News Analysis: Kids' TV confronts junk-food fear

In the week Super Size Me made its network premiere, Turner Broadcasting announced a cartoon series aimed at fighting childhood obesity. Maja Pawinska looks at a growing trend towards broadcast CSR.

In the fight to stop kids getting fat, there has been a lot of finger-pointing - at the Government, schools, parents, fast-food manufacturers and, not least, broadcasters for having the temerity to accept junk food advertising.

Ofcom has made it clear that a complete ban on food advertising to children would be neither proportionate nor effective. But until the regulator publishes its proposals for consultation later this year, broadcasters won't know how the advertising rules will be tightened, and what the effect on their revenues will be.

In the meantime, a couple of major broadcasters are being proactive in defending their commercial interests and corporate reputations in advance.

Last week Turner Broadcasting System Europe, which owns the world's biggest network of children's TV channels, including the Cartoon Network, announced that from October it will air a new cartoon series to promote fruit and vegetables to children.

Turner has invested £250,000 in Elfy Food, and general manager Richard Kilgariff admits that the cartoon started out as a way of appeasing the Government and regulators, but has evolved into something of a personal mission.

'We wanted to counter the possible negative effects of advertising on kids' TV, but Elfy quickly developed into a positive project to provide parents and broadcasters with a tool to fight obesity,' he says. 'On the commercial side, it is protecting our ad sales business, but it is also about corporate social responsibility. We want to show Ofcom and the Government that TV storytelling can be used to communicate powerful messages to kids.'

Regulator support

Turner briefed Ofcom on the cartoon, and the regulator's spokeswoman, Julie McCatty, says the initiative has its support: 'As part of a wide discussion on food advertising to children, we are constantly talking to broadcasters, consumer groups, advertisers and the Government, and we support positive action by any party with a view on this important public issue.'

Turner is so serious about the need for Elfy that it is offering it for free to other broadcasters. 'If terrestrial channels and even our competitors don't have the time or money to invest, they are welcome to use it for free, as are the Government and the COI. It's much bigger than Turner,' says Kilgariff. 'The success measure is whether it has an impact on our audience of 70 per cent of the kids in the UK, and how Elfy Food can reach the other 30 per cent who don't watch our kids' channels.'

At competitor Jetix Europe, formerly Fox Kids, head of PR Jenny Burbage says the broadcaster would consider showing Elfy Food: 'We have no specific plans for kids' programmes to promote healthy eating, but we are open to ideas.'

Turner wants to roll the cartoon out across Europe and the US, and has also created the Elfy Coalition to provide a one-message platform for charities and broadcasters to change the way kids think about fruit and veg. Kilgariff wants to attract like-minded organisations to join the coalition, hence its request to PR agency Taylor Herring to announce the cartoon six months before it will broadcast.

'There's nothing to stop a supermarket chain or even food manufacturers joining the coalition, but we will keep the content very pure, and we haven't produced it in consultation with advertisers. There won't be any opportunity for product placement, unless your product is generic broccoli,' he says.

Kilgariff reveals that PR activity in the run-up to the show will include an Elfy Week this autumn.

Original programming

Turner is not the first broadcaster to include healthy-food messages in its programming.

Nickelodeon has developed a library of original short programming on healthy lifestyle over the past two years, which is shown on all three of its channels. Viewers range from pre-schoolers to early teens.

'We've created programming that gets these important messages across in an entertaining and fun way that kids can relate to,' says Nickelodeon UK managing director David Lynn.

Nickelodeon has a mix of animation, such as the Family of Fruit and Vegetables, live cooking on Yummy Yummy, and Get the Skinny, which gives kids the facts on subjects such as fat. Lynn says more productions are in the pipeline.

Like Kilgariff, he acknowledges that there is a delicate balance between running a viable commercial channel that is attractive to advertisers of all kinds, and communicating healthy messages. They both prefer to describe the potential for children to receive conflicting messages - encouraging them to eat carrots one minute and burgers the next - as 'choice'.

Lynn says: 'We make this type of programming part of a normal Nickelodeon day. It's made in a style totally in keeping with our channels and designed to entertain and appeal to our viewers as well as give them the information they need to make balanced choices.'

And Kilgariff is determined that Elfy will make a difference: 'Yes, this started off as a defence mechanism, but now I'm really on a crusade,' he says. 'Obviously there are good commercial reasons for doing it, but as a powerful brand, if you can make a difference, you should.'

POPEYE'S SUCCESSORS

COMPANY: Turner Broadcasting System Europe (Time Warner)

Show: Elfy Food

Channels: Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Toonami

Content: Cartoon mini-series following the adventures of small but

ferocious elves attempting to retrieve magical food from the evil Frank

Farter and his monsters.

First broadcast: Due October 2005

Audience: 3.5 million kids between four and nine years old, and six

million adults

Agency: Taylor Herring

COMPANY: Nickelodeon UK (joint venture between BSkyB and MTV Networks)

Show: Yummy Yummy (pictured)

Channels: Pre-school channel Nick Jr

Content: Real kids are the stars: under-fives are in the kitchen cooking

healthy food with mum or dad.

First broadcast: September 2004

Audience: More than nine million homes

Agency: Frank PR

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