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LONDON-International media companies duking it out in the U.K. children's satellite TV battle are learning that crossing borders with kids TV isn't child's play.

The two new kids on the block, Turner Broadcasting System's Cartoon Network and Viacom International's Nickelodeon are neck-and-neck, while The Children's Channel, owned by Tele-Communications Inc.'s United Artists, trails in third place in the U.K.

But the established players are girding for the arrival of the Disney Channel. Later this fall, the Walt Disney Co. is bringing the service to the U.K. on Sky Television, programmed for the entire family. Owned 100% by Disney, the channel won't take ads, but will be supported by subscription revenue.

And the long arm of Mickey Mouse may extend further in Europe: Disney has agreed in principle to be a long-term program supplier for European media group CLT Multi Media to explore the development of family service cable/satellite channels in other European markets. Disney and CLT also have set up a joint venture to launch Super RTL in Germany, a new ad-supported family service satellite/cable channel this year.

Disney "could beat the pants off everyone," said Jane Brown, associate director at media buying company CIA Media Network U.K.

In the U.K. last year, 33% of 4-to-15-year-olds switched on Cartoon Network, vs. 28% for Nickelodeon and 12% for TCC, according to BARB, the U.K. media measurement service.

Started in September 1993, Cartoon Network is the most pan-European of the three channels. Available in 29 countries, the channel broadcasts its 8,500 cartoon library in five languages-English, French, Spanish, Swedish and Norwegian-reaching more than 20 million viewers a week.

Although Cartoon Network is the furthest ahead because its cartoon programming translates well across borders, the network has its share of problems among nations objecting to U.S.-created programming. Both the French and Belgian governments are protesting by banning the channel from cable.

"It's a political problem," said Andy Bird, senior VP, Turner Network Television and Cartoon Network. "We're not averse to quotas. We're striving to increase our European content all the time."

Another initial stumbling block for Cartoon Network: It found the idea of offering clients pan-European advertising was ahead of its time.

"Before we came along, toy companies weren't set up to think pan-European," said Mick Buckley, CN sales director.

So the channel introduced a U.K. rate card. Pan-European marketers, such as Tyco and Mattel, contribute 60% of the channel's total ad revenue, with the rest from U.K.-only advertisers.

Right now, the U.K. is the only single market that advertisers can buy, but Mr. Buckley says the channel is considering offering a special rate card in both Spain and Scandinavia.

Now that Cartoon Network exists in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and Asia, the channel is seeking global sponsors. "We have to educate the ad world to the possibilities," Mr. Bird said.

Other networks are finding less universal appeal. Nickelodeon, for example, learned the hard way that children's programming must be tailored to specific markets.

When Viacom launched the trendy channel in the U.K. in September 1993, the service carried a lot of U.S. imports and very few videos, which U.K. kids love.

"We had a difficult start because we made some pretty bad assumptions about children all over the world," said James Baker, program director at Nickelodeon here. "We had to make changes to the environment where British children could get involved .*.*. We [now] treat Nickelodeon channels as separate entities because .*.*. you can't pump one signal all over the place."

Some of Nickelodeon's programming is now presented live from the Trocadero in London's sprawling Piccadilly district, and the channel has more U.K.-produced programs. Kids get to talk to presenters and talk on air. Every Wednesday during school vacation, kids choose the schedule.

The changes appear to have worked: viewers number up to 1 million a week, double that of a year ago. Nickelodeon received 20.5% of children's satellite TV viewing in November 1994, up from 5.8% a year before, according to BARB.

While it's doing well here, Nickelodeon is still cautious about entering other markets. "If we were the Cartoon Network we would just beam in there," said Mr. Baker, "but that doesn't work for Nickelodeon. Each territory needs to hold onto its identity, its culture." He said the channel is currently exploring Germany and a few other unnamed territories.

The Children's Channel, the oldest cable and satellite channel in the U.K., was hurt by the launch of Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

"We're not doing brilliantly at the moment," said a spokeswoman for the 11-year-old channel. "When Nickelodeon came over here, we weren't prepared for them to get major [programs] as quickly as they did. .*.*. It was a miscalculation on our part."

Available in the U.K., Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, TCC offers a special emphasis on preschoolers. The channel has 3.8 million subscribers in the U.K. and a total of about 6 million in Europe.

TCC doesn't run pan-European advertising, instead offering only a U.K. rate card.

Ann Cook, head of programming for the channel, said TCC has no immediate plans to enter other markets because of the prohibitive costs for programming rights.

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