Music-based children’s series are resonating with young viewers around the globe.
There’s something about a song that can have a strong influence on a person’s mood. From an upbeat track evoking happy feelings to a slow tune that brings tears to the eyes, the power of music is undeniable. And for children who are still learning about their emotions, music can play a big role in the television they watch—whether it is in the form of background melodies that express a character’s attitude or songs that are central to a show’s main storyline.
“Music helps communicate emotion and meaning,” says Christine Brendle, the CEO of FUN Union. “Any story can be enhanced by musical scores where less is told and more is conveyed—joy, melancholy, disappointment, anger, etc.”
Music is key to the storytelling in BabyRiki, a preschool show that follows the adventures of five young characters as they explore their environment. “Each episode is 5 minutes long, comprising over 2 minutes of music for young children to dance and sing along to,” says Brendle.
Music is an integral aspect of the hit preschool series Peppa Pig, even though the show is not specifically about music per se. “First experiences for preschoolers are often the main thread of episodes, so catchy songs in the show often relate to moral messages,” says Olivier Dumont, the president of Entertainment One (eOne) Family & Brands. Examples include tunes about fruits and vegetables as well as recycling—“songs that relate to everyday activities that turn into little adventures for preschoolers.”
Also in the eOne Family & Brands catalog is the animated show PJ Masks, which features a very popular theme song. “In terms of the music on that show, we wanted a nostalgic style,” says Dumont. “Parents, as a result, really love the music in the show.”
FEEL THE RHYTHM
Music plays a big role in the storyline for Taratabong: The World of the Meloditties, a preschool program focused on a group of creatures that communicate by sound and rhythm. “It’s very musical because it teaches kids the different notes and also the different instruments that exist,” says Jérôme Alby, the managing director of Mediatoon Distribution. The company also represents Teen Crumpets and MaXi, both of which feature prominent musical themes.
Jetpack Distribution’s portfolio includes Kazoops!, about a little boy who goes on musical journeys to explore the answers to his many questions about the world around him. “Each episode has a unique song sung by a musician,” says Dominic Gardiner, the company’s CEO. “The narrative of the song reflects the narrative of the series.”
The preschool program Boj follows the adventures of a rare Australian marsupial. “Music is a really strong backbone of that series,” says Gardiner. There is also Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed!, based on the comic character Dennis the Menace, who, in the animated television show, plays guitar in a band with his friends.
Then there is Kitty is Not a Cat, an older-skewing animated comedy that Gardiner says “has got music at its core.” The show centers on a little girl who lives in a household of felines and thinks she is a cat. “Music in that show is more of a driver of style and attitude,” says Gardiner. “Music is not just added on to fill the gaps between the dialogue; it’s actually a really important thing that holds the whole series together and makes it feel different.”
Speaking of felines, Portfolio Entertainment represents The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! “It’s got all of these very catchy, entertaining songs that seamlessly help with the storytelling,” says Lisa Olfman, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “They heighten an emotion or a mood or some activity they’re doing in that moment in time. It allows the kids to get physical in front of their screen, where they can jump up, they can dance, they can sing along. The songs really help complement the storytelling.”
Another feline-focused series that incorporates music is 44 Cats. “The name of the show references a song from 1968 that won a children’s music contest in Italy and since then has become a much-loved part of Italian culture,” says Cristiana Buzzelli, the senior VP of sales and acquisitions at Rainbow. “The lovable cats in the show are part of a music band that breaks into song at every opportunity.”
Rainbow’s catalog also includes the animated Winx Club and live-action Maggie & Bianca Fashion Friends. “Maggie & Bianca Fashion Friends has a massive musical element and is proving to be hugely popular amongst teens and tweens, [while] Winx Club addresses girls 6 to 9 years old,” says Buzzelli. “At Rainbow, we firmly believe that music is a fundamental element of every IP for children and families.”
The animated series LoliRock is part of the Zodiak Kids portfolio. The show follows the adventures of a teen girl who, after joining a band, discovers that she is an alien princess with magical powers. LoliRock is geared toward young viewers between the ages of 6 and 11. “Kids relate to the magic and language of music,” says Eryk Casemiro, the chief creative officer of Zodiak Kids Studios.
Beat Bugs, a Netflix commission that is sold by Beyond Distribution, incorporates songs made famous by The Beatles. “We wanted to bring the extraordinary music of The Beatles to life on screen with heart and imagination, so a new generation of viewers and listeners all over the world could learn to appreciate the music and all it has to offer,” says Josh Wakely, who created the animated series. “We were able to dissect the vibrant imagery within the lyrics of each song and reimagine the world in a way we haven’t seen on television before, in a way that both kids and parents can experience and enjoy together.”
LEARN TO THE BEAT
In addition to its entertainment value, music in kids’ TV programming can be an effective teaching tool. “Young children learn better when they move and dance while experimenting with a new concept,” says FUN Union’s Brendle. “Kinesthetic learning—when a notion is acquired through movement or physical activities rather than listening to a lecture—is particularly adapted to young children. Anyone who has tried to memorize a long piece of text by adding a tune or a dance to it will understand the appeal of musical shows for children.”
“Funny words and rhymes set to memorable melodies are a part of almost every child’s development,” says Portfolio’s Olfman. “Children learn extremely well through songs…. The pure entertainment value of fun songs really helps cement the show in a child’s mind.”
Music also helps keep a show fun and light while simultaneously giving youngsters an outlet for their seemingly endless amounts of energy. “Younger audiences are attracted to music as they love to move about, and when they are listening to music they are swaying, bouncing, dancing, marching and clapping,” says Rainbow’s Buzzelli.
Aside from the benefits for viewers, music-based kids’ series are also appealing to distributors due to their universal nature. “Music is the most international language there is; that’s something we have in common in all cultures,” says Mediatoon’s Alby.
But these types of shows can also prove difficult when it comes to securing international sales. “There are several challenges linked to the initial costs for the original songs/scores, followed by adapting and dubbing costs,” says FUN Union’s Brendle.
“Joy Rosen [also co-founder and CEO at Portfolio] oversees our global distribution division and every time we talk about [musical] shows—either our shows or other people’s shows that we’ve acquired that have a number of songs in them—she goes, OK, that’s going to be tough,” says Olfman. “What makes that challenging is, first of all, it’s very expensive. Translating and dubbing songs into a country’s native language presents both a creative and a technical challenge. Song lyrics can rarely be directly translated and still fit with the existing music, so it means we’re hiring creative writers to adapt the lyrics.”
At Zodiak Kids, “When you say you’re going to have music in a show to your sales team for distribution, their eyes roll to the back of their heads and they convulse because it’s expensive to dub songs,” quips Casemiro. “When you’re going into different languages, not all dubbing actors and actresses can sing. Then you have the complication of lyrics and language. There’s a certain amount of syllables you can get away with when lip-synching speech [that] in song you can’t because there’s rhythm. So it becomes much more expensive.”
“The tricky part about shows that are based on music is that it’s always more expensive to exploit,” agrees Mediatoon’s Alby. “Then you have to translate a show; it’s easy to translate dialogue [but] you don’t always find a good actor that can also be a good singer, especially when it’s programmed for kids, which can be even more tricky. And of course, that significantly increases the dubbing costs.”
Dumont at eOne Family & Brands also mentions the difficulty of securing the international rights for songs. “You need to make sure your music is cleared for everywhere, which is not always easy,” he says. “Beyond this, it’s the cost—particularly the lyrics to the songs when dubbing—that is very expensive. So when songs are [involved], you need to make sure that the show is really strong.”
TEST OF TIME
In order to have a music-based kids’ show that can be sold into territories around the globe, it’s crucial to have a solid storyline to justify the high costs associated with translating and dubbing.
“You need to have a good plot,” emphasizes Mediatoon’s Alby. “The character diamond has to be well-polished. Music is very good for a show, but if it lacks the other key components, it will be a failure.”
It’s also important that the music will remain relevant as time goes by. “Music can date a program,” says Jetpack’s Gardiner. “If you’re watching stuff from the ’80s, the first thing you always notice is the music. A lot of preschool stays quite timeless because of the types of music. You’ve got to be careful with music; you want it to be cool, you want it to feel light and resonate now, but at the same time, you don’t want to make it too tied to a particular style because in three or four years, [it may not] stand the test of time.”
In addition, producers should include the right music for the audience that’s being targeted. “Occasionally, you’ll get somebody who’s trying to use inappropriate, older-skewing music for preschoolers because they think that’s really cool,” notes Gardiner. Music should also be authentic and relevant to what is taking place in the show. “Sometimes in comedy, music’s really just there for comedic effect,” he adds. “But if your series is about a bunch of skaters on high-tech missions, you want to make sure the music reflects what kids might actually be doing today in the real world, and therefore you’ve got to get artists or musicians who are able to emulate that.”
“The songs must be connected with the themes and values of the show so that they are an integral part of the content,” concurs Rainbow’s Buzzelli. “Only once this is properly done can music be a central part of what makes a brand successful.”
Zodiak Kids’ Casemiro also suggests that producers of preschool programming switch up the musical style every now and then. “Preschool music should allow a live instrument or two,” he says. “We don’t always have to use synthesizers in our scores for kids’ shows.”
Even for series where music is not central to the storyline, Gardiner feels that it’s best to get a head start on mapping out the score. “Music often is one of the last things that people think about when they’re making a show,” he says. “They spend so long sitting in front of bibles and artwork and pitch materials, then they go into production and it’s all drawings and computers. At the end, somebody is like, Oh right! It’ll feel empty without music, what are we going to do? [Instead of] suddenly just adding music, you probably should have made sure that musical direction was woven in at an early stage.”
L&M can be extremely complementary for this type of programming. “Licensing and merchandising is always important and strengthens the brand across a number of mediums and platforms,” says Portfolio’s Olfman. “Kids feel like they need something to hug, they need something to hold, they need something to sing along to, something to play from the show, and all of it reinforces the relationship to the characters.”
However, Zodiak Kids’ Casemiro cautions against nonlinear extensions just for the sake of it. “You never want the tail to wag the dog,” he says. “You want that business to follow organically and make the experience for the user better. That’s easier said than done; we all know how hard the music business is and how different it is.”
“Music is a huge part of all the experiential activities” for Peppa Pig, notes eOne Family’s Dumont. “We have a theme park in the U.K. called Peppa Pig World, so music is a great way to make the show come alive in those parks.” Another example is Move with Peppa, a series of classes and parties for kids that use music to encourage them to stay active. Then there are Peppa Pig musical albums, with new releases in the works as the property gears up to celebrate its 15th anniversary next year.
Dumont continues, “Music is also a big part of all the apps that we make on each of our shows. We created a subscription-based app called World of Peppa Pig, in which music is featured very prominently. The minute you download the initial app, you’re greeted by the theme song for the show. It’s a really key part of getting more recognizability of the brand and hooking fans into any of the extensions.”
“With our master toy partner for 44 Cats (Toy Plus), we are developing a wide range of toys and every item features musical content that is linked to the TV show,” says Rainbow’s Buzzelli. “Music also gives a wonderful added value to digital media content to support the show.”
Jetpack’s Gardiner adds, “Kids want to listen to stuff that they see on TV. It makes them happy; it makes them want to sing along. If you can use music from a series to connect, it’s a very powerful thing.”
Pictured: Jetpack’s Kitty is Not a Cat.