Flying High

Producers and distributors are rising to the challenge of delivering shows that stand out from the pack.

A black hole. That’s how one kids’ television executive described the effect of on-demand services’ proliferation in the industry, within which new platforms are launching at an unprecedented rate. The thing with a black hole—or at least how those of us laymen understand it colloquially—is that you don’t know exactly what possibilities lie within it, whether they be a net positive or negative. Which, of course, tends to make one desperately curious to find out. Another thing about black holes? They suck up everything within reach.

The major streamers are hungry for content and are gobbling up all types of programming to offer their subscribers. And their gravitational pull, with all of the opportunities they can provide with their seemingly magically expanding wallets and the enormous breadth of their appetites, collects content from producers and distributors that are not unaware of the risks but optimistic about the potential. To survive in this black hole is to stand out from all of the others in there with you. Another exec referred to the massive amount of content as a flood. A show can either catch the wave above the crowd—or sink.

Intergalactic phenomena and natural disasters could seem to foretell a doomsday of sorts, but the industry is more accurately in the midst of a dawn. That of a new age with new opportunities. The industry is healthy. Supply is good, and demand is even better.

“2020 is already shaping up to be an interesting year in kids’ programming, with on-demand increasingly dominating the conversation,” says Maria Bonaria Fois, CEO of Mondo TV Iberoamérica. “However, whatever the platform, it’s clear that worldwide demand for content, in general, is growing fast—and demand for children’s programming, in particular, is strong.”

With all of these platforms and their corresponding demands for more content, Mondo TV is open to the opportunities they present and mindful of the importance of being aware of their unique needs. “We, as creators and producers, must bear in mind that there are many more channels and mediums for our output,” says Fois.

Kate Sanagan, head of sales and distribution at Sinking Ship Entertainment, believes that there has been a “renewed interest and boom in the children’s programming distribution business over the past year in particular,” owed in part to the explosion of SVOD platforms. “The proliferation of on-demand platforms has breathed new life into kids’ programming, offering up more spaces for kids to view programs.”

Frank Falcone, president and executive creative director at Guru Studio, sees the appeal of on-demand platforms, but he also recognizes the appeal’s inherent danger. It’s that fear of getting pulled into the black hole and getting lost. “You’ve got to be careful about the amount of draw there is toward those services,” says Falcone. “Throwing a show into the VOD universe is not unlike launching an app without any support in the iOS system. It’s futile. You need to really think hard about how you approach your business if you intend to sell a show into the expansive, unlimited landscape of VOD distribution.”

Essential to finding success in the landscape of VOD is marketing. On linear TV, there is a finite number of shows to fill a finite number of slots. If a child is up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, any show that’s on at that time on the channel bouquet in their household has a fighting chance of being watched just by virtue of being on air. When it comes to streamers, the risk of being a drop in the bucket is significantly greater. “If you don’t have a plan for marketing your show, you might as well not make it,” says Falcone. “You’re just kind of rolling the dice that somebody might discover it and viral buzz might happen.”

The amount of content and the difficulty in discovering new shows on platforms is compounded by the frequency with which shows launch, according to Falcone. A long-running theory of his about traditional broadcasters is now part and parcel of the practice of on-demand platforms. “I always joked that traditional broadcasters would launch a new episode every week, if they were lucky, to reignite excitement over a show. Some of these services are launching a new show every week, which is unheard of in the history of content production for kids’ TV.”

For Konami Cross Media NY, home to such household-name heritage brands as Yu-Gi-Oh!, Frogger and Bomberman, the VOD boom has been an unmitigated boon. “The biggest and fastest-growing opportunities for us are the OTT and SVOD platforms,” says Jennifer Buzzelli, co-production and distribution consultant for Konami. “All of our free- and pay-TV clients are launching their own SVOD platforms. So we’ve been able to expand our business digitally in that sense.”

Another overall benefit of the broadening VOD landscape, according to Buzzelli, is that producers feel empowered to bust boundaries and push the envelope creatively. More niche segments of the industry like anime and education now have an easier time finding a home. “Creatively, it’s going to be wonderful to see where some of these producers can go,” says Buzzelli, who, like Falcone, is conscious of the imperative for content to differentiate itself. “If you’re on Netflix, but you’re not a Netflix original, how do you get to be on the homepage? That’s the challenge, to stand apart.”

The challenge to stand apart is something streamers indubitably present, but it’s also one for which they provide a space to confront. They welcome diverse programming with new ideas and formats and styles, opening their arms to nontraditional original content from those willing to take the chance of getting lost on their services. “More sophisticated storytelling is possible for series presented on streaming services,” says Martin Krieger, CEO of Studio 100 Media. “Streaming allows a larger narrative arc. Classic TV airing requires a consistent duration and with rather autonomous episodes in order to guarantee broadcasters freedom in programming in regard to the order of episodes.”

As far as genre is concerned when it comes to sellable kids’ content, comedy remains popular. As do action and adventure series. The great equalizer, however, execs seem to agree, is quality. If a show is inarguably good, it will sell and perform well, no matter the genre boxes it ticks. With that being said, those who put content into the world meant for the youngest among us can assume a responsibility to provide programming that’s not only good but good for its audience.

“There’s a renewed push toward educational content,” says Guru’s Falcone. “The commercialization of children’s content is obviously necessary to sustain the business, but at the end of the day, we have a duty and a responsibility to children to ensure they eat healthy.”

Mondo TV’s Fois would argue that shows introducing children to environmental concerns serve an essential role in today’s kids’ content, as climate change has duly become more central to the global conversation. It bears noting that Greta Thunberg is an environmental activist at only 17. “When it comes to emerging themes, we are increasingly aware of the importance of the environment to young audiences,” says Fois. “If there’s a type of content that will be more and more in demand in the future, this is undoubtedly the one.” Mondo TV is on top of this trend with eco-adventure series on its slate such as the forthcoming MeteoHeroes and YooHoo to the Rescue.

The former, a co-production with MOPI (the weather forecasting group Meteo Operations Italia), follows six kids who discover that they can each control a different weather phenomenon. It addresses issues like climate change, ecology and respect for nature within an action-packed adventure designed to engage its young audience.

“There is more than ever a need to reflect cultural issues and world events because our young audience wants to be part of that conversation,” says Fois. “Thus, given the volume of content being produced, a point of differentiation now is not just how engaged the audience is, but the depth of engagement of the content produced.”

Studio 100 Media is likewise looking at how it can incorporate learning into its series, including with Doctor Space, an animated comedy series set in an alien ER aimed at the 4- to 7-year-old set that has a “soft” educational curriculum. “Looking at preschool content, we see that at least a soft curriculum is recommended,” says Krieger. “Generally, for all age groups, gender-neutral comedy is the most sought-after. Nevertheless, if a concept is unique and convincing, broadcasters are also open to jumping in at the deep end and considering it for their network.”

If genre is a lesser concern, one might suspect that the real debate is between known brands and original concepts, but as we kick off a new decade, the industry isn’t convinced one has too meaningful of an advantage over the other. Known brands are easier to market, sure, but buyers and those on the hunt for a co-production are scanning for new ideas as well. That black hole? It’s eating up everything.

“The known brands are often slam dunks in many ways, but there is definitely an appetite for other types of content and angles and boundary-pushing,” says Konami’s Buzzelli, who adds that those who are looking for the next big thing “want it to be different, to stand out above the crowd.” She points out that Konami benefits from having established brands and that it’s also developing new IP. “We are trying to find the gaps in the market and fill those gaps with the new IP that we’re managing.”

Sinking Ship’s Sanagan agrees that while known IP’s popularity endures, original ideas are catching buyers’ eyes these days as well. “Our current series Endlings is a good example of that with nine broadcast partners involved in the financing,” she says. “Broadcasters also look for original stories that appeal to kids of today, both topically and thematically.” Sanagan adds that there’s been “more focus on telling stories with diverse characters and from creators who have not been heard previously.”

One conjecture about the future of the industry is that the tide will organically turn toward more original material out of necessity—how many established brands are there left that are worth adapting or rebooting? As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. So if established ideas are no longer going to cut it, the onus is on kids’ content creators to figure out what will and get to work creating it.

“The conservative mindset to go with what you know has emerged again with people taking titles from famous books and publishing brands,” observes Guru’s Falcone. “There’s the reboot phenomenon, which has maybe run its course now that we’ve rebooted just about everything we can. There’s going to be a need for original content and finding the white spaces, finding the places that are untapped and finding that the demand will always be there.”

Another marked change in the kids’ TV market is how programs are financed. There are more complex methods of cobbling together the funding for projects than ever; it can be complicated, but it also brings about new opportunities that may not have presented themselves in the past.

“Each property has a unique and different finance structure from the last one,” Sanagan of Sinking Ship says. “When we examine a new property, we devise a strategy we think will best serve the content. That could be one SVOD partner, and it could be a contingent of several partners. If you start from looking at what the series needs, you’ll find the right partner.”

At Guru, Falcone notes, “We had three really diverse and inventive models of funding two shows that we got off the ground involving majors and local producers and tax credits and even foreign investors with Chinese roots,” he says. “The traditional Canadian model of a license fee from a U.S. broadcaster and tax credits, and a Canadian broadcaster taking a lead—that seems like an archaic model at this point.”

Within the industry, anyone can initiate the conversation about a property from any part of the world. Keeping that in mind, Guru, which counts among its titles Pikwik Pack, True and the Rainbow Kingdom and Big Blue, isn’t restricting itself to leads in Canada—or narrow definitions of co-production.

“We’re seeing more co-productions as commercial co-productions, where you have a brand owner or a commercial interest with little or no content development experience looking to produce [with a company with] a track record for creating successful shows,” says Falcone. “And they look to us as a content partner to help create stories around brand concepts.”

Konami’s Buzzelli finds that the co-production world is robust and that people are eager to join forces on a project, creating varied avenues for financing. While the company has yet to enter into actual negotiations for its titles just yet, “most of the production partners we’ve engaged with have expressed their openness and flexibility,” says Buzzelli. “In terms of just different division of labor—who writes the scripts, who does this, who does that? I find a real openness with regard to that, which is pleasing.”

“We’re very engaged with potential production partners and co-production partners on all three of the new IPs that we’re developing,” she says. “We’re really looking to partner with strong, strategic production partners, both domestically and abroad, and we’ve made progress, but we still have a ways to go.”

Mondo TV has partnered with content producers from around the world for co-productions and co-financing, which helps to manage rising budget levels, according to Fois. “Raising production finance has become a complicated business,” she says. “There is no one formula for financing; every production comes with a different model.”

Studio 100’s Krieger observes, “Traditionally, two commissioning broadcasters combined with interesting funding possibilities—for example in France or in Australia—are the aim for financing a project, together with presales to close potential gaps in funding. This still works, but streaming platforms are also open to co-commissioning together with a broadcaster.”The company is currently working on 100% Wolf–Legend of the Moonstone, a co-pro between its Flying Bark Productions and ABC Australia and Super RTL.

The influence of digital—on genre, marketing, creative concepts, formats and financing—is touching every corner of the industry. “There is no longer a simply defined traditional free-to-air/pay-TV path,” says Mondo TV’s Fois. “Content creators, producers and distributors now need to establish a ‘holistic’ strategy. That is where we expect to find real synergies—and great opportunities!”