How Kids’ TV Networks Are Fighting Off Their Frightening Decline

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Courtesy of Disney DX

When “Game Shakers” debuts on Nickelodeon on Sept. 12, the sitcom might seem like more of the same from the kids’ network. It comes from Dan Schneider, the creator of past Nick franchises like “iCarly,” and features the return of actor Kel Mitchell, known for his tenure on “Kenan & Kel” on the network in the ’90s.

But “Game Shakers” distinguishes itself from the Nick hits of yore because of how its narrative lives on beyond the TV. Each time the two young female coders depicted in the sitcom develop a gaming app, an actual version of the app will appear in tandem with the storyline in digital outlets including the network’s website and iTunes. “It’s not just a linear show we are looking at,” explained Russell Hicks, Nickelodeon’s president of content and development.

Nickelodeon’s parent company, Viacom, isn’t the only conglomerate innovating its TV programming strategy across digital platforms, where children and teenagers are increasingly drawn to streaming alternatives they can watch on mobile devices. The reason: Morgan Stanley estimates that “C3” ratings, which measure viewership of commercials over the first three days from a show’s debut, are down 30% among viewers aged 2-11 in total-day tracking from mid-2013 through July across kids’ TV networks owned by Viacom, Disney, Time Warner and Discovery, compared with a 12% drop in the same period in primetime among viewers 18-49 across general-entertainment networks that skew toward adults.

What’s worse is that kids’ networks can’t be easily dismissed as some outlier within the media industry; they could actually be a canary in the coal mine for the kind of negative market dynamics that could eventually catch up to brands catering to older consumers. “The more you tempt kids with content that takes them away from the ecosystem, the bigger the risk is,” said Michael Nathanson, an analyst who monitors the media business for MoffettNathanson. “We don’t know what will happen when they get older.”

Getting kids to sit down for a Saturday-morning session or after-school marathon with animated favorites was once a fait accompli. Indeed, a successful kiddie series was something of a video annuity: As one generation aged out of the property, another found it new and enchanting. And when merchandise was added to the mix — games, dolls and lunchboxes were always part of the kids’ TV equation — the potential to turn a hit series into a bonanza always stood within reach.

Until now. Besides losing viewing time to competition from non-serialized entertainment like social media and videogames, linear TV programs must battle original shows from a growing number of sources, including Amazon and Netflix. That’s part of what prompted HBO to strike a deal earlier this month to license the next five seasons of “Sesame Street,” which also will play on the cabler’s new streaming offering, HBO Now.

Moreover, kid-centric content — primarily shortform videos with amateur talent — is one of the most popular categories on YouTube, which launched an app targeting youngsters in February. Tubular Labs measured 5.6 billion views for YouTube’s kid-focused vids  in the first quarter of 2015, up 224% from the same period the previous year.

To media companies, these numbers give rise to a palpable fear: If they don’t act now, they might forever lose an audience they were once guaranteed. Worse yet, today’s missing kids are tomorrow’s absent adults.  “There is a perfect storm,” says Sherri Hope Culver, director of the Center for Media and Information Literacy at Temple U.

To stem the flood of exiting viewers, TV networks are experimenting with platforms other than TV. When PBS recently unveiled a new week’s worth of episodes of its freshman series “Odd Squad,” it made sure digital properties associated with the show echoed the storylines of the new content. “The same people who are in the writers’ room thinking about what the next episode will be are also thinking about what will become a really great game,” says Sara DeWitt, who heads PBS Kids Digital.

When Disney Junior debuted new episodes of “Doc McStuffins” in August, the video was accompanied by the launch of mobile games and interactive counteparts called “appisodes” available for mobile screens. Nickelodeon has an animated series slated for 2016, “Pinky Malinky,” focused on a character who will attempt to cultivate a fanbase through YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.

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The industry is focused on “total consumption,” according to Christina Miller, president and general manager of Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang. “If the content is working across multiple platforms, that’s more important than it working on one platform,” she says.

Robert Miner, president of Miner and Co. Studio, a consulting firm that works with brands active in the category, says that networks aren’t giving up on kids. Rather, they’re reaching out to them with different models. “Most of my clients are working on creating” new kinds of content, he explains. “They just realized they need to do it at a more rapid pace than they anticipated.”

A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey released earlier this month suggests that traditional kids programmers still have significant market traction. Live viewing of network TV shows and movies was still more popular than any other mode of entertainment, and awareness of the traditional brands is higher than that of the new challengers, though the latter group draws more interest (see charts).

The survey also found that parents are firmly in charge of what their kids view, which is why companies are targeting mom and dad as well. Disney is working on a reboot of “Duck Tales” and a series based on its movie “Tangled”; Cartoon Network is reviving “Ben 10”; and Nickelodeon’s Russell notes that his network is retooling some of its oldest properties for modern audiences (though he declines to specify shows).

At Sprout, the pre-schooler network operated by NBCUniversal, live morning program “The Sunny Side Up Show” features celebrities as a way to reach out to parents, says Sandy Wax, the outlet’s president. When Jon Hamm was on the show, he touted the kidpic “Minions,” in which he had a prominent voice role, by demonstrating how to create an evil laugh. “We are actively seeking out ways to get moms, dads and grandparents — whoever is taking care of the kids — to get eyes on the screen,” Wax says. “Kids probably don’t know who Jon Hamm is, but just about every mom does.”

Playing to the whole family is good business on a number of levels. Both Time Warner and Discovery Communications recently retooled cable networks they own — Boomerang and Discovery Family Channel — in an attempt to broaden their audience. The idea is to provide programming that will interest both adults and their children, like a retooled series featuring Bugs Bunny or “Animal Head Games,” a live-action show that focuses on how animals think.

With audiences in decline at general entertainment networks, companies are pitching kid-friendly shows as a way for advertisers to connect with families in order to market products like vacations, cars and movies. With most nets skewing toward kids or adults, but not both, “There’s a white space that’s out there,” says Tom Cosgrove, general manager of Discovery Family.

Embracing the idea that iconic characters drew in fans to begin with, Disney is doubling down on the value of one of its most beloved properties, “The Lion King.” Later this fall, Disney Junior will debut “The Lion Guard,” in which the son of Simba works with a team of animals — a cheetah, a hippo, an egret and a honey badger — each with unique abilities to keep the peace in the wilds they call home.

It’s the first time any of the franchise’s characters have been seen in new settings since a direct-to-video sequel to the 1994 movie surfaced more than a decade ago, and animators have spent the better part of four years crafting work. “It’s very, very important to us,” says Nancy Kanter, executive vice president of original programming and general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide. “It’s ‘The Avengers’ meets ‘The Lion King.’ ”

What kid could resist? But that’s the idea behind bringing out the big guns. As the industry’s littlest viewers, inundated with options, grow ever more discerning, devising strategies to catch their gaze won’t get any easier. Or less imperative.

Youth Will Be Served: Some of the highest-profile content coming from kids’ programmers in the coming months

Disney Channel: A series in the pipeline will revolve around Disney’s Rapunzel movie “Tangled,” with Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi reprising their roles (2017).
Disney Jr.: “Sofia the First” spinoff “Elena of Avalor” is an animated series that features Disney’s first Latina princess character (2016).
PBS Kids: Animated series “Nature Cat” uses digital extensions to deliver its message, which encourages kids to play outdoors (fall, 2015).
Nickelodeon: “School of Rock,” a live-action show based on the movie, counts original director Richard Linklater among its executive producers (2016).
Boomerang: Series “Be Cool, Scooby-Doo!” reboots some of the most beloved animated icons, including a certain canine character (fall, 2015).
Cartoon Network: A second shot of the animated “Powerpuff Girls” introduces Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup to a new generation (2016).
Netflix: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan and Jane” is a modern-day animated remake that reimagines the pair as crime-solving teens in London (2016).
Amazon: Animated series “Wishenpoof,” about a girl with magical powers, comes from the company behind “Blue’s Clues” (August 2015).
Sprout: “Nina’s World,” which follows the adventures of a 6-year-old girl, boasts a diverse cast that includes Rita Moreno (Sept. 26).
Discovery Family: “Equestria Girls,” a spinoff of the venerable “My Little Pony” property, yields the third in a series of movies (Sept. 26).