BBC Studios Kids & Family’s Katharina Pietzsch

Last summer, after a long career at ZDF Studios, Katharina Pietzsch joined BBC Studios Kids & Family as VP of content sales. The division of BBC Studios, home to such megahits as Bluey and Hey Duggee and an expanding slate of newer IPs, has ambitious plans for solidifying its presence in the global kids and family sector. Pietzsch talks to TV Kids about how the company is approaching the challenges and opportunities in the landscape today.

TV KIDS: 2023 was a challenging year for all sectors; what were some of the major developments that impacted your business?
PIETZSCH: Rising costs and shrinking budgets continued to have a major impact on the business last year. There was less willingness to be adventurous or take risks, so we saw buyers and commissioners leaning toward well-established IP and big brands.

The impact of the writers’ strike was also felt, with a slowdown in new content, and there was a stop to, or at least caution around, big spending commitments. We saw fewer full commissions and a rise in co-productions, which intensified the competitive landscape, particularly across Europe and with the larger co-production territories, as there was a surge from the global market seeking co-production funding from these sources.

Fortunately, we have been doing co-productions for a long time and understand how they work, so we knew the different levers to pull and could draw on our skills to enable projects to get off the ground. It has been more challenging and has perhaps taken longer than usual, but it hasn’t been completely impossible, so we are happy to say we have a few new projects in the pipeline.

TV KIDS: How do you see those shifts affecting your kids’ distribution and production business in 2024?
PIETZSCH: We have had to remain agile, but as an end-to-end business, we are well-equipped to deal with this changing landscape. Commissioners will continue to cherry-pick content and lean toward well-established titles, and known IP will continue to be in demand. Content that is already successful and comes with an inherent audience feels less of a risk to buyers.

We will continue to support and build our established franchises like Hey Duggee, Bluey and our emerging brand Supertato to meet the needs of the market for well-known IP. We recently announced a dual commission for Hey Duggee season five and a brand-new spin-off, Hey Duggee’s Squirrel Club, which brings exciting new content around a brand that kids already know and love. Toward the end of last year, we also announced a Bluey special, “The Sign,” an extended episode that fans are already excited about. We also have an exciting live-action series for older kids in development based on an incredibly successful book property that we are eager to take forward to market.

While there is a lean toward known IP, our strategy is for both known and original IP. We will continue to actively seek and develop new ideas, building a diverse slate across multiple genres and for all ages.

Co-productions will remain key to the business. Combining resources, expertise and creative talent allows you to get more ambitious projects off the ground.

TV KIDS: What growth opportunities are you pursuing this year?
PIETZSCH: There is still a desire for animation and high-end live-action, so we will continue to focus on that. It has already paid dividends with the recent commission of Rafi the Wishing Wizard, a brand-new animated adventure series focusing on an apparently ordinary family who are actually an extraordinary household of modern-day wizards. It’s imaginative, surprising and a feel-good watch, so I am looking forward to taking this one to market.

The effect of the strikes on the global content lineup could provide new opportunities. We are looking to explore unscripted game shows and entertainment, which have a faster turnaround time than animation and live action.

We are also dipping our toe in FAST and AVOD with recent U.S. sales for Hey Duggee.

After a very successful co-production on Supertato with our Chinese partner Tencent, we will continue to expand into other territories such as LatAm and Asia for partners who share our vision and passion for making high-quality, distinctive kids and family content, as well as continue our collaboration with our established partners.

TV KIDS: How are funding models changing amid the disruption happening in the marketplace?
PIETZSCH: Full commissions are becoming fewer and far between, so funding models are now more complex. The new trend is “patchwork funding,” and it is becoming more significant in enabling you to kickstart a project. Finding the right partners, though, is crucial. You have to be aligned editorially and be open and transparent from the beginning about what you want and expect. There are always challenges, but having a partner with the same creative vision makes it easier to find a middle ground when you hit any bumps in the road. Having international partners on board can also help to enrich the content with diverse cultural perspectives. This can make it more editorially appealing because it can travel, making it more attractive to buyers.

TV KIDS: How are you addressing the challenge of discovery, given how many options kids have for their entertainment?
PIETZSCH: We know that kids want to access content when and where they want it and to engage with the shows they love in lots of different ways. The key to discoverability is following your audience, ensuring your content is across multiple touch points. It’s more difficult for new content to stand out, which is why people have been banking on big brands and known IP, spin-offs and prequels/sequels. You have to have a 360-degree strategy when launching new IP and bring a number of different elements to the project. You need great visuals that instantly grab attention, which is slightly easier for animation than it perhaps is for live action, and the content has to be distinctive.

For existing IP, it’s about taking a systematic approach. It used to be that you would create linear content and subsequently put it on YouTube. But that is too simplistic now. You need different tactics for different platforms, media and territories and for your content to be consistently visible. Because kids are the vanguards of change, this “always-on” approach needs to constantly evolve with them.

With Bluey, for example, we added new territories in 2023, new product launches and ventured into gaming with a mobile app and a console video game. On YouTube globally, we have 5.1 billion views and over 8.4 million subscribers and plan to further bolster our content on digital platforms this year. On TikTok, there are 3.2 million followers and over 57.6 million likes. There have also been 5 million-plus books sold since 2019; the Bluey Dance Mode album has been streamed more than 58 million times since it launched in 2023; and Bluey’s Big Play launched in the U.K. at the end of last year and is expanding into other territories, including in the Middle East, in 2024.

TV KIDS: What other trends do you expect will be shaping the kids’ content sector in 2024?
PIETZSCH: The trend for known IP will continue for a while because of a highly competitive market and the uncertainty around funding. A willingness to invest in new content could start to emerge as we head further into 2024, but only for the right projects. Budgets won’t increase overall, so it will mean buyers cherry-picking content that works for them. There may be more investment, but only around a concentrated number of projects. Gaming will continue to be a growth area, and TV adaptations of games are booming. You can see the potential of integrating gaming content with TV brands as a way of reaching global audiences. The demand for more immersive experiences around content is likely to continue. That could be anything from going to watch a live theater show to using tools such as gamification, where kids can choose their own adventure and modify storylines through clickable interaction.