Children's programming: A lesson in how to catch 'em young

Five's pre-school programming, led by the Milkshake! strand, is gaining on its richer rivals. Liz Thomas finds out why a pink pig has become required weekday morning viewing

Forget Hugh Laurie's cantankerous Dr House; forget even the slick drama of CSI. It seems a programme about a little pink pig is what is really setting Five apart from its rivals.

The broadcaster may be trying to reposition itself in an effort to bring in audiences with US imports, high art and curious science, but it is the likes of Peppa Pig, an animation that follows an everyday suburban family of the porcine variety, that is pulling viewers in.

Milkshake!, Five's package of children's shows, now regularly sees off the competition from CBeebies and CBBC. It mixes innovative original new animations such as Peppa Pig, Bottle Top Bill (about an animated bottle-top and his wine-bottle-stopper friend Corky) and Fifi and the Flower Tots (featuring the voice of Jane Horrocks) with shows that tap into the nation's preoccupation with nostalgia. Updated versions of classics including Noddy and Roobarb and Custard no doubt also pull in older siblings or young parents.

Milkshake!, screened weekdays from 6am to 9am and starting an hour later on Saturdays, spans the busy period before school with shows that, although they are aimed at two-to-six-year-olds, have something of a family feel. Five's controller of children's programmes, Nick Wilson, says that having programmes that families can watch together is an important part of Five's remit. "Because of when we broadcast, that's the time when most kids and parents are getting ready, having breakfast, so it is almost family viewing.

"There is a tangible quality about our programming - a sense you could reach out and touch the characters." This is set to continue. Jane Horrocks, who already provides the voice for Fifi, is teaming up with Julian Clary for the new series The Little Princess. And later this year the channel will broadcast the much-lauded 3D version of Rupert.

Wilson insists it is the consistent quality of the output that keeps audiences interested. "These shows have intriguing characters and strong stories. The work starts at script level before moving on to design and animation and at every stage the quality is unrivalled.."

According to most recent ratings figures Five's children's output is just behind the frontrunning CBeebies in the pre-school market, with the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon much further behind. Wilson is nonchalant about battling the might of the corporation's kids' programming budget, which weighs in at around a whopping £98m to his £7m. "We have better programmes," he says. "I think it is as simple as that. We are pulling the audiences and we don't have any of their marketing spend or any of their cross-promotion." He points out that Five walked away with children's Baftas for Best Entertainment Show, Best Presenter and Best Pre-school animation last year. "The BBC is a long way from the launch of Teletubbies. I think they have had two interesting programmes come into their schedules in the past couple of years - in terms of audiences - Charlie and Lola and Lazy Town, neither of which was produced by the BBC."

It is not just the pre-school market in which the broadcaster is performing well. Short-form drama such as The Secret of Eel Island is proving popular. The pieces last just 11 minutes but provide an easy introduction to television drama for youngsters whose attention spans are tested by half-hour offerings.

Last month ITV launched its children's digital offering and Disney added another channel to its pay-TV portfolio. While Five has been slow off the mark to exploit the Freeview boom, things are set to change by the autumn. Wilson explains: "It is all up for grabs. It will be a gradual build-up." He dismisses the idea that the CITV channel has had an impact, saying that Milkshake!'s share has grown since it launched. "They are not investing any more money in children's programming than they were for the slot on ITV1," he says.

Like the BBC, Five has prioritised a move towards interactivity - linking together the web and television. "Broadcasters are having to look at the way broadband and telephony distributors are coming into the market. We need to focus on content and think a lot more about what we are offering the audience, because it is going to be available on a lot more platforms," says Wilson.

Wilson, who cut his teeth on Playschool and Saturday Superstore, admits Ofcom's proposals to ban all TV advertising of food and drink aimed at children is a headache that could affect programming. He says: "The BBC has the luxury of not having to worry about making a profit. I would say that the Milkshake! brand has built up to a point where it has patently got a commercial value of its own. So it made sense to develop it because, going forward, we have to make it commercially viable in the face of falling ad revenue."

So for the first time, this summer Five is teaming up with Butlins and DC Entertainment to launch a 19-week stage show in three major holiday camps - Minehead, Bognor Regis and Skegness. "The show has been devised as part of a strategy to strengthen the brand," says Wilson. In another move to build on the popularity of the programmes and to raise revenue, the channel has also signed a deal with Target Entertainment to license the Milkshake! brand.

Wilson explains with a sudden burst of enthusiasm, fitting for the man who brought the nation Timmy Mallett: "It takes the shows out into other areas and acts as a marketing tool as well. There could be big displays in Woolworths of Milkshake! DVDs. This all means that fairly soon you will be able to go into a shop and buy Milkshake! posters, toys, pyjamas - anything."

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