In Digital Experiment, PBS Will Expand ‘Odd Squad’ to Streaming-Video ‘OddTube’

Courtesy of PBS Kids

What do you get when you cross the off-kilter kids-TV series “Odd Squad” with a popular short-form video streaming service? The answer: “OddTube.”

The PBS Kids live-action show about a group of young agents who solve problems with early-stage math and logic is filled with kooky moments that are primed to go viral. Consider a recent scene in which the team tries to capture a giant mouse with a mammoth hunk of cheese. Now the show is branching out to a venue that stands as the nation’s repository for video surprises.

The public-service broadcaster will launch the first digital short-form spin-off of one of its mainstay TV programs. “OddTube” will offer fans of “Odd Squad,” a spate of 20 episodes just one to three minutes in length. The series will stream on PBS Kids’ YouTube channel, its video app and pbskids.org, and new episodes will roll out every week from November 10, 2016 through March 23, 2017 (and could end up on the PBS Kids’ linear broadcast as a short interstitial between programs).

The idea, said Sara DeWitt, vice president of digital operations for PBS Kids, in an interview,  is to extend “Odd Squad” to an older set of young viewers. This cadre of youngsters spends increasing amounts of time on YouTube watching videos of kids like themselves making crafts, taking part in hobbies and even playing video games. PBS wanted to “experiment” with creating content for video streaming and mobile apps, where people – even kids – often “host” a short video and talk directly to viewers, DeWitt said.

PBS tests the format as many TV outlets seek new ways to capture the interest of the medium’s youngest viewers, who are growing more at home with new kinds of access to video entertainment unhitched from the traditional living-room screen. For backers of kids’ TV, said Paul Siefken, vice president of broadcast and digital media at The Fred Rogers Company, which produces “Odd Squad” along with Sinking Ship Entertainment. “It’s not just about watching the program, but it’s about playing the games, many of which  are based on episodes from the program, doing the activities at home or in an after-school setting.” TV shows must become “trans media” properties, he added,  “and what ‘trans media’ means is inviting children to play the show.”

Other kid-media stalwarts have tested these methods as well. Viacom’s Nickelodeon, for example, in 2015 launched the sitcom “Game Shakers,” centered on two young female coders who make apps. Some of their “creations” on the show are made available to viewers to play in digital fashion. Walt Disney in June launched In June, Walt Disney launched an app it calls “Disney LOL,” which makes available short-form video content related to the company’s many popular characters.

Viewers of “OddTube” won’t be encouraged to lean back and relax. Indeed, the characters may have assignments for viewers. Instead of watching characters like Agent Otis or Ms. O figure out how to use fractions or patterns during a traditional quarter-hour vignette, fans will watch Agent Olympia (played by Anna Cathcart) as she speaks from her desk at “Odd Squad” headquarters. She will encourage interaction by telling viewers to vote on various topics or to send in ideas that might influence the course of future episodes. Other characters make cameos.

The digital extension opens new production challenges for the network and producers. On the one hand, said Adam Peltzman, one of the series’ creators, writers and fans get to spend more time in the “world” of the show at a more relaxed pace, because the “OddTube” vignettes don’t tell a story for a TV episode. But spurring audience interaction creates new wrinkles.  Olympia might ask viewers to vote for their favorite “Odd Squad” villain, who will then turn up a few weeks later – requiring producers to book actors with recurring roles in a very short window.

“It’s definitely a puzzle to arrange the whole thing at every stage – the writing, the editing,” he said. “It’s very different from arranging the TV show.”

The video vignettes will also spur viewers to spend more time with the show’s content, no matter where it might appear. “OddTube” episodes are likely to contain “Easter eggs,” or hidden clues that prompt fans to visit games related to the show, said PBS’  DeWitt. Agent Olympia might offer a glimpse at a secret code, for instance, that can be used to explore a digital game.

And then there are surprises fans of the program will not want to miss. Agent Olympia is relatively new to “Odd Squad,” having replaced a character named Agent Olive (played by Dalila Bella) who was at large in the series’ first season. If fans tune in to “OddTube,” said Peltzman, the are likely to see Olive pay a new visit to the squad.

Despite the new work, the creators said they appreciate the chance to do expand their program. “Our goal is always to wide the world as much as possible,” said Tim McKeon, the show’s other creator. “Give us any opportunity to widen the world and we’ll take it.”