It’s the norm today that toddlers play on touch screens and tweens stream video on smart phones, often while watching their favorite shows. To stay relevant, and hold kids’ attention, networks and companies that create those shows have to stay ahead of technology trends.
“Kids are kids. What they’re expecting is roughly the same. It’s adapting it to the different places they’re looking for it that’s the challenge,” says Chris Waldron, VP of digital at Cartoon Network. He says the new mobile landscape simply translates the same type of content they’ve always made to devices and platforms such as Apple iOS, Android and Kindle.
Children surround themselves with things they love — just look at the top-selling licensed goods of the past few decades for confirmation — but today’s kids also want to access their favorite brands and characters with games, apps and digital content.
“That’s magnified by the fact that children are so digitally savvy and more comfortable with that content than adults,” says Richard Goldsmith, exec VP of global distribution for the Jim Henson Co.
That nearly insatiable hunger for digital content is like a fuzzy monster demanding to be fed. To hold young viewers’ interest — not just between episodes, but also during them — networks, producers and license holders must provide an ever-expanding range of digital content.
“If somebody wanted to pitch us just a TV show, we would make them go back and do their homework,” says Lesli Rotenberg, senior VP of children’s media at PBS. “We’re really not in the business of TV shows anymore. We’re creating media properties. We need them to develop a media property that allows us to educate and entertain children across all platforms. It’s really about the population we’re reaching. These kids are digital natives.”
Deciding what types of digital content are best suited to which shows is important, too.
“No show is created equal,” says Paul DeBenedittis, senior VP of programming strategy at Disney Channels Worldwide. “It’s really about the DNA of the show, the storytelling and what the character would do.”
Another factor is the age range of viewers being courted. PBS focuses on kids 2-8 while the Disney nets — Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney Junior — collectively span ages 2-14.
“Swipe technology and the touch interface is very tactile, so it works for all ages,” Waldron says. “There’s definitely a lot (of digital content) for toddlers, but we focus mostly on boys 6-11. By the time they’re 6, they’re pretty well versed in technology.”
Most networks collaborate with producers and developers to create digital additions to their shows. Each year PBS holds a summit for producers of their children’s media properties.
“Different producers get up and share with each other what they’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t. They all benefit from it,” Rotenberg says. As a result, PBS has been experimenting with 3D apps, game modding, full-body navigation and augmented reality technology.
Elie Dekel, president of Saban Brands, says an omni-channel approach is necessary to engage young viewers.
“Their adoption curve can be fast, but so too can the departure curve,” he says. “From our prospective, as a producer/owner/licensor/distributor, we think about how to get a property to the audience in as many ways as possible that are consistent with what the audience wants.”
Young viewers — whom DeBenedittis calls “viewsers” due to their innate ability to view a program while playing a game or using an app — want digital content that extends interaction with their favorite programs. Programmers appreciate how it extends their brands, making a powerful marketing match.
“Our main goal with this type of content right now is more on the marketing basis than the revenue basis, because revenues for these types of apps and digital books are really quite modest compared to other licensing and merchandising revenues, such as toys, games and apparel,” Goldsmith says. “We believe the business is growing and will be an important revenue stream going forward, so we’re more focused on getting the experience of our brands out on the market than we are on monetizing them.”
Rotenberg agrees there is enormous potential in digital content for kids, but adds caution is warranted. The danger she sees is that such engaging technology will prevent kids from getting out and actually playing.
The fact is children’s television has evolved, and those who don’t grow with it will stagnate.
“You have to stay nimble. You have to be thinking ‘new’ and ‘next’ as opposed to the old rhythms of the television business — launch, promote, sweeps, Mipcom,” Dekel says. “But no more. It’s 24/7, 365 days a year. Everywhere there’s a screen we have to be engaging.
“That’s especially true of kids today, because they don’t know any different. These behaviors are natural to them and they will forever have them. It’s not going backward, it’s only going forward from here.”