The Tier Factor

One might assume that the introduction of family tiers on cable platforms would be a major boon for networks specifically targeting kids and family viewers — particularly the fledgling digital services that have come on the scene in recent years. But that’s not the case for the 20-plus channels in the category.

Recent announcements from Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications Inc. reveal family-tier lineups that each include about five or six services that are specifically targeting the genre. Only two channels in the category show up on all three lists: Discovery Kids and Disney Channel.

Another four networks show up on two family tiers. But only eight — less than half the channels in the kids and family category — have any representation on the three lists.

The tiers, and the controversy that swirls about them, is just one reason why it pays to examine kids and family programmers right now.

As detailed in our story about free on-demand services in this special report, kids programming is getting gangbuster take rates. But there’s no viable business model for the category yet. Another story notes that most digital services are still fighting for enough subscribers to qualify for ratings, and this year is seen as a key time to ramp up original programming and marketing.

Some of the premium networks are actually seeing increased interest by some operators in marketing their family services. But no premium family channel has been moved to add much more original fare. In fact, one is moving away from it.

Original kids programming is of particular interest to me, because I recently moderated a panel session on the subject. A seasoned producer of children’s programming on the panel bemoaned a growing trend at children’s networks. She contends — and none of the network executives there disputed — that kids channels are increasingly less interested in producing original ideas from outside producers. That can narrow the flow of truly fresh programming. It speaks to larger trends within the production community, and the struggle by networks to create viable business models.

But while the issues are as jumbled as the contents of a rich kids’ toy chest, they’re the kind of problems that mature networks cut their teeth on, and thrive on.