As KiKA marks its 20th anniversary, Michael Stumpf, managing director, and Sebastian Debertin, head of fiction, acquisitions and co-productions, tell TV Kids about the journey thus far and the opportunities ahead.
The first generation of KiKA viewers have children of their own now. The channel was born as Der Kinderkanal on January 1, 1997, a joint venture of German public broadcasters ZDF and ARD, which had previously only served their youngest viewers with a few hours of content on the weekends. With KiKA, kids 3 to 13 could find safe, relevant, parent-approved content at any time of day, without advertising. KiKA’s only competitor was the commercial broadcaster SUPER RTL, which at the time benefited from its alliance with The Walt Disney Company. Fast-forward two decades and the German kids’ market is teeming with competitors, both linear channels and online services, vying for kids’ time. Over the years KiKA has remained firmly focused on its mission of entertaining and educating German kids with live-action and animated series, movies, magazine shows, documentaries and more. And its strategy, despite a rapidly shifting media ecosystem, is working, with KiKA commanding a 20-percent share of kids’ viewing in Germany. The service has kept up with the times, creating a branded destination for preschool audiences, addressing changing consumption habits and tackling hard-hitting issues like Europe’s refugee crisis. Over the years it has also stepped up its original content production and co-production efforts. Whereas the channel once largely repeated the shows airing on ZDF’s and ARD’s kids’ blocks, KiKA today has a wide programming offer that includes local hits like Schloss Einstein, high-end co-pros like Super Wings and the best acquisitions the international market has to offer. In the process it has endeared itself to German families—some 10,000 kids and teens visit KiKA’s headquarters every year.
TV KIDS: How has KiKA evolved since its launch? What role does it play in a crowded German landscape?
STUMPF: For 20 years now, KiKA has been the home of high-quality kids’ and family entertainment, created, commissioned, acquired or produced by our parent companies ARD and ZDF in Mainz, and KiKA’s home base in Erfurt. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that KiKA is Germany’s most trusted kids’ media address. We bring the best mix of genres, with fiction and nonfiction programs, and do not rely mainly on animation like some of our competitors. We give the kids what they need for growing up and for a better understanding of the world around them. As a result, in 2015 KiKA became TV’s market leader against truly strong and growing competition. Additionally, we are the market leader in preschool and in daily German kids’ prime time.
TV KIDS: How different is the landscape today from the one Kinderkanal arrived in in 1997?
STUMPF: Obviously many things have changed. If we look back 20 years most kids had no access to the internet and there were very few online offerings available to them. Kids media on demand at that time consisted mostly of DVDs, CDs or audiotapes. Only very few had access to PC games or consoles. So without question, TV was their number one source for entertainment. These times are over, and kids nowadays have a broad choice when it comes to media, which makes our job more challenging—and more interesting at the same time. So today we have to present more than just good programming on linear TV. We have to offer great storytelling via multiple platforms, fiction and nonfiction, accompanied by attractive additional materials. Although, in Germany TV is still the number one platform for kids—[on average they watch] 79 minutes per day.
TV KIDS: How do you tap into the resources of ARD and ZDF? And how do you collaborate with your parent companies?
STUMPF: ARD and ZDF have been known for a great tradition in kids’ TV since the mid-1960s. Consequentially, and for good reason, in a more and more competitive market they decided in 1996 to join forces and created KiKA, which launched on January 1, 1997, here in Erfurt. Since that time, the board of KiKA consists of four delegates sent from the nine ARD affiliates and four delegates sent from ZDF, chaired by me as KiKA’s managing director. Our board sets the strategies and discusses the programs and projects ARD, ZDF and KiKA Erfurt shall provide our channel with. In the end, one-third of the programming is produced by ARD, one-third by ZDF and the last third by KiKA in Erfurt. But we also develop and produce content together across the public-broadcasting system.
TV KIDS: What would you describe as your mission as a public broadcaster for kids?
STUMPF: The mission of a children’s channel under public law is to provide information, education and consulting entertainment and, while doing so, take into account its young target group’s specific requirements. As a consequence, we offer a program without commercials. Our aim is to support kids of all ages, give orientation and accompany them as their first address while they are growing up.
Additionally, KiKA promotes social, emotional and cognitive development, helping kids to develop a sense of values, such as tolerance and friendship. Also, we don’t broadcast programs with senseless and unnecessary violence.
We are the only channel in Germany that provides up-to-date information for children on a daily basis. With news, magazines, interactive live programs and entertainment programs, we present and convey issues to children in accordance with their very special requirements. I think that is very important, especially in times of alternative facts and fake news.
Another key word for describing our mission is diversity. Children’s requirements are many, and they are diverse, depending on their stage of development. For that reason, KiKA uses almost all genres to meet those demands. Older children, for instance, love to have stories and information from their very own world, in the form of documentary soaps, crime thrillers, magazines and news programs. And as things are somewhat different when it comes to beginners, we ensure that programs for the youngest offer educational competence besides being entertaining. KiKA can offer all of that, perfectly.
TV KIDS: In these challenging times—terrorism, populism, the refugee crisis—what role can KiKA play in helping children understand the world today?
STUMPF: We are aware that children live in a world that is constantly changing and that confronts them with conflicts. Because the world is not all comedy and soaps, we want to show them how to find solutions so that they are able to manage their conflicts in a better way. KiKA does not ignore the problem of violence because kids come across violence in media or, even worse, directly in their own lives. We want to make kids aware that violence cannot be an appropriate solution.
We are proud to show kids the diversity in our world with our many documentaries and, in doing so, make them understand other cultures, religions and people—for example, the many refugees who have to flee from their countries, making their long way to Europe. Kids’ news shows like ZDF’s daily logo! provide news and help kids to understand [current events] in detail.
TV KIDS: How are you maintaining your leadership position? What are the main strengths of your schedule?
STUMPF: In January and February, KiKA reached 20 percent market share, again leading the kids’ TV market in Germany as number one. Many great shows from ARD, ZDF and KiKA contributed to that success. Our daily morning preschool slot KiKANiNCHEN did extremely well, so the 3- to 5-year-olds joined in with [a share of] 35 percent. The 20th anniversary of KiKA also sees the 20th season of Schloss Einstein, our highly popular live-action series for the older kids, which also comes with webisodes exclusively made for premiering on KiKA online. ZDF’s production Dein Song, where talented kids are presenting their own songs in front of a VIP jury of musicians and singers, was also enjoying a huge response from our audience. And we love to support their creativity with Ene Mene Bu, the creative workshop to handicraft great stuff. We soon start production of the new season of Die beste Klasse Deutschlands, a TV game and science show, based on a nationwide challenge for schools. Many successful premieres took place in January and February to mark our channel’s birthday, like the KiKA co-production Super Wings—which also brought super ratings! This special mix of fiction and nonfiction shows coming from ARD, ZDF and KiKA is the success story of KiKA.
TV KIDS: How are you meeting the challenge of evolving consumption habits?
STUMPF: We have gone through a broad restructuring process, with a clear focus on these changes. Workflows at KiKA have been adapted completely in the direction of cross-media content production, so I guess we are prepared as best as possible. We are now planning, producing and broadcasting content for and via various platforms, bringing the content to our viewers when and whenever they want. The linear experience of KiKA is excellent as the ratings show, but the nonlinear isn’t. Reasons are numerous, such as usability and lack of availability of programs. And there is still another challenge, as German media laws are limiting public TV’s digital possibilities developing accordingly to meet the changes of media consumption. But we are working on all of that.
TV KIDS: What do you see as being your biggest challenges and opportunities in the year to two ahead?
STUMPF: Our biggest challenges and opportunities at the same time are: continuing to be relevant for kids and parents alike in a growing stream of media possibilities, keeping the balance between expectations, tasks and interests of our target groups and educating kids to become strong-minded, critical and curious. To sum it up: the biggest challenges and opportunities alike are to remain true to ourselves and our mission.
TV KIDS: How are you catering to different demographics on KiKA?
DEBERTIN: Kids in Germany are still heavily using the linear TV offerings—more than 87 percent, as research from 2016 revealed. So although we are in the midst of changing from a pure TV channel to a content house with various ways of distribution, we still perfectly reach our different audiences with the linear TV channel KiKA, which German kids have loved for 20 years now. KiKANiNCHEN, our preschool brand, hosts all toddler and preschool shows starting in the morning, featuring shows like Chloe’s Closet, Guess How Much I Love You, Sesame Street, Peppa Pig, Fireman Sam, JoNaLu and many other favorites. School kids love our after-school block with funny shows like Garfield, followed by all-time favorites like Schloss Einstein, the locally produced live-action boarding school series that runs on KiKA with nearly 900 episodes so far. Later, the afternoon ends with shows like The New Adventures of Lassie, The Jungle Book, Robin Hood: Mischief in Sherwood and Knight Rusty. From 5 p.m. on is kids’ TV prime time in Germany, which means it is KiKA time everywhere! We are winning this important slot with programs like Mia and me, The New Adventures of Peter Pan and The Travels of the Young Marco Polo.
TV KIDS: How important is acquired content? And where are you buying content from?
DEBERTIN: KiKA’s programming does consist mainly of commissioned or co-produced shows, coming from the different ARD affiliates, ZDF and KiKA. However, up to a third of KiKA’s portfolio is based on acquired content. So when KiKA looks for shows, we buy from France, the U.K., Ireland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Italy. Canadian and American programs do very well, too!
Australia has been a great provider of animated and live-action series over the years as well.
TV KIDS: What about co-productions?
DEBERTIN: Very, very important! The co-productions ARD, ZDF and KiKA have joined in or initiated the last few years—like Guess How Much I Love You (SLR Australia), Chloe’s Closet (Splash Entertainment), H2O—Just Add Water (Jonathan M. Shiff Productions) and Lily’s Driftwood Bay (Sixteen South)—all turned out to be extremely successful. We feel we know our audience truly well and so like to fine-tune and tweak the national and international concepts to make them work perfectly here in Germany. For example, our latest co-production, Super Wings, created and produced with Little Airplane in New York and CJ E&M and FunnyFlux Entertainment from Korea, is a good example for such recipe of success. As a result, ratings were fantastic. Another example: big fun from a micro world will soon hit German screens when The Insectibles, a co-production with Singapore’s One Animation, premieres in April. And not to forget, the KiKA all-time hit ratings wonder Yakari. The show, produced by Mediatoon, comes with a new season, now in CGI.
TV KIDS: What are your other original production initiatives?
DEBERTIN: There is truly not enough space to list all of our current production initiatives here. KiKA constantly looks locally for the next big thing. Together with our colleagues from ARD and ZDF, we try to be innovators! Let me name just a few.
Der besondere Kinderfilm is an initiative KiKA jointly launched with many strong partners from the German production landscape. This initiative intends to support local children’s feature-film production with resources and obviously with financial elements. Three feature films have been finished since its launch and two others are in the pipeline, all to be premiering on the big screen and later to be broadcast on KiKA.
Animanimals, created by German artist Julia Ocker, is a funny and intelligent animated series for the youngest and their parents. It is a co-pro KiKA does with SWR and Studio Film Bilder from Stuttgart in Baden-Württemberg. That is an area in Germany renowned for its creative media landscape, with many successful production companies like Studio Soi (The Gruffalo). It is also known for world-leading animation festivals like FMX, Stuttgart Trickfilmfestival and its distinguished Ludwigsburg Film Academy.
For next Christmas, we are again producing Germany’s favorite Christmas TV series, Beutolomäus, with German production house Wunderwerk. Now the 24-part series comes as a hybrid show, live action mixed with the title character Beutolomäus produced completely in CGI.
TV KIDS: What’s been the hardest gap to fill in your programming needs? What would you like that you can’t find?
DEBERTIN: Shows for the core target group are hard to get! I always approach national and international creatives and producers with the following mantra: If you want to make the KiKA audience happy, get us a clever fiction series for the 6- to 9-year-olds. Animation and live action are both very welcome! In fact, there are so few good series to find in the market. But often shows for this demo tend to be violent, not really entertaining or smart. Other offerings on the market just try to be educational and end up being boring. From my perspective, the right mix of elements is and always will be key to creating shows that really are great and get the 6- to 9-year-olds to watch. Gerhard Hahn’s Mia and me is a great example of such a successful recipe. As a result, we have just created a brand-new animated show with Hahn Film we’re producing now for this demographic that has all the right ingredients.
TV KIDS: What changes do you foresee in your programming strategy over the coming 12 to 18 months?
DEBERTIN: We need to think much earlier about spin-offs and even more importantly about the respective accompanying materials and initiatives, for example for KiKA online or our preschool platform KiKANiNCHEN.de. Logically, events will also be important. They will be placed over all our different platforms and will be part of our new strategy, especially when promoting new shows. With the professionalism and power of our partners ARD and ZDF, we have broad possibilities to make the audience aware of new KiKA program offerings and initiatives. Last, but not least, one of KiKA’s strengths since 1997 is and always has been that we have been great at making new shows become strong brands! Jungle Book, Fireman Sam, Maya the Bee, The Little Prince, Care Bears, Little Red Tractor, Heidi or Yakari, just to name a few, are valid proof of that KiKA strength. It’s no surprise that we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of KiKA with great new shows in the month to come—on TV and online!
I want to use this interview to thank our national and international program partners and providers. They not only helped us to become so successful with their productions, they also became great friends of KiKA!