stories, so viewers were properly immersed.”

There’s been interest in the format, distributed by Zodiak Kids, from commercial and PSB stations around the world, but most don’t have websites with the capacity to play the amount of video material, while the ABC in Australia has bought it to air on linear TV. In January 2016, the first two seasons will be repackaged into 11-minute episodes, incorporating some of the online audience’s comments, and aired on CBBC. In the wake of Dixi’s success, Taylor has commissioned another online series, The Secret Life of Boys, from Zodiak prodco The Foundation.

 

Contestable funding

A phrase much touted in UK children’s TV circles is ‘contestable funding’. While not a new idea, it is significant that for the first time it is being floated in connection with children’s programming in the current government Green Paper on the renewal of the charter that outlines the remit of the BBC.

So what is it, and is it likely to provide a solution to the problems facing the industry? Kindle Entertainment’s Anne Brogan says: “Tax relief doesn’t create commissions, so we come back to the fundamental issue: if the spend is reduced massively the industry suffers, with or without tax relief.”

Children’s Media Foundation’s Anna Home says the introduction of the tax credit was a “welcome initiative from the government, but on its own, it will not be enough to redress the balance and restore the missing £55 million, which has disappeared from the kids sector since the 2003 Communications Act stopped ring-fencing children’s programming, and the subsequent junk-food advertising ban. Nor will it necessarily solve the local issue of providing culturally specific UK kids content”.

Simply put, the BBC finds itself in a monopoly position, not of its own making or desire, when it comes to commissioning kids live-action drama. This is because ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 no longer care about an audience that constitutes just 18% of the population.

A contestable fund would be an additional pot of money that would encourage more production, and no one has any issue with that. The downside is that there is no detail in the Green Paper, but the fact it is mentioned there has made many in the industry fear that the fund would be expected to come from the BBC licence fee – and even, in the worst of all possible worlds, from the existing £72 million BBC Children’s annual budget.

“If it’s top-slicing the BBC, it’s ridiculous, but if it’s an external fund, how will it work?” questions says Zodiak Kids Studios’ Michael Carrington. “Is it broadcasters, advertisers and toy companies paying into a fund? A lot of work needs to be done, but any dedicated fund for children’s drama has to be a good thing.”

Kindle’s Brogan claims the amount spent on original kids drama has decreased absolutely “phenomenally” from ten years ago. “So the kids lose out, but Britain as a leader in creative exports loses, too, because if we don’t create enough content, we can’t sell it around the world and bring money back into the UK economy,” she says. “It is a win-win situation to spend more money on kids, but if a contestable fund does materialise, the commercial PSBs should match-fund the amount of money they receive from it.”

“If a contestable fund reduces the pot of available funding for children’s commissions by taking it from BBC Children’s, we’ll be vehemently opposed to that,” says Lime Pictures’ Kate Little. “The biggest challenge we have is finding buyers in the UK for our content, and that’s where the tax break has been helpful, because it’s opening up more international buyers for our content. However, we also need slots and funding from the major UK broadcasters. If a contestable fund is a route for CBBC or the other PSBs to have more money to spend on children’s content, fantastic.”

Children’s TV spokesman Oli Hyatt, from Blue Zoo Animation, is calling for an industry-wide working group, including representatives from industry regulator Ofcom, producers’ group PACT and all UK broadcasters, to sit down with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to thrash out the detail, opportunities and risks of a contestable fund, once and for all.