Toon Town on Indian television is packed choc-a-bloc now. And if your child's Cartoon Network friends haven't already turned him into a couch potato, chances are that the latest surge of colourful characters on various channels will do the needful. Rugrats and Ren and Stimpy on Nickelodeon; Pappy and Muppet Babies on Kermit, and Spiderman, Biker Mice and X-Men on the Fox Kids block on Star World are vying for his attention.
Children constitute about 40 per cent of TV viewership here but have had little to call their own. Says Delhi-based media analyst Sudheesh Pachauri: "We have no concept of entertainment for kids."
Children, however, are now getting into the picture. Last fortnight saw the launch of a new children's channel, Nickleodeon, which is the largest producer of children's programmes in the world and has the highest viewership in US. It comes close on the heels of Kermit. Meanwhile, Star began an exclusive Fox Kids block on Star World in October. "We are confident that we will develop a loyal audience which will help launch a fully-integrated Fox Kids Network," says Stan Golden, president, Saban International, a division of Fox Films Worldwide.
According to Ranjan Bakshi, Zee's Mumbai-based vice-president (corporate communications), from a "famine" it's a "virtual feast." So much so that the kid niche now comprises as many channels as the lucrative sports segment. What is more interesting is that both Star and Zee are also aiming for a slice of the pie. While Zee is providing the distribution platform to Nickelodeon, Fox tied up with Star.
The reason for the proliferation of children's channels is simple: they need little investment. The existing stand-alone channels as well as those in the pipeline are all foreign ventures with a ready software library. "They don't need to spend a penny on programming," says B.S. Chandrasekhar, director, audience research, Doordarshan. All they need to do is sign a distribution deal in India.
This means that children get to see more of the same. Be it the animation serials on Cartoon Network, the muppets on Kermit or the comedies, game-shows and drama series on Nickelodeon, the thrust is American. Macaulay Culkin clones are influencing the Indian youngsters in the way they dress and behave. The channels are specifically targeted at the urban Indian children and the only effort made to woo the larger populace has been to dub some shows in Hindi. "Children are the same all over, so are their likes and dislikes," justifies Bakshi. However, in 2000, Nickelodeon promises to introduce interstitials and short programmes showcasing Indian children.
Acompelling reason behind the trend is the much-awaited arrival of direct-to-home broadcasting which would open up space for niche channels. In fact, Zee is planning to introduce a comprehensive bouquet of channels this month on its direct-to-operator package and Nickelodeon will be the first foreign channel on that platform.
Along with these broadcasting initiatives, there is also the increasing perception that children are big consumers and also the decision-makers for their parents. For instance, according to New GenerAsians, a market study conducted by Cartoon Network last year, the children-influence factor on the Rs 988-crore Indian toothpaste market is 41 per cent or a market value of Rs 642 crore. So, with children's channels, advertisers stand to get a bigger bang for their bucks.
However, Praveen Kumar, managing director of Current Opinion and Future Trends (coft), a Delhi-based media research agency, is dismissive: "It's just a gold rush." According to coft, the projected advertising revenue for children's programmes in India for 1999 is about Rs 45 crore to Rs 50 crore, about 2.5 per cent of the total advertising revenue on TV. "But the market has to be created," says says N. Bhaskar Rao, chairman of the Centre for Media Studies. The broadcasters themselves are upbeat. "The market is waiting to be tapped," says Bakshi. Zee aims to take Nicklodeon to 40 per cent of the cable and satellite homes in the first year itself. Cartoon Network claims to have upped its revenues by 80 per cent in 1997-98 over the previous year. Discovery Kids began as a one-hour block on Sundays in 1997 and turned a daily fixture by the beginning of '99.
Now that TV has struck this friendship with children, let's hope that it only strengthens the bond.