The floor of the Palais de Festivals during Mipcom is a Byzantine conflagration of television production from all over the world. A French producer of 3D pornography is situated a few steps from a Chinese studio that makes Arctic Fox. (It's a cartoon, not an adult film about a snowbound womanizer.) The companies attending the annual conference - or "content market," to use the industry term - range from small documentary producers to major studios like Warner Bros. and NBCUniversal.
There is so much content on display, and up for international sale, that the effect is dizzying. One can find everything from the distributor of the none-too-original Indian Idol to the producer of the evenless-original Chop Kick Panda. (He looks just like Kung Fu Panda, except he uses his skills to combat copyright lawyers.) There is even a German studio that appears to specialize in action films involving Americans who can no longer find work. (Billy Zane in Perfect Hideout; Stephen Baldwin in Shoot the Duke; Steve Guttenberg in Fatal Rescue. I'm not even joking about that last one.)
Canada is squarely among the sellers. There are examples of homegrown television being sold abroad - distributors have posters for series such as Call Me Fitz, Rookie Blue, Haven and Good Dog prominently displayed among their wares - but the core of Canada's international television sales remains its children's programming. Among this genre, and this can't be stated plainly enough since we are a people that continue to use the phrase "for a Canadian show" as a routine qualifier, Canada is a juggernaut.
Anyone with young children (ages 2-12) will be anecdotally aware that much of the programming on channels such as Treehouse and Disney Junior, as well as public broadcasters that are kid-focused during the morning hours, is produced in this country. The numbers bear that out: One study by the Youth Media Alliance last year found that almost 50% of children's television programs aired on Canadian stations in 2010 was either produced in Canada or a Canadian coproduction. That may not sound like a terribly high percentage, but compared with the number of Canadian-produced non-kids scripted series on private broadcast networks this fall, it's a landslide. (That number, by the way, is one: Flashpoint.)
Canadian children's shows travel very well, too. Series created here were last season among the top kids' shows in Britain, Spain, Australia, Germany, Norway and Denmark. Almost Naked Animals, produced by Toronto's 9 Story Entertainment, a cartoon aimed at boys aged 5-12 - they are bound to titter at the title alone - was the third-rated show on the U.S. Cartoon Network last season and is aired multiple times a day in Britain and Australia. 1001 Nights, an Arabianthemed cartoon produced by Vancouver's BigBadBoo, was the most-viewed children's program among the international buyers at Mipcom, ahead of programs with famous characters such as Spider-Man and Kung Fu Panda (the real one).
1001 Nights, which will air here on Teletoon and CBC, has been sold to 60 countries already. And My Babysitter's A Vampire, a live-action series produced by FreshTV, the Toronto developer that already boasts hits such as Total Drama Island (188 countries!), premiered last year on the Disney Channel in the U.S., where it routinely bested such stalwarts as SpongeBob SquarePants and iCarly in the ratings. It has been sold to Disney channels in 18 countries.
So, why is Canadian children's TV such a success? And can the Canadian programs aimed at those above voting age hope to match it? We'll get to the second question later, but one of the key reasons for the kids' television success is one of critical mass. Major animation producers such as Nelvana and Cinar set up shop in this country many years ago, which helped groom legions of people who knew how to make children's shows. That animation hub formed a natural symbiosis with the broadcasters that needed programs for 24-hour channels like Treehouse, Teletoon, YTV and Disney Junior.
Animation also has a particular trait that makes it wellsuited to international sale: A cartoon character can easily speak foreign languages. Lip movements are simple enough that Max the rabbit, with no further animation re-quired, can be made to speak Spanish, German, Dutch, whatever. It's a low-tech point, but an important one.
But the other main reason for children's television success here is money. As in, there is a lot of it available. Broadcasters are able to tap governmentfunded agencies such as the Canada Media Fund for seed money, and developers have further access to a range of private, non-profit programs and tax credits that offset production costs.
Tom McGillis, the president of FreshTV, calls it a "fertile funding climate."
"As an independent producer, I can get 85% of my funding from Canadian sources, then I only have to go to the world market for that last little bit," he says.
The degree to which taxpayers subsidize the television industry here is quite something: The Canada Media Fund, which also includes funding from cable and satellite distributors, doles out about $350-million annually. In 2009-10, $54million went to children's programming. It's not uncommon for a single kids' show to receive more than $1-million. (The federal government even brought journalists to Mipcom, myself included, to show off all that the investment has produced.)
The producers and developers, not surprisingly, insist that the money is well spent. It would be one thing, they argue, if funds were simply propping up a containedinCanada industry. But because homegrown programming is exported so well, the return on investment is far more realized, they maintain. "[Canadian shows] have an amazing record selling abroad," says McGillis, who adds that the industry's success here can also be seen in the "hundreds and hundreds of jobs" created by studios like his. "The payback is real," he says.
That might be true, although the standard counterargument to government subsidy remains: If something is a great investment that is bound to make money in the long run, shouldn't private capital be available?
That debate notwithstanding, this is the system Canada has, one that has helped make this country a kids' TV mecca. And while there have been successes on the adult side, they remain much fewer.
"Hopefully," McGillis says, "we've led the way."