TV Programme Development: Creative or Marketing Driven?


Should programmes be developed mostly by illustrators and writers or by marketers and researchers who have discovered what will sell best in the crazily competitive world of children’s media? According to Simon Cowell, “Research just kills creativity because people lie or they say things they think the person wants to hear, or they over think it”. But is he right? Here’s a summary of the ‘heated’ debate that took place at The Children’s Media Conference in July 2011. Moderated by Guy Tomlinson, Managing Director and Consultant, The Marketing Directors , the session involved John Rice, CEO at Jam Media, Shari Donnenfeld, research consultant and Esra Cafer, Vice President Brand Management and Marketing at Chorion Ltd.

According to John Rice, the ideas behind Jam Media’s successful children’s programmes were discovered in different ways.  By serendipity – happy accidents!

PICME started out as a multimedia invitation for John’s daughter Rebecca’s two year birthday party which was sent to friends and family. One was so enthusiastic about it that he even offered to pay for it.

Roy, the badly drawn boy was created in the opposite way to PICME. The film was originated by John’s partner as a parody of his life; as a bitter 28 year old who couldn’t get work in animation because he was so badly drawn. His film was spotted by a CBBC development executive who thought that the fish out of water theme would appeal to the CBBC audience. In the tv series the bitter 28 year old is turned into fun loving everyday boy.

Tilly and Friends is a series of stories by Polly Dunbar. The development of this property involved bringing in a child psychologist and expanding the story world from 16 pages to 26 episodes.

Shari Donnenfeld argued that research should be used to support the creative process, as the process is complex, there are lots of fingers in the creative pie, and it is easy for creatives to be removed from a child’s world.

Many creatives think they know kids, yet they are adults, who use razors and drink alcohol, or parents who care for kids.  There are also creatives who act like kids, but even if they do, they still don’t necessarily know what kids are about.

Children inhabit a different world, a more digital world than their parents. They are exposed to multimillion pound movies, games, e-books and ipads; it is hard to know what’s in their heads at a point in time.  The sons and  daughters of creatives inhabit an even more different world. A world where words like 3D and CGI are passed over the dinner table, so these children are neither normal nor representative.

Unlike live entertainers tv programme makers are unable to adapt to live audience responses. A clown for example can easily change his or her act if he dies on his feet. But programme makers can’t. So programme makers need to think like the clown and go and talk to children first.

Doing research with kids is like inviting them to the board-room table. They can input into forming a programme, while not heading the table. Even though children are a worthy audience, research should be used as a creative facilitator, rather than a barrier to creativity or to ‘green-light’ programme development. Kids have the ability to create, are excited to be part of the process, so involve them as partners.

Esra Cafer argued that there is a value in using brand management in the making of tv programmes. Brand marketing is a process that helps define the target, the programme and product offer, communicate that offer to audiences and forge a profitable and enduring relationship with the audience. In other words create brand love!

Chorion starts with characters, settings, worlds and stories already in place, and aims to understand, create, update, and extend brand properties to ensure that audiences love them. Rather than just translate the written word to the screen, research is used to understand and define the brand, the brand DNA, i.e. what makes it unique and appealing. Rather than dampen creativity, this reveals new opportunities and provides guidance to maximise programme and brand relevance.

For example, Make Way for Noddy has a traditional preschool audience of 3 to 5 year olds, but when developing Noddy in Toyland research was used to verify the audience, who they are and what they want. The audience was found to be growing-up and moving on to competitive products, such as Moshi Monsters at the age of 4. This insight helped focus programme development on 3-4 year olds.

Research also helped extend the brand. By revealing that Noddy is a safe brand, to use in home, and not to show off to friends provided the confidence to focus on developing home products such as bedding and pyjamas, rather than lunchboxes or coats.

Programme development inspiration –
creativity, research and marketing make fine bedfellows!

Each programme development project is different. Some will require more creativity and others more research, depending on the stage of development and whether more or less is known about the intended audience.

Development is the most important part of the creative process. Get this right and production will be a breeze.  Remember that it is also partly a numbers game. For every one show in production, have several shows in development, as ideas will always fall by the wayside.

Great ideas can occur over a pint of Guinness or through sheer hard work, but creativity is not the preserve of the few. Creativity cannot be bottled and poured on your cereal at breakfast time but more creative sparks can be found by creating the right conditions and through a more inclusive approach that involves marketers and researchers.

The application of simple brand marketing principles i.e. enabling the audience to be the main arbiter of choice, can be liberating and inform the production of more distinctive and appealing programmes and brands.

Research should play a role, but investment should be tailored to circumstances, challenges, and risks and rewards. Further as each programme property is different and each starts life in a different place, the research and marketing process needs to be adapted.

Conduct informal research with family members and friends by showing them programmes materials before more substantial laboratory-esque research to save time and money. Use the trade to provide insights too. Licensing people, for example, may have insights on the cultural issues and products that work in certain territories.

Design research to fuel the creative process rather than evaluate or dampen it! This means avoiding closed questions such as “don’t you love this green dress?” as this creates a vain attempt to please the researcher. In turn making the results invalid, and so hindering the end product and success.

Involve marketers and researchers at an early stage in the development process (via a short meeting at relatively low cost) to nurture ideas, better represent target audiences’ needs, eliminate biases and obtain more detailed ideas on what sells.  All increases the chance of success.

Use research to shape the ‘brand book’ and guide writers, illustrators and animators who need to know who they are designing for and what they are designing. This helps inform decision making but does not remove control from management teams and creatives who must still decide to make the pilot and develop this into a series.

Aim to create two scripts, a ‘brand book’, a pilot and provide evidence of stand-out and appeal to woo co-funders. While every development will be different, the end game is the same, to get finance.

The Children’s Media Conference takes place every July in Sheffield.

Get in touch to find out how The Marketing Directors’ media marketing consultancy services can help you.

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