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New kid on the box – ITV’s new children’s channel CiTV

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ITV is taking on children’s heavyweights CBBC, Disney and Nickelodeon with its own channel and has vowed to emerge from the playground scrap victorious, reports Liz Thomas

On March 11, ITV launches its new children’s channel into the already crowded and incredibly competitive kids’ television sector but executives at Network Centre are confident that they are on to a winner.

Targeting young people aged ten and under, the new station is the first dedicated commercial channel for children on digital service Freeview and will broadcast from 6am to 6pm. Despite the fact that there are already more than 20 channels serving the nation’s children, ITV has proclaimed that it fully expects to be the most watched commercial service in UK households within a year and a half, seeing off competition from the likes of Discovery Kids, Disney and Nickelodeon.

Steven Andrew, programme director for ITV digital channels, said he was sure it would outperform the market by late 2007.

He said: “Within 18 months we will be number one.”

That is fighting talk but no doubt spirits will have been buoyed by the fact that sales of Freeview services are flying high and the fact that more than two-thirds of homes in the UK now have access to digital television and a significant proportion of those households have more than one set-top box.

Director of television Simon Shaps conceded it would be difficult but said he was confident that the programming would speak for itself. He explained: “There have never been more children’s channels around. We think that the way forward is to put significant investment into fewer shows and by doing a few brands better.”

The new station will include blocks of programming aimed at pre-schoolers and at kids aged four to nine and those involved are extolling it as a return to the halcyon days of Rainbow, Fraggle Rock, Mr Benn and The Moomins.

In a mild swipe at big-hitting rivals CBBC and CBeebies, which currently dominate the market, channel editor Estelle Hughes said: “We’ve done the research and we think that with most families having kids close in age it is odd to suddenly separate viewing preferences. We are not going to tell a six-year-old who grew up loving a show that suddenly it is too babyish for them.”

Instead the network has targeted programming to suit family schedules in term time and alternative line-ups for school holidays. Strong performing shows such as My Parents are Aliens, Art Attack and Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids will be flagged up and Hughes has pledged that the focus will be on indigenous commissions and not acquisitions.

“We spend significantly more on original production than our commercial competitors. When we launch, around 60% of our shows will be made by UK producers. We did a lot of research before we undertook this and it showed that parents don’t want just wall to wall cartoons, they want predominantly British content,” said Hughes.

She concedes that many of its most popular shows have been running for seven or eight series now and says, particularly on the drama front, that it is time to find a new big hitter. Hughes added that the cost of the genre was sometimes an impediment to risk taking but said there were new dramas in the pipeline such as Live and Let Spy, which has been billed as Spy Kids meets The Incredibles, and Uncle Dad, which follows an eccentric scientist who is forced to look after his six nieces and nephews when they are dumped on his doorstep.

There are of course new cartoon strands – kids’ TV wouldn’t be the same without them – and the CITV channel will offer US imports from across the pond, including a revamped animation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Bratz. The network is still tied to its terrestrial quota for children’s TV of around eight hours a week, which is set by media watchdog Ofcom but it says having a whole channel allows it try different things and broaden its scope. It will also allow it to cater for different demographics, so for example when ITV1 is broadcasting a show aimed at young girls the digital offshoot can offer something that will appeal to boys, ensuring that as a whole the network is not losing viewers to commercial rivals.

Of course competitors are not taking the move lying down. With an annual budget of £98 million – around three times that of CITV – the BBC is pulling out the big guns. The Corporation has unveiled a host of new shows, including some long-awaited new dramas, and is ploughing money into its interactive learning services. Meanwhile earlier this year The Stage revealed how Five was channelling investment into its Milkshake! strand, not only with more original programming but also by developing show brands in a joint venture with Butlins and DC Entertainment to launch a 19-week stage show this summer.

Ancillary rights for UK originated programming, such as merchandising or international distribution, can net millions in additional revenue and the lure of this cash injection will, of course, have played an important part in ITV’s decision to stick with children’s programming.

Nonetheless it is a far cry from the doom and gloom forecasts for commercial kids’ TV that were around little more than a year ago following the tightening of advertising regulations and Ofcom’s decision to cut broadcasting public service programming obligations.

It might have taken a little while and a lot of research but it seems that the sector is enjoying something of a comeback.

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