Mattel’s Christopher Keenan

Christopher Keenan, senior VP of content development and production and executive producer at Mattel Television, tells TV Kids about Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go and weighs in on how to make an impact in the crowded preschool content landscape.

For 75 years, Thomas the Tank Engine has been a beloved best friend for preschoolers across the globe. The plucky locomotive and his friends are getting a brand-new look in the upcoming Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go. Produced by Mattel Television in partnership with Nelvana Studio, the series is slated to roll out on Netflix in October.

***Image***TV KIDS: What are some of your key preschool titles?
KEENAN: Mattel Television is developing and producing a variety of compelling preschool titles. One of the highlights is Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go. Produced in vibrant, 2D animation in partnership with Corus Entertainment’s Nelvana Studio, this show brings an entirely new creative approach to Thomas series content, which first premiered in 1984. With new art direction, more physical comedy and a greater range of character expressiveness, this fast and colorful show is crafted to appeal to contemporary audiences’ sensibilities while, of course, maintaining Thomas content’s core ethos: the great importance of friendship.

Another popular preschool series globally is Fireman Sam, now in season 12, which follows the adventures of Fireman Sam and his heroic team of firefighters and first responders in the fictional and catastrophe-ridden town of Pontypandy.

And, we are developing other series and specials inspired by the iconic preschool properties in our portfolio, as well as some other new concepts and characters that we’ll be rolling out soon.

TV KIDS: In a crowded market, what does a preschool show need to stand out, both for broadcasters/platforms and audiences?
KEENAN: Entertainment for preschoolers stands out most when it showcases characters who are relatable and aspirational for this young audience. When children are able to identify with these stories and want to spend time with the characters—whether they’re heroes, friends or just make them laugh (ideally, all three)—they are much more likely to place a show at the top of their list of favorites. And, if they can continue the engagement with these characters by playing out their stories when not watching the show, a series truly stands out.

TV KIDS: What are some of the new trends you see emerging in the preschool space?
KEENAN: One of the most common, current trends in preschool programming is a movement toward content that helps with kids’ social and emotional development, introducing themes such as navigating emotions, dealing with disappointment and resolving conflicts. Parents and caregivers are also looking for programming that is top-notch entertainment for their preschoolers and are often turning to trusted, nostalgic brands to provide this.

TV KIDS: What impact has the pandemic had on overall demand for the genre in the last year, with young ones spending so much more time at home?
KEENAN: As families spent more time at home in 2020, parents and caregivers sought out programming that delivered meaningful and substantive content without compromising on the entertainment value. To that end, we saw significant consumer excitement for our Thomas & Friendsearly learning and birthday-themed content on YouTube as well as our series content on other platforms.

TV KIDS: How important are digital extensions—picture books, games, etc.—when developing and distributing a preschool property?
KEENAN: Extremely. Preschoolers want to interact with their favorite characters in different ways. That’s why we take a franchise approach to content, ensuring we extend these brands and enable children to interact with their favorite characters in as many ways as possible, including the television show, toys, books, short-form content, games and more. Thomas & Friends is a great example of this. Last year, we celebrated Thomas’ 75th anniversary and we launched new content across many platforms, including four made-for-YouTube series, a Thomas & Friends Storytime podcast, a partnership with the wellness app Calm and more.