The chaotic and challenging task of entertaining kids and families is demonstrated vividly by recent TV ads for Chrysler’s Town & Country minivan.
Touting ties with Nickelodeon and sophisticated onboard gadgetry, the spots show a typical family of four being able to transfer the individualized experiences in the house directly to the road. Junior plays a videogame, his sister watches “SpongeBob SquarePants,” mom listens to satellite radio, and dad gazes contentedly at the man-friendly dashboard and then the highway. Goodbye station wagon and “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
That tableau is not so comforting for TV execs trying to woo family auds in a media landscape increasingly marked by customization and age fragmentation. Mobile devices, Web video, online social networks, vidgames, DVRs and homevid options have disrupted audiences’ small-screen habits and upended traditional ad models.
Overall TV viewership has remained steady despite it all, but except for rare events (generally sports), the mass-audience virtual campfire has become a thousand points of light. In the kids-and-family racket, business has boomed of late, and yet the old label “fun for the whole family” is about as relevant as a G rating.
Nielsen’s long-established, overlapping age ranges — 2 to 11 years old, 6 to 11 and 9 to 14 — grow more archaic by the hour. Titles such as Disney’s “High School Musical” and “Hannah Montana” or Nick’s “iCarly” and “Naked Brothers Band” manage to pull in mass auds, but internally, a lot of kid-focused networks target sub-demos.
For example, the bustling preschool demo for 2-5s has mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar derby for dozens of shows on a half-dozen nets domestically. Tween fare has also experienced a boom, especially since Disney made an aggressive move a few years ago to reclaim ground ceded to Nick in the ’90s.
How Disney does it
If anyone can claim to still be aiming for the masses, it’s the Mouse House.
“Do we slice and dice? No,” says Richard Loomis, senior VP of marketing and creative for Disney Channel. “Do we try to be smart and focused and target people based on their media habits? Yes, that’s something we look at. We don’t ever look to exclude a demo.”
Loomis cites “Phineas and Ferb,” which launched last January. The toon was intended to balance out the female-skewing net’s offering, though it still needed to get everybody into the tent.
“It’s a mosaic approach,” the exec says. “You have the foundation of mass media to get kids interested, but then you complement that with print, digital and grassroots efforts. We had a big presence on the Winter X Games for example, which delivered boys.”
Other players aren’t as interested in completing the whole mosaic — content to pursue certain tiles.
“People who try to be all things to all people wind up being nothing to nobody,” says Cheryl Gotthelf, senior VP at Chorion, the U.K. company behind Nick’s upcoming “Olivia” and Cartoon Network’s “The Mr. Men Show.”
“Mr. Men,” based on the 37-year-old line of books depicting characters defined by their emotions (source of the original “Little Miss Sunshine”), straddles the 2-5 and 6-11 demos. Built on today’s multiplatform model, the show has robust ancillary components — from online games to consumer products — that relieve pressure from the TV show to dominate the entire demo. For some ages, the T-shirts and games are the entry point. Adults who themselves grew up on the books are also fueling sales, as is the case with other new series, like Nick’s “Banana Splitz”-endebted “Yo Gabba Gabba.”
“We have this very elastic program,” Gotthelf says. “Self-expression has hit at the heartbeat of this generation. Today’s consumers, from a very early age, are about personalization and customization.”
As if marketing weren’t anxiety-provoking enough, there are also plenty of pitfalls for programmers and development execs. Now that the larger age headings are breaking into smaller units, the temptation is to micro-target and build a portfolio of programs that, taken together, reaches everybody.
Such is the case with preschool nets, which appeal at various times of the day to 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds but seldom to all of them at once. Tweens, similarly, are a compressed demo, and while some properties “age down” to draw 5- and 6-year-olds, the sweet spot tends to be 8-11. That narrow range can drive a vast array of revenue-producing extensions, from Broadway shows to soundtracks, but it also can be a straitjacket for actors. Witness the flap over Vanity Fair’s racy Miley Cyrus photo shoot, or Josh Peck’s stoner role in “The Wackness.”
Boys vs. girls
Gender also plays an increasingly prominent role. “Shows have become much more deliberately aimed at boys or girls because they can more easily get traction that way,” notes Alice Wilder, who spent a decade as chief researcher on “Blue’s Clues” and now produces PBS’ “Super Why!”
As the cross-currents continue, some vets caution against too much calculation by those on the creative side.
“It’s always problematic when show creators try to take the age of the audience into consideration,” says Josh Selig, founder and head of Little Airplane, the New York animation boutique known for Nick’s “Wonder Pets!” The company, which employs about 70 people, has just announced plans to expand into the feature film arena with family offerings.
How will Little Airplane define the family audience? Based on material, Selig maintains. “Time and time again, I’ve seen people try to make a show more aspirational and then they lose the younger kids, or they’ve tried to go younger and the older ones lose interest. And before they know it, they’ve diluted the original idea.”
Assistant managing editor Dade Hayes is the author of “Anytime Playdate: Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom.”