Francesca Newington Talks POP’s Programming Needs


For her savvy programming decisions at the Narrative Entertainment-owned POP Channels, Francesca Newington was honored with the TV Kids Pioneer Award today after participating in a keynote conversation about her content strategy at the U.K. portfolio of channels and services.

Newington, director of the POP Channels, took part in a keynote conversation on the final day of the TV Kids Festival with TV Kids’ Kristin Brzoznowski. You can watch it here.

The portfolio that Newington oversees includes the linear channels POP, where the average age of the viewer is 8; the upper-preschool service Tiny POP; and POP Max, which has a sweet spot of kids around the age of 8. “The past year has been tough for the kids’ market in general, and that does include the free-to-air channels,” Newington said. “However, POP has retained its number one position in the commercial kids’ market. POP Max has bucked the downward trend and had an amazing second half of the year in 2022. Tiny Pop was the top commercial channel for kids aged 4 to 6 across 2021 to ’22, but it is now falling back down, in line with the kids’ market.”

Newington continued: “Although it’s been a challenging year, and the market is tough right now, the important thing to remember is that linear TV is still the most preferred way for parents to find kids’ content. It’s such an important tool for them to have that easy, free, fully complied and guaranteed safe route, put together by kids’ content specialists.”

The portfolio also includes a FAST channel, POP Kids, available on Samsung TV Plus; and the POP Player, an AVOD app.

On what’s guiding the editorial strategy on the linear services, Newington said: “We have to have big franchises as our headliners to entice kids in first and foremost. In those gaps, we then schedule content with a similar tone and themes that we think are likely to resonate with our viewers. Those lesser-known titles can then find their audience via the franchises that brought [viewers] into the channels in the first place.”

Newington noted that ramping up the portfolio’s digital presence is key, “so that we can broaden our reach and entice back viewers who may have left the kids’ TV space altogether. We also want to increase our interactivity with our viewers—talk to them, feature them, include them within our channels as much as possible. We’re working on simple things as well, such as clearer signposting, continuity and messaging. We’ve been introducing a new tone of voice in our on-air branding, which is a continuing project, and that includes introducing new presenters.”

Acquisitions dominate the slates at the POP Channels. On the attributes she looks for, Newington said: “Anything that pops; anything with that vibration to it, that energy, and anything that’s funny—it keeps them hooked in. Franchises are very important for us. Anything that already has built-in recognition and nostalgia that appeals to parents for co-viewing. We ask ourselves, Would you sit and watch that with your child? We always look for content that has diversity embedded within it. It’s so important to reflect our audience within our content. We’re finding that now there’s so much more out there that fulfills that criteria and in many different and authentic ways. That’s positive to see, and it’s always front of mind for us when shortlisting content.”

As for the rights ask, “We’re looking for content that can be used across all our platforms without limitations. With formats, we’re after all sorts. Alongside the usual 11 or 22 minutes, it could also be short-form snackable content or longer-form movies, specials, anything for the holiday periods and anything that could be used across all platforms is quite key for us.”

As for her specific wish list at the moment, Newington said, “We’re on the lookout for comedy, in particular, for all the channels. It’s really hard to find comedy in the upper-preschool space. We did a recent audit on Tiny Pop, and we found we really didn’t have anything that was an out-and-out comedy, fully laugh-out-loud funny, on the channel. That was quite alarming to see. I feel that there’s a real lack of comedy for young younger kids out there. So that’s what we’re after for Tiny Pop, but also for POP and POP Max. POP Max has really found its niche with slapstick comedy. So, when we’re buying for POP, we also have to bear in mind if it is going to translate across to POP Max.”

Newington is also exploring original commissions and co-productions, a move she says is “about long-term survival at the end of the day. We recognize that if we’re going to be able to continue diversifying and growing our brands and to give kids access to [content in] all areas that they desire, we are going to have to have some ownership over the content in our catalogs so that we can do what we need to do with it.”

She has already commissioned the live-action series Swipe it with Joe Tasker. “We want to continue with more seasons of that. Also, we are looking for opportunities to become fully involved in the financing of new productions too. The floors is wide open on this one still. It’s likely, though, that we may start with live-action formats, due to the shorter production time. It’s an evolving project, so stay tuned.”

The conversation then moved to the POP Player and opportunities in AVOD. “Originally the POP Player only existed as a mobile app, and then at the end of 2020, it was rolled out across Freeview Play, YouView and Freesat. Since then, it’s had triple-figure growth. We have a busy year of new platform rollouts and feature developments to grow users and drive engagement. Viewing habits on the POP Player don’t actually correlate with the viewing habits on air on linear. The most popular shows are the ones with the most episodes available, quite simply. Or the ones that have newly launched on air and are still finding their audience, yet on the POP Player, they are instant hits. That’s not surprising because all our messaging points to the POP Player, and VOD is often how kids find their content in the first place.”

The biggest challenge operating in the AVOD platforms space is volume, Newington noted. “It’s about fulfilling that need, and this feeds back to our rights issues for acquisitions, where it’s already on an SVOD service or a pay-TV platform. We need to provide kids with an option to binge-watch, which is what they expect. We are looking at what else we can do in the content space and to find those clear rights. That could mean gradually changing up what we offer on air, or we diverge and provide unique content to the POP Player where we know we have the full rights available, but it’s not something that we would put up on the linear channel. This is something we’re giving a lot of consideration to this year. It is an opportunity to offer up something unique to the platform, and it also gives us more freedom to step outside of those rigid parameters of target demo and format as well. It gives us more flexibility with what we take.”

Newington then talked about the POP Kids FAST channel. “If it goes well, we might launch more. We’re looking at rolling out on other platforms, too. At the moment, it’s too early to say whether or not it’s the future for us, but having the performance data that we get from the platforms is very useful. We’ll be able to make a decision on where to go next once we have a better understanding of the performance, the opportunities that are there for us and the value we think that it can add to the portfolio.”

The POP Channels are also enhancing their presence on YouTube, Newington explained, noting this is a key priority in 2023. “Both as a platform for discovery but more than that. We’re currently assessing all our rights situations. We’ll be focusing on growing our subscribers and then providing lots more unique content that isn’t available on our other platforms. Up until recently, we had not dedicated enough time to looking after YouTube. We didn’t have the resources, but now we do; we have a team in the U.S. who are working on a large-scale YouTube strategy across both our kids’ and our movie and entertainment brands. We’ve also got a YouTube content lead in-house who is now working closely with us to complement what we do have on air, in the VOD space and in the kids’ space in general. We have big plans for growth across YouTube for this year.”

Newington then discussed her approach to exclusivity at the POP Channels. “We’re taking exclusive rights wherever we can, and we’re covering that broader usage across VOD. But on the shows that we love, which are already elsewhere, we are now seriously considering the different ways to approach things so that we can maximize our offerings on all platforms. So linear is important, but it’s not the only thing now. We take it on a case-by-case basis that we decide against various factors. Does it merit being a standout series on linear only or not? Should it be replaced by something that we would have to work hard at promoting and building up, but would actually give us the breadth of rights that we need now?”

Asked to offer advice on what producers should know about the types of content that channels want to program, kids want to watch and parents want their children to watch, Newington said, “You have to ask yourself about the content that you’re making. Who’s it aimed at? Do you fully know and understand the audience that you’re trying to reach? Is it a concept that’s fresh and unique or is it an idea that’s been around a long time and is being rehashed? Is it diverse? Is it representative of its audience? Is it produced to a good enough standard? Is it visually interesting or different to make it stand out? Does it have repeatability? That’s quite key for us. And, would it work globally? (If you’re looking to sell it everywhere.) That would come down to the quality of the scripting, too, and the structure of the story. Does it feel genuinely authentic? With anything educational, it needs to be treated carefully so as not to come across as preachy; kids won’t stand for it. If you want parents to be watching with their children, then you put yourself in their shoes and ask if you would sit and watch it. Is it compelling enough? And, can you see your child enjoying it with you?”

Brzoznowski then presented Newington with the TV Kids Pioneer Award for her work in keeping the POP Channels in pole position. “I take this on behalf of the whole team,” Newington said. “It’s a collaborative effort, always. We make decisions together, so well done team!”

Newington then talked about how she and her team have kept the portfolio competitive in a crowded landscape. “It’s a really tough and competitive market, packed with amazing channels and not just channels anymore. We’re so lucky to have all of this variety in the U.K., and we’re simply using our knowledge of what kids are attracted to and we’re providing them with the funny stuff, the franchises, the variety and the quality that they would expect. We’re doing that as best we can, and we’re trying to remain current and emulate the trends that kids are tapping into in the digital world so we can stay in touch with them and be a part of their conversation.”

She concluded: “Kids these days are so lucky to have so much available to them. It’s such a buzzing industry. When I took some time out in 2017, I found I was really missing it and I had a big desire to come back. The opportunities for what come next in the kids’ space are huge and wide open, and I’m sure that the landscape will have changed drastically again by the end of this year. So, never a dull moment!”