Wednesday, March 22, 2023
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Narrative Entertainment’s Francesca Newington

As the director of POP Channels at Narrative Entertainment in the U.K., Francesca Newington is working across the POP, Tiny Pop and POP Max linear channels, the digital AVOD service POP Player and the newly launched POP Kids FAST channel. She is looking after a programming mix that is anchored in marquee franchises and features shows with the vibrancy and energy needed to really “pop” within today’s competitive landscape. Newington was recognized with the TV Kids Pioneer Award at this year’s TV Kids Festival for her role in bringing top-tier programming to the POP channels and platforms and keeping those brands in pole position.

***Image***TV KIDS: Tell us about the positioning and performance of the POP channels in the U.K.
NEWINGTON: POP and Tiny Pop are available on national Freeview as well as Sky and Freesat and on Virgin Media. POP is for boys and girls, and its current average age is 8. Tiny Pop is aimed at upper preschool, and its current average age is 6. POP Max is for 6 to 8s, but it’s more boy-skewed. POP Max takes the content that previously aired on POP. We have a mixture of well-known franchises and new content across all three channels.

The past year has been a really tough year for the kids’ market in general, and that does include the free-to-air channels. However, POP has retained its number one position in the commercial kids’ market [in the U.K.], which we are delighted with. 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 2021-22, but it is now falling back down in line with the kids’ market, which is to be expected.

Although it was 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. Also, sometimes there’s just too much choice out there and people want to be fed a curated feed—we’re there for that too.
But we don’t just have linear over-the-air channels. We’ve launched a FAST channel called POP Kids that’s available on Samsung TV Plus, and we’re rolling it out across other platforms this year. We also have the POP Player, which is our AVOD app. It’s just so important to diversify our brands and be accessible in as many places as possible.

TV KIDS: What’s guiding the editorial strategy across the three linear services?
NEWINGTON: We have to have our big franchises as headliners to entice kids first and foremost. Those include Pokémon, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, LEGO Friends, Barbie and PJ Masks. Those are pillars that support the rest. And in those gaps, we then schedule content with a similar tone and themes that we think are likely to resonate with our POP channels, which are funny and full of energy. Those lesser-known titles can then find their audience via the franchises that brought [viewers] into the channels in the first place. A good example of that would be Kung Fu Sock, which launched on POP in summer ’22, and that launched close to ALVINNN!!! and the Chipmunks because we found them to be very different propositions but thematically similar and with the same kind of energy.

We do also have to be heavy with stacking our content during holiday periods. It’s how kids consume content now—voraciously—and it minimizes dropout. So, we like to have movies and specials during holiday periods as well. They’re always a big draw and they rate well.

There are also pockets where we can cultivate new fans. So, for example, we’ve introduced a live-action block that features series such as Annedroidsand The InBESTigators, as well as a new show that we commissioned called Swipe It with Joe Tasker. Those have launched really well, and they are bolstered by the more well-known brands.

We want to increase the digital feel of our channels 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 interactivity with our viewers—talk to them, feature them and 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, which we’ll see more of as the year goes on. We [have brought on] a wonderful presenter for Tiny Pop. She’s full of energy and charisma. We’d like to feature her a lot more in 2023, providing that human connection to our younger viewers, which is really important and something that has been missing in the past on Tiny Pop. That connection and appeal to parents are very important to us, and we want to maintain the quality of the output and keep that positive parental response going and that desire to co-view.

TV KIDS: What do you keep top of mind when buying across the channels?
NEWINGTON: To start with, 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? Also, we always look for content that has diversity embedded within it. It’s so important to reflect our audience within our content. There’s so much more out there now 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 rights, 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 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.

TV KIDS: What are you looking for now regarding acquisitions across the brands?
NEWINGTON: Right now, we’re on the lookout for comedy, in particular, for all the channels. It’s really hard actually to find comedy in the upper-preschool space. We did a recent audit on Tiny Pop and 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 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.

TV KIDS: What’s driving the move into co-productions and commissions?
NEWINGTON: It’s about 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 access to 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. It’s that simple, really. It’s about survival and growth. We’ve already commissioned Swipe It with Joe Tasker, which is a live-action series. It’s current, involves challenges, reviews and interaction with kids, and it references our POP shows as well. 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. The floor 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.

TV KIDS: What have you learned about how and what kids are watching on the POP Player and the strengths of the AVOD model?
NEWINGTON: 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 really amazing growth, triple-figure growth. So, going forward, 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 linear. The most popular shows are the ones with the most episodes available, quite simply. The ones that have newly launched on air and are still finding their audience, on the POP Player 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.

On the whole, we do get a really positive response about the player. The main issue is the volume of content that we can offer. This is what we’re working on now. It’s about fulfilling that need, and this feeds back to our rights issues for acquisitions. We need to provide kids with an option to binge-watch, which is what they expect. So, we are looking at what else we can do in the content space and to find those 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 that are 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. We can still retain the same messaging and tone of voice across all our platforms to keep them linked, but we’d like to offer something unique on each service.

Another thing to note is that the player isn’t just about watching content. You can also enter competitions. We have a POP Artpad tool as well, which is part of the mechanics of a lot of our competition entries. [Kids] can do a design on the Artpad, and the winning designs could go on to be seen on air. Also, we’ve just launched a birthday feature on the app for Tiny Pop, where you can upload your child’s photo and their date of birth and see them in a special birthday song on the channel on their birthday.

TV KIDS: What led to the launch of the POP Kids FAST channel?
NEWINGTON: The fact that it’s free ad-supported streaming TV, we generally have those rights available to us already within our contracts. We also have programming and scheduling teams in place, which means it’s quite an easy choice to make. It’s an opportunity for us. 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 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.

TV KIDS: Is there a strategy around using YouTube?
NEWINGTON: This is the year when we really want to focus on YouTube seriously. So, using it as a platform for discovery, but also for more than that. We’re currently assessing all our rights situations. We’ll then be focusing on growing our subscribers and providing lots more unique content that isn’t available on our other platforms. 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 also have a YouTube content lead in-house who is working closely with us to complement what we 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.

TV KIDS: Since you’re buying across multiple platforms, talk to us about exclusivity and your view on this regarding rights.
NEWINGTON: We’re taking exclusive rights wherever we can, and we’re covering that broader usage across VOD. But on the shows that we love that are already elsewhere, we are now seriously considering different ways to approach things so that we can maximize our offerings on all platforms. Linear is important, but it’s not the only thing now. We take it on a case-by-case basis. 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 give us the breadth of rights we need now?

TV KIDS: What types of ancillary rights and content do you look for to give multiple touchpoints to a POP property?
NEWINGTON: We ask for any short-form content, digital games, character vlogs, outtakes—anything additional. We also ask for bespoke content such as continuity links, which could introduce a series, or character intros or even shout-outs to viewers or participation in the stunts that we put on air. For example, we did Tiny Pop Big Quiz, where we had Cookie Monster and True from True and the Rainbow Kingdom asking all the questions. It was really nice to have them featured in other ways than just in a show on the channel. We like to have exclusive money-can’t-buy prizes like original artwork, or if it’s a live-action show, then maybe a piece of the set or a prop—anything that can help with engagement across all our platforms.

TV KIDS: You had been with the POP channels in 2006 and saw them through to their sale to Sony Pictures Television, then rejoined the channels at Narrative Entertainment in 2021. What drew you back to working with these brands?
NEWINGTON: Firstly, I already knew them so well. That was a very good, positive thing and an easy decision, really. Also, as a group, they’re very entrepreneurial, take risks and dare to do things differently, which is exciting. No matter what ownership they’ve been under, that has always been the same. As an individual, you can have a big influence as well. There’s a lot of autonomy, and you can be very reactive to new opportunities. It’s interesting every day; I work with every single department—from finance to legal to marketing, digital and creative—so the remit is very broad. There’s just so much scope for the POP brands still; there’s more that they can still achieve.

TV KIDS: Having worked on the production side of the business as well, what advice do you have for producers working in the kids’ industry today about the types of content channels want to program, kids want to watch and parents want their children to watch?
NEWINGTON: You have to ask yourself a series of questions about the content you’re making to help sound it out: Who’s it aimed at? Do you fully know and understand the audience that you’re trying to reach? That’s the first point. 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, meaning it’s less likely to stand out? 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. 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? Can you see your child enjoying it with you?

TV KIDS: In a time when kids have so many options for how to watch content—and how to spend their time in general—how are you keeping the POP channels competitive?
NEWINGTON: It’s a really tough and competitive market, packed with amazing channels—and not just channels anymore. We’re so lucky to have all this variety in the U.K., and we’re simply using our knowledge of what kids are attracted to and providing them with the funny stuff, the franchises, the variety and the quality 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. I think that’s the most challenging thing and is what we’re really working hard on doing right now.

TV KIDS: What are you most excited about, within your role at POP and in the wider kids’ content industry, as you look ahead?
NEWINGTON: It’s an ever-changing landscape. I attended my first Cartoon Forum in 2022, and it was amazing to see the breadth and imagination in the content coming down the pipeline—I was quite blown away. 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 comes 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, there’s never a dull moment.

About Kristin Brzoznowski

Kristin Brzoznowski is the executive editor of World Screen. She can be reached at


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