Leading Kids’ Content Buyers Talk Acquisition Trends


WarnerMedia’s Adina Pitt, M6’s Maud Branly, Kidoodle.TV’s Brenda Bisner and Hopster’s Ellen Solberg shared their acquisition strategies at the Buying Time panel that kicked off the TV Kids Festival today.

Moderated by Kristin Brzoznowski, executive editor of World Screen and TV Kids, the wide-ranging discussion saw each of the panelists sharing their approaches to finding the best content available on the market to cater to their target audiences.

Pitt, VP of content acquisitions and co-productions for the Americas at WarnerMedia Kids and Family, kicked things off by outlining the new structure in place at the division under the leadership of Tom Ascheim, president of global kids, young adults and classics. The segment includes Cartoon Network, Boomerang and HBO Max. “Our target demos are always changing, but the primary target demo is kids 6 to 11, and we are expanding that remit to go a bit younger and a bit older. We’re really excited to be working with our international channels as well. There have been a lot of changes happening at our company in the most wonderful ways.”

Acquisitions, co-productions and partnerships are “critical” to the businesses, Pitt said. “We rely heavily on Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network Studios for great original content, but we need to complement those with storytelling that you can only get from the partnerships that come from around the world.”

Branly serves as children’s acquisitions director and international TV channels children’s programming director at M6 Group. “We have a large range of channels and platforms in France and worldwide,” Branly said, which have established themselves at the forefront of the local kids’ market. This includes the M6 Kid morning block on free TV; the pay-TV services Canal J, focused on kids 6 to 12; TiJi, for preschoolers; and the Santa Claus seasonal channel with Christmas content; and the DTT service Gulli. There are also channels in Russia, French-speaking Africa, the Middle East and Brazil. There’s also the SVOD platform Gulli Max in France, which has more than 3 million subscribers, she said. “We are working on localized SVOD offers in Russia, Africa, the Middle East and Brazil.”

Bisner is the chief content officer at Kidoodle.TV, an AVOD Safe Streaming service for kids under 12 in 160-plus countries. “We adhere to the highest letter of the law when it comes to keeping kids safe online. And we’re fundamentally in a prime position when it comes to how many kids and families we’re serving. We now reach 12 million monthly active users. Over the course of 2020, we grew 3,000 percent. One of our core values has always been about co-viewing. Now with the pandemic, we know that 97 percent of families around the world are co-viewing.”

The Kidoodle.TV offer includes gaming content, educational shows, titles that promote mindfulness and movement and megabrands like Peppa Pig and PAW Patrol, with more than 25,000 episodes available. “We’re launching anywhere from 10 to 27 new shows per week,” Bisner said. “It’s very important that we’re coming to families with a fresh offering every day and that we’re meeting them where they’re at. Acquisitions will always be a very large priority for us. We’re able to have so much from all around the world and bring it to kids and families in their homes.”

Also coming from the OTT space is Solberg, the head of content at Hopster, which recently acquired Curious World, an app delivering educational videos, books and games. Hopster is now targeting a slightly younger age range than it has in the past, up to 4-year-olds, Solberg noted, while Curious World caters to viewers aged between 4 and 8. Both are SVOD services, with Hopster available globally and Curious World in the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East. “Acquisitions are really important to us,” Solberg said, adding that the company does create some of its own content. “About 90 percent of our content is acquired,” including shows, music, books and games.

Brzoznowski asked the panelists about the impact of COVID-19 on their acquisition strategies, both last year and heading into 2021.

“One of the things I go to is what has stayed the same,” WarnerMedia’s Pitt said. “The consumer is still at the center of everything we do. If you stay focused on that, then what you’re going after will remain the same. I will add that it’s a great time to be a creator because there is such a need for [new content]. The challenge, of course, is the economics of this. Like any other challenging time, when you have peaks and valleys, we need to make adjustments. We have to work smarter and be a lot more strategic about the kinds of deals and the content we go after.”

The crisis had a significant impact on M6’s kids’ strategy, Branly noted. “We immediately adapted our programming to propose more educational and preschool content” once schools closed. “We wanted to be part of the pedagogical continuity.” The company also rushed into production the show Home Sweet Home featuring sketches about life in lockdown, among other pieces of content to help kids cope with their pandemic lives. Since September, kids have been back in school, “but of course we’ll make changes if the government decides to close the schools again.” Co-viewing also became more important with kids spending more time at home.

“The pandemic flipped us all upside down,” Kidoodle.TV’s Bisner said. “For us as a streaming channel, and as a mother myself, with my 7-year-old being led to sites that are not safe for children, it was an immediate activation. And it was 24/7. And it’s been 24/7 since March. We hired over 20 people; we’ll be hiring another large raft this year as well.” The shutdowns and school closures prompted the service to go out and acquire “as much content as possible—the content that schools were sending kids to see on places that were not safe. And with more and more parents knowing about data protection issues and privacy issues, and of course safety for their children, we really stepped up.”

Bisner went on to note how rewarding it has been to be working in the kids’ business at this critical time. “Deal structures are changing. We’re seeing more creators come into the landscape. Things are changing. For many years, safety was not a very interesting word. We were very much the leaders of that movement, which is now being widely spoken of. We knew we had to step up as a trusted destination—that safe place parents could trust.”

When lockdowns hit in March 2020, Hopster commissioned safety videos using some of its original IP, Solberg said, and acquired some COVID-19-related content. It also picked up Li’l Doc, a show teaching kids about how their bodies fight illnesses, and unveiled a learning program, devoting six weeks to six different subjects, including math, literacy and crafts. “We also created some learning resources that we made available for free.”

Heading into 2021, it’s difficult to plan, Solberg added. “It’s all a bit up in the air. But we will be acquiring content. We’re being a bit cautious on spending. The pandemic has affected most businesses. We’re playing it by ear, seeing what becomes necessary as the year goes on.”

WarnerMedia’s Pitt noted that the pandemic has not impacted the genres of content she’s looking for. Comedy, authenticity, individuality, diverse storytelling, book-based properties, original IP, hybrid storytelling and innovative animation styles remain qualities she looks for. “No one should feel that they have to present something that is fully baked; it’s OK to showcase something that is at the early stages.”

M6 also has diverse needs, Branly said, with her portfolio targeting everyone from 3-year-olds at the youngest end all the way up to families. “Our main goal is to keep their trust by offering quality content. We are looking for all kinds of content, as before. We need preschool, comedy, action series, live-action. It’s important for us to also find the right balance between shows based on known brands and original creations. And these days, it’s also important to entertain kids with comedies—comedy is our biggest need today. It’s the genre that performs best on our channels.”

Bisner said that Kidoodle.TV is eyeing “preschool shows, the 5 to 8, gaming, the 9 to 12, comedy and diversity—we need a lot more of that. We’re a Safe Streaming channel, so we’re adhering to a very strict guidance principle. We have a very human approach. Everything that comes in goes through several eyeballs before it goes live. Our creative review process is proprietary. We watch every single second of content before it goes live on the channel,” looking out for derogatory language, violence and other qualities that would make the show not suitable for the platform. “We’re looking at the big brands—PAW Patrol, Peppa Pig, True and the Rainbow Kingdom. We have great gamers playing Nintendo games. We’re always looking for the unicorns. We’re looking for the new content creators with a great show they’ve been unable to place elsewhere because of financial restraints, because of traditional broadcast models. [We’re] giving content a chance to thrive. We have a saying, Welcome to the Kidoodle.TV family. So when we’re looking at acquisitions, we’re looking at, How is that show going to live in the ecosystem of Kidoodle.TV and how can we support each other in that? It’s not just about acquiring a show and closing a deal. It’s about aligning with partners who actually care about what we’re doing in the world to change it. We are on the front lines of this movement of Safe Streaming. We want partners to care about how we’re showing up for kids and families. We’re looking at cross-promotion opportunities. And we’re always showing up to support brands in the biggest way possible, so people know they are there.”

Bisner said she and her team are receiving more than 800 submissions a week. “And we respond to every single one.”

With Hopster’s acquisition of Curious World, Solberg is now looking beyond the 2-to-6 set, eyeing content for kids up to the age of 8. Activity content is performing particularly well on Curious World, Solberg said, citing shows about arts and crafts and exploration. For Hopster, the focus is on the younger set. “We consider all content sent to us. Sometimes you don’t know you’re looking for something until you see it.”

Asked about gaps in the market, WarnerMedia’s Pitt said there are plenty of “unique and diverse storytelling concepts that are circulating with a greater frequency than we’ve seen in the past. But I would like to encourage creators out there to maybe color outside the lines a little bit and not be so committed to formats and structure the way we have traditionally. We’re in a very non-traditional moment, and this is a wonderful opportunity for risk-taking and to present us with ideas that perhaps we didn’t know we wanted in the first place. It’s OK if you have something that is 2-minutes long. It can be expanded. Don’t be so married to tradition. Go with it and see what happens. There is so much opportunity for the consumers and the creators. If it’s not for us, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get made. Maybe it’s right for Ellen or Maud or Brenda. Keep creating. I do feel very encouraged by what we’re seeing so far this year. I think it’s going to be amped up a lot more.”

M6’s Branly reiterated that she’s “always looking for new comedy series. There are so many available, but we need to find the right ones that will allow us to keep our leadership position. And on the live-action side, we’re waiting to see something different. We have some sitcoms and kids’ novelas. We have room for something new on the live-action side, even for preschoolers or co-viewing. We want to be surprised.”

Echoing Pitt, Kidoodle.TV’s Bisner said, “it’s now a better time than ever to not just make a show for one place—there are so many different channels, so many different ways of engaging with content. And there’s this conversation about being available anywhere a kid is. And the conversation around exclusivity and non-exclusivity. What I’m finding from a lot of creators is they’re challenged by trying to sell a show, and they find if they make it for multiple places, it has a better chance at success. With that said, we’re looking at the world changing and how we can try to integrate more education into our offerings, more diversity, showing kids other versions of the world that they might not have been able to see. We’re facing an issue in the education space in general and the lack of it. A lot of kids are falling behind. How are we going to step up to help out with that deficit? What kind of content are we looking to bring into the marketplace? I encourage more educational content. I encourage mindfulness, music, movement, an understanding of other people around us and always looking at kindness.”

She, too, called on creators to “make something different. We have shows that are 2 minutes; we have shows that are 30 minutes. The average viewing time on our channel is 90 minutes. It doesn’t have to be a certain length; it doesn’t have to be a certain way. What does matter is why we care about the show. What does it mean? What does it represent? If you know the core values of your brand, you have a higher chance of success.”

In what has been a strange year, content needs have shifted, Hopster’s Solberg added. “We’re all looking for ways of coping and feeling happy in this situation while we’re stuck at home. We are looking for more content on mindfulness and yoga and exercise and things you can do at home that make it easier being in this situation. Aside from that, we’re looking for—and struggling to find—[content about] Black History month, the Paralympics if that goes ahead, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.”

Brzoznowski asked WarnerMedia’s Pitt about the company’s specific brand values she wants content owners to know about before pitching to her and her colleagues. “Consumers always come to our brands to just be entertained. Kids go to school or are home-schooled at this point. Their lives are filled with homework and responsibility within their world. It’s wonderful to be able to provide something that allows them to laugh, to give them some water-cooler talk. But the core value of our brands that we’re proud of is we’ve always celebrated every child. Heart and humor have always been at the center of all kids’ brands, and individuality.”

On working with her international counterparts, Pitt said, “We’re a small group, and we’re pretty nimble. Whenever possible, we try to act globally. Sometimes an IP is not available or may not be relevant for that region, so we do pan-regional deals, or we work locally. We’re very flexible in that regard. But the lines of communication across the international brethren are wonderful and pretty consistent. A great idea can come from anywhere, so we benefit from talking to our brethren [around the world]. And you’re going to see a lot more of that cohesiveness as we go into a global experience that is not just linear but also nonlinear, and as the SVOD platforms are deployed around the world. I would say to any producer out there, if you can put yourself into the shoes of the consumer you’re serving, that helps a lot in the tone and the spirit of the content you’re providing. Tapping into that 6-year-old or 4-year-old or 11-year-old is really wonderful, and you’ll find that a lot of fantasy and imagination and creativity will come from that exercise. We’re excited to be able to partner with new creators and also partners we’ve worked with for a very long time.”

M6’s Branly noted the importance of local content to Gulli, given France’s quota obligations. “We have to invest every year a percentage of the turnover in French animation, and we have to broadcast a large amount of French animation. This is a good thing. There are so many great productions on the market, and we want to promote these productions. We are currently working on more than 20 French co-productions. It’s great we have access to this French content. It also gives a smaller place to the non-French series on Gulli.”

She added that she always has the international Gulli services in mind when assessing acquisitions. “We have eight TV channels, and it allows us to make global deals. It’s also important to have content available on all our [feeds] because we want to build the brand. We share the same DNA across the channels, the same values in terms of openness, cheerfulness. So it’s really important to share content. We are the [leading] broadcaster of French animation in the world. Last year we broadcast more than 25,000 hours of French animation. So it’s a way to promote the French animation.”

However, the company also wants to build “tailor-made” channels relevant to their local markets. “We broadcast local content; for example, on Gulli Africa, we broadcast 30 percent African animation. We need to have African content. The kids need to have heroes that look like them.”

Addressing the factors she takes into consideration when it comes to buying for Kidoodle.TV, Bisner stated: “We have to look at the entire brand. When we say Safe Streaming, we mean it. The factors that come into play for us include, Where is the show from? There’s a lot of great stuff that’s been put out on YouTube. If we’re looking at a YouTube creator, for example, we don’t allow things like call-outs or promotion of YouTube. No ‘Subscribe Here,’ no leading anywhere else. We’re adhering to the highest letters of the law: that’s COPPA, that’s GDPR, CARU, etc. Is it free of negative language? Is there violence? We don’t have any religious content and we don’t plan to. Also, anything politically driven is very difficult. When we’re looking at YouTube brands, we have to take a larger filter. When we’re looking at PAW Patrol or Peppa, it’s a completely different conversation. We have a very thorough QA process; every single second.”

At Hopster and Curious World, meanwhile, Solberg said she’s “flexible on formats since we’re SVOD. We’re very open to all types of content. We take into account if it fits with our brand, and we have a curriculum that we acquire and produce content to fit into. The content we put onto Hopster or Curious World should have some educational value. We don’t acquire pure comedy or slapstick shows. We’re in quite a lot of territories now and a lot of languages, so either having those languages available or being able to localize quite easily is a plus,” as is non-verbal content, she added.

In closing, Brzoznowski asked the panelists to share advice for creators or distributors looking to get their show picked up on these platforms. A recurring theme among the panelists: be patient.

“Ultimately, it starts with a conversation,” WarnerMedia’s Pitt said. “We don’t have a pitching season, per se, so people can email us and we start the conversation that way. If you’ve done your homework, then you’re well-versed in what our ecosystem looks like. You can play outside of that but still within a certain framework of what is age-appropriate. I think that people need to be mindful that we’re serving a large company right now and a lot of platforms, and we receive a lot of submissions on a regular basis. Patience is key. And beginnings are really important. If you’re going to send 300 emails within the first month, chances are I don’t care what your show is; we’re probably not going to do anything with it because you’re crazy! [Laughs] There are people on the other side of the call who want to find those diamonds in the rough. You have to give us a chance to have the conversation, to do the strategic planning, to see where these pieces of the puzzle fit alongside not just the original IP but the content we’re acquiring that’s coming down the pipe. Patience, strategy, do your homework and be open to having a dialogue. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

“We are very broadminded and we appreciate being surprised, so we love to take a new challenge and find new kinds of programs,” said M6’s Branly. “I completely agree with Adina; I’m alone to do all the acquisitions, and I receive tons and tons of emails every day, so patience is key. Patience and strategy, yes!”

“We all agree across the board,” Kidoodle.TV’s Bisner said. “I got your email. I have a system. We are very organized. I got it. I care. I will respond. The more emails you send, the less effective your first one is.”

For Solberg at Hopster, key considerations include if a show hits the service’s target audience, has an educational angle, is inclusive and has diversity, “and we don’t take on content with gender stereotypes.”

She, too, added, “We do review everything sent in, it can just take a little time.”