PBS KIDS’ Linda Simensky, Rai’s Luca Milano, BBC’s Sarah Muller and DR’s Niels Lindberg discussed the crucial role of public-service media for kids, diversity initiatives and the need to cooperate as they face off against the global streamers as the TV Kids Summer Festival opened today.
Moderated by Kristin Brzoznowski, executive editor of TV Kids, the insightful session saw each of the programmers discussing their content needs and weighing in on the challenges and opportunities in the kids’ media landscape today.
Read excerpts of the panel below and watch the entire video here.
Simensky is the head of content at PBS KIDS, which targets kids 2 to 8, focusing on shows that emphasize curiosity, enthusiasm and optimism. The service has been looking to bring in a new set of creators “who haven’t historically developed shows for PBS,” she said. “We’re trying to get a lot of different kinds of viewpoints on our air and represent all different kinds of kids. We’re thinking about how kids watch now, where kids watch now, and how we can make shows for the ways kids watch now.”
BBC Children’s is catering to kids up to 12, said Muller, who is head of commissions and acquisitions for the 7-plus set. The BBC’s children’s services continue to resonate with audiences; “for that demographic, 80 percent of the U.K.’s children spend at least three-quarters of their time with us at some stage in the week,” Muller said, with the pubcaster serving up daily live news, drama, factual, comedy and entertainment. “We’ve all, as organizations, been in a really good position to meet the challenges thrown to us in a unique set of circumstances. We’ve all demonstrated our importance to our communities and societies in the last year in a way that we haven’t been offered before.”
Milano is the executive director of Rai Ragazzi, which oversees the channels Rai Yoyo for preschoolers and Rai Gulp for the 7-to-12/14 set, as well as the RaiPlay Yoyo app. “Kids content is also important in our general RaiPlay platform,” Milano explained. Given the challenges of the last year, Rai Ragazzi has increased its offering of live in-house productions, Milano said. “Having one and a half hours live a day on Rai Gulp and half an hour live on Rai Yoyo helps kids to connect. It has proven very helpful to create a community.” Milano hopes to do more of this while continuing to commission animated and live-action content from independent producers.
Lindberg is commissioning for two channel brands: the well-established Ramasjang for 4- to 8-year-olds and the brand-new Minisjang for toddlers. “We are reaching 80 to 85 percent of our demographic with the Ramasjang brand,” Lindberg said. “With Minisjang, we’re not measuring based on reach. We measure it based on knowledge. So 50 percent of the parents from Denmark [should] know Minisjang by the end of the year.”
For all the panelists, being educational and entertaining is a vital part of the programming remit.
At PBS, “we have to do programming that has impact,” Simensky said. “It needs to encourage kids; it needs to introduce them to things that they might or will find interesting but didn’t know about. That’s what guides us. One of the things we say is, all American kids should see themselves somewhere on our air. We are working hard to live up to that. If kids are going to see themselves, those characters need to be created by people who know what they are talking about. It goes back to finding a variety of creators to bring their visions to our screens.”
“We’re also driven by having some sort of public-service value in everything we do,” DR’s Lindberg added. “However, we still need to be competitive enough in our original programming so it can compete with Peppa Pig and PAW Patrol, which are the biggest brands for us currently.”
The conversation moved to the programmers’ wish lists. At Rai Ragazzi, about 25 percent of the budget goes to in-house production, with the balance spent on co-productions, pre-buys or acquisitions. “What we are lacking is intelligent, innovative comedies for kids 8 to 9 in animation,” Milano said.
PBS KIDS does anywhere from one to three new series a year, Simensky explained. “Historically, we did 11-minute pilots. We’re starting to try things like a whole series of shorts instead of a pilot. We put those 3-minute shorts out on different platforms. We’re trying to use different platforms to figure out what length things should be. A lot of what we’re doing is at the younger end of preschool. [We] focus on that entry into content and making that a positive experience for kids and parents and caregivers.”
The iPlayer is a key focus of activity at the BBC, Muller said. “We had 1.7 billion streams of children’s content last year. So alongside our public-service commissioning, we will be looking for acquisitions for iPlayer. Like Luca, it’s 6 to 9, 2D, character-driven comedy animation that we’ve struggled to find off the shelf. That’s something as a group we might have to think about: how we can invest and build something together? I have a personal wish to find some anime suitable for our young audience, and that means complex storytelling with an arc, something that demands attention and engagement in a different way but doesn’t have tons of violence and sexual stereotyping. We’re always looking for films. Apart from that, we’re looking for the lovely, holistic, unexpected thing that we haven’t made ourselves, we probably wouldn’t make ourselves, but that tells a great story, shows a different way of life, somewhere else in the world that isn’t in the modern, contemporary U.K. kids’ experience. We’re always looking to be surprised by the unexpected.”
Lindberg stressed one key mandate at DR: “The series we buy that we get FVOD rights on or longer VOD rights on have to be funded somehow by a public-service broadcaster.” He referenced as examples Bluey and Hey Duggee. “It is getting harder and harder to secure those early windows of the big animated series,” he continued. “It is a huge challenge for all of us as we’re looking into competition with the big streaming services [that are] filling us with monoculture. I don’t think that’s the right way to go. We’re looking a lot into what we can have as a first window and maybe handle exclusively. A lot of the VOD services coming into the Nordics are doing non-exclusive deals on every kids’ brand they can get ahold of. It helps us to focus on big brands.”
He added, “We have just been funded to start a really big and ambitious animation fund that we’ll take out for co-productions during the next couple of years.”
Brzoznowski then asked Muller about the recent restructure of the BBC Children’s team, combining commissions and acquisitions and set up around age demo rather than channel brand. “It’s just proved easier to break down how we approach finding world-class content for our whole audience across the whole 0 to 12 age group if we start to think about the individual needs of a smaller group of children. So within the 0 to 6 commissioning band, you’ve got 0 to 3 and 4 to 6. Within my group, 7 to 12, you’ve got 7 to 9 and 8 to 12. That makes it easier to micro-identify needs in a way we might not have done before. That picks up on the trend for self-scheduling. It also allows us to be realistic about where we’re putting things, how we’re telling different parts of the audience about what we’re doing. We do have to make sure we’re still entertaining and engaging kids within public service—there’s no point in making terribly worthy shows that nobody wants to watch—so we’re hoping this will help us strategize around where the great things we’re already doing will need to land and how to land them. It’s about working more closely with audiences. It’s about getting ourselves battle-ready, future-proof, making sure the BBC—which is 100 years old soon—is going to be able to meet the challenges of the next 100 years.”
Muller also discussed the BBC’s diversity and inclusion initiatives. “All of us have worked hard to get on-screen representation front and center. We’ve done well. What we’ve identified [that needs work] is behind the camera and at the managerial level. What writers, creators, directors are we bringing in? How can we reflect their stories? We’ll all be the beneficiaries of widening our net beyond a narrow pool of people we tend to draw from. For the BBC, diversity isn’t just about ethnicity. It’s also gender, ability, sexual identity and socioeconomic. A very narrow group of people with a very narrow life experience end up creating a lot of our content, so the jokes are the same and the stories are the same and the characters are the same. We as an organization are committed to building on that diversity, going as far to embed it in our contracts now, and we have a series of targets that are enshrined in our agreements.”
Inclusion is an increasingly important theme at Rai Ragazzi, which has also used its platform to tackle sensitive subjects for young ones, including sexual abuse and bullying. “You have to give an education that cannot be done by lessons, but should be done by stories,” Milano said.
Milano also noted the increasing importance of collaboration among pubcasters given the competition presented by the streamers. The FAANGs “have a global approach, a global outlook,” Muller added. “When you’re trying to think on that scale, sometimes you miss the emotional beats, the curiosity. I still think they struggle enormously with discoverability. I struggle to find things I want to watch without opinion pieces I’ve read online that might direct me to something. I think it’s even harder for kids. It’s hard to find the brands that are for you. The thing we all have is the ability to reach our linear audience and tell them about the great things we’re doing elsewhere. [We can] create an ecosystem where everything can support and promote everything else. We will all also continue to work with content that mirrors every child’s experience. You have to be able to hold a mirror up to every kid in your audience. It would be a really big mirror if the [global OTTs] had that approach. I absolutely welcome the competition and think it’s made us all think about how we work. We need to work that bit harder to make sure we secure the right titles.”
Simensky added, “The twin problems of discoverability and distribution are the biggest things we’re dealing with. It used to be funding. We’re past that. Funding seems like a quaint problem to solve compared to navigating the world as it’s changing. We all have to be so nimble.”
Milano stressed the variety that pubcasters can offer and noted that “schedules are not made by algorithms but by the cultural idea of proposing something that the kids would not expect and they will discover with us. Our series are centered on stories; they are not character-driven just to propose characters that can be replicated in licensing or merchandising. It’s important to have stories with an arc and from which you can learn something. Also in this moment, public media are more appreciated by the audiences than maybe three or four years ago.”
Lindberg added, “What we’re discussing the most is how to make sure we stay relevant when Disney+ can come in and take a reach of 38 percent of our target demo in one quarter. We’re really trying to develop how to stay in touch with schools and maintain our relevance. We will all be fighting for that relevance and that reach through the next many years.”