Catching a Hit

Kristin Brzoznowski surveys a range of buyers about the types of shows they are looking for.

Adapting to change is nothing new for those working in the kids’ programming industry. Channels have been continuously reshaping their strategies as they face launch after launch of new streaming services, and within all this potential disruption, the industry as a whole has been strengthened and toned, made itself nimble and responsive. These attributes serve the buyers, programmers and commissioners at children’s platforms well as they grapple with the shifts in front of them (COVID-19 included) and those just around the corner.

“It’s always changing, but it’s critical to look at the different forms of emerging distribution platforms for kids’ and family content because it’s important for audience retention and acquisition,” says Adina Pitt, VP of content acquisitions and co-productions for Cartoon Network and Boomerang. Given the current challenges for live-action production due to the coronavirus pandemic, “the current state remains super competitive because, with more demand for animation in the space, it means more competition.”

Pitt’s colleague Cecilia Persson, VP of programming and content strategy for kids, acquisitions and co-productions for EMEA and international, describes the overall state of the industry as positive, “as there is more demand and more outlets for kids’ content. We want a buoyant kids’ production industry, so the more players and partners, the better.”

And while the kids’ production and programming landscape was certainly impacted by COVID-19, it has fared relatively well. “Compared to other industries, we were all adapting quite fast to this very new and challenging situation,” says Sebastian Debertin, head of fiction, acquisitions and co-productions at KiKA. “It’s probably because all media businesses are, or have already been, in the process of adapting to the ‘new’ digital world and have learned their lesson about change management. Therefore, most of them were more or less in a good position to adapt also to the heavy challenges of today’s pandemic times.”

Marie McCann, senior director of children’s content at CBC Kids, agrees: “In Canada, we’re seeing animation production doing quite well, while kids’ live action is hampered by COVID-19 protocols and insurance issues,” she says. “Independent producers have shared with me that it is a tough time for them.”

Nevertheless, there seems to be a significant demand for high-quality content, McCann adds. “As part of our mandate as the national public broadcaster, CBC strives to play a meaningful role for young audiences across the country by providing content that inspires, entertains and educates. These past months during the ongoing pandemic, we’ve been able to mobilize quickly to produce a large volume of new, original and relevant material for kids across different platforms and pivot our approach depending on their needs.”

One of the big calls from the kids’ content industry, and the wider TV business at large, is for programming that more authentically represents the diverse, modern world. The importance of representation on-screen for young ones cannot be understated, and program makers and buyers are stepping up. “While looking for creators and projects that reflect the diversity of Canada has always been a priority at CBC Kids, the conversation around anti-Black racism that has been taking place here and around the world has definitely made us look at our programming, our teams and our partners to understand how we can make better content for all kids and families,” says McCann.

Ellen Solberg, head of content at the kids’ streaming app Hopster, is also keenly aware of this issue and says that, on the whole, the children’s programming industry is moving in the right direction. “There is more focus on important issues such as diversity and representation, combating stereotypes, mental health and the environment, and we’re seeing these changes reflected in new productions. Of course, there’s still a lot that can be done, and the important thing is to continue to raise awareness within the industry.”

According to Hopster’s report Is Kids TV Making Your Child Prejudiced?, terrestrial TV’s quality of content is generally better and stronger in terms of diversity, inclusivity and challenging stereotypes, largely due to regulations. “Kids’ platforms, buyers and commissioners need to work harder and regulate themselves to have stronger diverse and inclusive original content,” Solberg says.

Kidoodle.TV, meanwhile, has undertaken the mission of curating a Safe Streaming environment—even trademarking the term—where kids can find age-appropriate content, and parents can feel assured about what their little ones are watching. “The world has a lot of misplaced kids at the moment, and we at Kidoodle.TV have taken every measure to meet families where they are while ensuring that their kids will be Safe Streaming with us,” says Brenda Bisner, the platform’s chief content officer.

In terms of acquisitions, Kidoodle.TV is actively on the hunt for content. “We are looking at everything, all the time,” says Bisner. “We love data and want to bring fresh and relevant programming to our audiences globally. We love viral, established sensations and are looking to change the game across the board, not just with where and how families consume but what they see.”

The service is targeted to kids under 12, with a strong focus on programming that families can watch together. “Viewing data shows co-viewing through connected TVs has not only grown but is continuing as the new normal, and we are at the front lines of that,” says Bisner.

For the U.S. Cartoon Network and Boomerang channels, Pitt says that the team is currently looking for “genres that have been consistent with the past.” The aim is to target kids ages 6 to 11 for Cartoon Network and ages 4 to 8 for Boomerang. She lists as the qualities she’s looking for in a program: authenticity, immersive worlds and relatable characters and storylines. “We also want a show to have heart and humor while being inclusive, representative and relevant to our kids,” says Pitt. “For instance, race, gender, socioeconomics, physical disabilities and invisible diversity are all important qualities.”

For international, Persson is looking to target a younger, preschool demographic for Boomerang and HBO Go. She’s on the lookout for “creator-led stories that are genuine and reflective of our audience. Kids can see through things that are not authentic.”

When it comes to desired lengths and formats—once a somewhat more rigid requisite for linear buyers—the field is open, says Pitt. “We are flexible, and this is something that is constantly evolving. We try to encourage our partners to use formats that make sense for the particular IP. Each format should work with the narrative.”

Persson agrees: “We are open to all kinds of formats—whether an app, game, shorts or a long-form series. What’s important is to have great, creator-led content that connects with our audience.”

In the competitive German market, KiKA’s buying mandate has largely remained unchanged: “We are looking for content of high quality only,” says Debertin. “Premieres preferred.”

What’s new is that Debertin is scouting for more nonfiction programming from the international marketplace. “While we produce most of our nonfiction programming in Germany, we want even more to emphasize the need to understand the world’s diversity in these times,” he says. “Therefore, I am now also looking internationally for both fiction and nonfiction kids’ programming for our channel and our various platforms.”

In particular, he is after docs and factual that cover issues relatable to kids’ lives. “Of course, it must be relevant for the different kids’ target groups and enhance their positive view on the world as well as give them orientation and deliver them strong, positive values,” Debertin adds.

When it comes to fiction, KiKA is currently looking for animated full-length feature films and specials, especially for bank holidays, Easter time and Christmas, with a length of up to 30 minutes and age-wise starting with 5-year-olds, 6-to-10s and up to 10- to 13-year-olds. “Family co-watching on top is an advantage, but only if kids are the focus of the storytelling,” he notes.

Live-action feature films for kids’ and family audiences are also on the shopping list. Depending on the story and characters, the target is for kids 5-plus, aging up to 10 to 13.

Debertin adds, “We have a strong slate for our youngest viewers, who love watching shows on KiKANiNCHEN,” KiKA’s linear preschool slot and online offer, so animated series for preschoolers are on his wish list as well.

For the bridge audience of kids 4 to 7, the channel is actively searching for “strong new additions to go along with successful series like Fireman Sam,” says Debertin. “Last but not least, [we’re looking for] series dedicated to the 6-to-9-plus demo and interesting live-action series for 10- to 13-year-olds, girls and boys.”

Canada’s CBC is targeting preschoolers with CBC TV and the CBC Gem streaming service and tweens (9 to 13) at CBC Gem. “Generally speaking, for preschool, we look at animation and live action, while for tweens, we gravitate to live-action scripted with some interest in unscripted formats,” says McCann.

“We are open to different lengths but generally look at 11-minutes or 22-minutes for preschool and 22s for tween acquisitions,” she adds. “Our digital tween originals tend to be shorter series of 11s, like Detention Adventure.”

Currently, the CBC on-air schedule is around 40 percent acquisitions for the CBC Kids preschool morning block, which is mirrored on CBC Gem. The tween strategy for CBC Gem is more acquisitions-focused.

“We look for content that is fun-forward and helps kids learn about themselves and the world around them without being overtly educational,” McCann says. “Above all, we look for characters and situations that are authentic, and we are open to all genres that are pro-social, non-violent and free of harmful stereotypes.”

There’s a similar content focus at Hopster, which is comprised of about 95 percent acquisitions at the moment. “We want to share stories that are diverse and inclusive and that kids can learn something from while also being fun and engaging,” Solberg says. “We have a curriculum that we use when acquiring and commissioning content that helps us ensure that we cover a wide range of topics and learning areas.”

Hopster is targeting 2- to 6-year-olds, and Solberg says she’s interested in all content that fits within that range. “We’re very flexible when it comes to lengths, formats and number of episodes. We do see episode lengths perform differently depending on the platform they are viewed on: in our app, we see short-form content performing better; on TV platforms, longer shows get more views.”

Hopster has had success with a broad mix of programs, from well-recognized IP to more indie-type fare. The platform’s original content often appears in its top-viewed series, with Saturday ClubTwo Minute Tales and Hopster Jam all performing strongly.

“For next year, we’re looking forward to celebrating the Paralympics, Black History Month, International Women’s Day and International Men’s Day, and we’re also looking for content that encourages physical activity,” Solberg says. “We’re interested in engaging content that introduces kids to careers as well.”

Solberg is ideally looking for content that has worldwide rights for SVOD, generally non-exclusive. “We’re available in a few languages, so it’s a plus if there are other languages available or if dubbing is quite straightforward,” she adds.

The issue of rights is one that’s become ever more complicated in the streaming age, but it seems that exclusivity is now less of a make-or-break point than it was in the earlier digital days. “We are living in a non-exclusive world, and we seek non-exclusive AVOD rights globally,” says Kidoodle.TV’s Bisner. “Placing content in a safe place, with a great revenue opportunity, is a no-brainer for content owners.”

With regard to Cartoon Network and Boomerang, Pitt says the issues surrounding rights are constantly evolving. “Every time we pick something up, we are about two years out, so we try to predict what business will look like at the time that property launches. We are going to try to be as aggressive as possible with rights, but with that said, we can always revisit. We know that the business is ever-changing, and we want our deals to be reflective of those changes.”

Both Pitt and Persson are also keen on co-productions. “The co-production and prebuy models are important to us across our ecosystem,” says Pitt. “We like collaborating with creators very early in the editorial process and figuring out deals that make sense for both parties.”

“Our co-production focus is on Boomerang,” adds Persson. “We’re keen to get on board early and work collaboratively with production partners.”

Co-productions are an important backbone for KiKA’s programming, according to Debertin, whether German or international. “They allow us, on the one hand, to produce shows that perfectly cover the channel’s and all our platforms’ profile as well as our various audiences’ demands,” he says. “We, therefore, do a good number of co-pros currently, in Germany and internationally.”

Hopster has worked on several co-productions so far and is open to more. “We love to work with and learn from others who are passionate about creating wholesome and quality content for preschool kids,” says Solberg. “An objective behind our productions has been to create content that we feel is missing in the kids’ content space.” For example, for Pride last year, when the platform couldn’t find enough relevant content to acquire, it created its own LGBT+ show called Rainbow Stories. For Earth Day this year, the platform wanted to support the school kids who were striking for positive environmental change, which led Hopster to commission Kids Who Save the World.

Solberg says, “We believe that when commissioning content, it’s important to hire and create with diversity and inclusivity in mind, and do what we can to contribute to more accurate representation on-screen.”