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Baby bulge creates a new niche

By Doreen Carvajal

International Herald Tribune

September 11, 2005

PARIS Rare are the moments when children gather eagerly around a wicker basket of groceries to ogle a vine-ripened tomato or a fat white potato.

But strange things are happening at the dawn of the battle of the baby bulge. Around the world, new afternoon children's television shows are emerging that are designed to make basic nutrition and eating your peas captivating.

FremantleMedia, which rolled out the "Pop Idol" talent show format to more than 30 countries, is now trying to achieve the same global phenomenon with "Planet Cook." But don't call it a cooking show. The creators of this breathless 20-minute fantasy - set on an island inhabited by Captain Cook, a lumbering yeti named Bouma and three young cuisine cadets - prefer the label "cookery adventure."

Fremantle, which is managing all the rights for Planet Cook, is one of the more aggressive sellers in a very healthy field that is getting crowded with nutrition and diet programming. They share the same goal of reaching anxious parents and children, among whom obesity is rising. The number of overweight children has reached 155 million worldwide, according to the International Obesity Task Force in London.

"It's quite a radical departure for us," said Andrew Piller, the international brand manager for Planet Cook. "Fremantle was in the kid's business 15 years ago, but it never really took off. Now we think there's opportunity."

The shows are proliferating at a critical time for food manufacturers, which are facing mounting public criticism and government pressure in the United States and Europe. This summer, the EU health commissioner, Markos Kyprianou, announced plans to prod advertisers to adopt a code of conduct for marketing unhealthy foods.

"Jamie's School Dinners," the British series featuring the television chef Jamie Oliver that ultimately pressured the British government to increase spending on school cafeteria meals, has been sold to more than 12 countries, including Thailand, Hong Kong and Denmark.

LazyTown, an Icelandic production featuring Sportacus, a lithe, carrot-munching superhero of exercise, has crossed over to popularity in the United States on the Nickelodeon channel and will air in France and Italy.

In development in Canada and California is Gaspergoo, a children's cooking tale about two brothers from a fictional land who open a restaurant in the United States.

A reformatted local version of Planet Cook adapted to national tastes has started appearing in Germany and will start in Australia this autumn. The show's producer, Nigel Stone, said the show was striving to offer a global cuisine with basic recipes featuring fresh foods and vegetables with universal appeal like "Chicken Hot Pot," a basic casserole with parsnips, carrots, leeks and coriander seasoning. "We don't do fish and chips," he said.

Food manufacturers are paying keen attention to the trends in an environment where "it's becoming increasingly harder to market to kids," according to Piller.

H.J. Heinz, the Pittsburgh-based ketchup giant and manufacturer of Ore-Ida French fries, has struck an unusual relationship with the Planet Cook producer and creator, Platinum Films. Both companies are in the midst of taste-testing canned pasta meals, soups and sauces that will start selling in the autumn with a dual Planet Cook and Heinz label.

The 10 million, or $12.4 million, effort to introduce Planet Cook products, which are low in fat, sugar and salt, comes as Heinz's European division has frozen its advertising budget, a step that came after major company acquisitions like that of HP Foods Group and a drop in profit from European operations, which make up 40 percent of the company's revenue.

"Planet Cook is looking to build on a healthy food platform and instilling positive habits," said Matthew Mason, marketing manager for Heinz. "Where the show will develop specific recipes we hope to build on that."

But the Heinz label will not be shown on the air as a form of product placement, according to Planet Cook's producer, Stone, who is also chief executive of Platinum Films. He said he had also spurned overtures from fast-food companies because their menus featured meals at odds with healthy nutritional guidelines.

"We've never done this with a manufacturer before," Stone said. "We have to find a new process and new ways of working together."

Typically, licensing revenue from children's television programming is dominated by toys and games. The shows also receive income from franchising and from other categories like book publishing. The cooking line fits somewhere in the last category, which Fremantle is seeking to exploit further.

The company has also announced a licensing arrangement with Trudeau in Canada to produce child-size cooking and baking tools.

"The landscape is becoming increasingly competitive," said Simon Spalding, who was in charge of Fremantle's international licensing and was recently named director of operations for the Asia-Pacific region.

"Lots and lots of people are beginning to recognize that this is an ancillary revenue stream that they can tap into," he said. "Increasingly, producers need it to make the economics of program development make sense."

Gaspergoo, for example, is not scheduled to air until sometime next year, but its creators at Zoupah, in the Napa Valley of California, have already struck a licensing partnership with Meyer, the owner of KitchenAid and SilverStone, to create child-centric cookware in colorful patterns. The company has the broader ambition to extend the television brand into a cooking-school franchise, DVDs and restaurants.

Daniel Cook, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign whose research focuses on the growing role of children as consumers, said such licensing arrangements were intensifying now that digital technology like TiVo allows television viewers to skip advertising.

As a practical matter, he said, "it's very hard for me to imagine how anyone could do anything else."

But others take a tougher view. Susan Linn, the founder of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of "Consuming Kids: Protecting our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing & Advertising," said she was not impressed with food manufacturers who promote efforts to offer more nutritious fare.

"It's concerning that children can't enjoy any kind of media program without being marketed something," she said. "This is really the commercializing of childhood and the message is that everything is for sale. Whether it's a low-fat product or ice cream, it's not good to pick food based on television characters."

At the same time that Heinz has struck an alliance with Planet Cook to create low-salt and low-sugar products, she noted, it is expanding promotions of its standard ketchup.

The company, which successfully introduced a palette of limited-edition ketchups in blue, green, pink, orange and teal, is branching out with Silly Squirts, ketchup that comes in a bottle with three spouts suitable for doodling on hamburgers and French fries.


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