Top Kids’ Programmers Talk Trends, Wish Lists, Digital


CANNES: Canal+’s Laurence Blaevoet, Disney XD’s Marc Buhaj, CBBC’s Sarah Muller and Amazon Studios’ Tara Sorensen weighed in on how to serve kids’ audiences at MIPJunior this morning before each being presented with a World Screen Kids’ Content Trendsetter Award.

The four programming executives took part in the What Do Channels and Platforms Want? session moderated by Anna Carugati, the group editorial director at World Screen. They are this year’s honorees of the World Screen Kids’ Content Trendsetter Awards, in association with Reed MIDEM, honoring their contributions to the children’s media business.

The session began with each of the panelists discussing the positioning of their respective services.

Sorensen heads up kids’ programming at Amazon Studios, which develops content for the Amazon Prime SVOD service. Sorensen says that as a newer platform, Amazon Prime knew that it needed to find a way to stand out in an already competitive content sector. When it came to kids’ programming, that meant having a compelling preschool curriculum. “We started with preschool, knowing that for the most part parents would discover the service and hand it to their children. Our curriculum really focuses on right brain thinking, creativity, so we weren’t necessarily competing with core curriculum or the social or emotional learning of other channels.”

Sorensen said that the service always wanted to embrace “the streaming aspect—because we’re not a linear broadcaster, we could encourage kids to stop the programs, rewind the programs, repeat the programs and go outside of the programs to really engage.”

Blaevoet, as the head of children’s programs and channels at Canal+ in France, targets a wide demo, including the 3 to 6 set with Piwi+ and 6 to 10 on Teletoon+.

Buhaj is the senior VP and general manager of Disney XD, which sits under the Disney Channels Worldwide portfolio. “Disney XD is a little bit like the laboratory; we want to push research, try things and at the end of the day come up with storytelling, content and narrative that kids absolutely need.”

Muller is currently the creative director of scripted, animation and co-productions at CBBC (at the end of this month she joins Channel 5 to head up its children’s programming). Speaking to CBBC’s role within a public broadcaster, Muller noted: “It’s absolutely a mandate that we deliver a world view that includes all children and that we hold a mirror up to reflect society for all children. We do everything from quite hard-hitting documentary dealing with tough subjects through a daily news service, sports coverage, factual entertainment, entertainment comedy and a lot of original drama and animation.”

Carugati moved the conversation onto the panelists’ programming wish lists. Amazon’s Sorensen said, “We’re always looking for great shows that have great stories and characters and innovation in design or storytelling. All of our shows have sweet spots—6 to 11 is more of an advertising demo and we’re not an ad-driven service. We like to find stuff on the younger end and the older end. We are medium-agnostic—we will do live action, animation, CG, hybrid, puppet. Right now we are definitely looking to fill the pipeline in animation because it takes longer for that to get through production. Otherwise we’re totally open to something unique.”

Blaevoet noted the strong presence of the big American kids’ channels in France. To differentiate itself from those services, Canal+ is looking to be “into the French cultural footprint,” Blaevoet said. Also, she said, 8- to 10-year-olds are less interested in animation, so live action—particularly “spooky” live action— is a major priority.

Disney XD’s Buhaj said that it is really important to have a strong creative point of view. If you’re going to do comedy, make sure you laugh. If you’re doing action adventure, make the stakes high. In this viewing universe, those who do that will stand out. That’s what we’re after.”

CBBC’s Muller reminded delegates to make sure they stay up to date with that channel’s needs, given her impending exit. “Generally, everything starts with good storytelling. The thing that has eluded those of us who are looking for gripping stories and great characters is how that really works as a digital-first property. What does truly digital storytelling look like? None of us have cracked that yet. How do we take all this clever technology and platforms and our audiences’ ability to engage with content in different ways and turn that into something truly unique and special and revolutionary? That’s the challenge I’m going to throw down. I’m certain if you could bring that to BBC Children’s, there will be a lot of interest in it.”

Buhaj mentioned that on the digital side, Disney worked with digital content creator Bad Lip Reading on a tribute to High School Musical. “It wasn’t for linear and we didn’t judge it that way. We judged it on whether it brought us into the conversation. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to show some ROI on all that as well.”

On how to position content on linear versus digital, Buhaj added, “We produce the content and work out what platform it should lead from. At the end of the day, we put it up everywhere almost immediately. That’s one of our mantras.”

Muller said that as some content takes a long time to make, including CBBC’s dramas and animated series, “we are now looking at iterations that will work 24/7 throughout the year to keep our brands alive while we’re making new content. So everything we do now has a program of additional content, across all our key titles. At any time of the year, you can go and find a really great game, a piece of short form, social-media content, YouTube content, stunts that we work on like a flash mob. We are planning right from the word go. That requires a very different mindset and a different approach to planning right from the beginning.”

The panelists were then asked about acquisitions versus original productions. At Amazon Prime, there are kids’ programs that are licensed. “From an originals standpoint, there are also shows that we look at as pre-buys, so we have creative input but it’s produced outside of our purview,” Sorensen said. “They are branded as originals because we feel they fit the brand. That would include Thunderbirds Are Go, Bookaboo. It’s 10 to 15 percent of our lineup that is licensed or a co-production.”

At Canal+’s kids’ properties the breakdown is about 50/50, Blaevoet said. “We tripled our budget last year. We’re investing more and more in pre-buys. We play a very strong role in the development.”

The situation is “fluid” at Disney XD, Buhaj said. Acquisitions and co-productions are important for the channel, he said. “The most important part on the co-production side is to make sure that anyone at the table is there for a good season. You don’t want so many people that the creative vision gets lost. The journey will never be smooth, but it’s ultimately worthwhile because you get some really interesting productions.”

Muller said CBBC approaches acquisitions in two ways—straight acquisitions and pre-buys, which are the majority. In the case of the pure acquisitions The Next Step and The Deep, those are shows that the channel would not have made on its own that “bring something really rich into the schedule. It offers us an opportunity to open the world up in a slightly different way.”

Discussing managing co-productions, Sorensen noted, “For Amazon, [it’s about] making sure it fits with the brand. We’re always thinking about Amazon’s customers. If we’re going to get into a co-production situation, we need to first make sure that our customers will respond to it positively. If it can check that box, all the other stuff seems to fall in line.”

Muller said that co-production is “massively important. There will always be a range of things that the BBC will make that is for the domestic U.K. market, that doesn’t travel. We want to look at how we bring more ambitious stories to our audience. That’s where we’re looking for co-production partners.”

The Worst Witch, for example, is “expansive storytelling…that we certainly couldn’t have funded on our own.” The show is a co-pro with ZDF and Netflix.

Buhaj amusingly quipped that Sarah “is looking for funding for Brexit: The Musical. It’s a musical, it’s a telenovela, it’s a tragedy!”

Diversity was also a key part of the conversation. Muller said that diversity “is at the front and center of everything the entire BBC does.” Where the organization is failing, Muller said, is “what happens behind the camera and at different parts of the process. It’s still fairly shocking that certain groups aren’t as well represented in some sectors of the production process. We need to look for writers that have different sets of experiences.”

Amazon’s Sorensen added, “One of my goals has always been to hold up a mirror for our audience. That’s been reflected on-screen. I think we’ve done an exceptional job representing diversity behind the camera.” She pointed to Amazon’s American Girl specials, which are focusing on a diverse assortment of girls. “We wanted to make sure [that diversity] carried through every step of the way: director, writer, costume designer, hair and make up.”

Looking ahead to the next 12 to 24 months, Buhaj said that a key priority is gaining more insight into “where the kids are. Measuring systems are running a bit behind.”

Sorensen noted the importance of transmedia—“thinking outside of the screen in terms of storytelling.”

Muller stressed “it’s about the content. It’s about great storytelling and remembering it’s not just about fantastic platforms, it’s about the beautiful vase to put on the platform.”

Blaevoet said that Canal+ is experimenting with a VR experience for a new escape game show it is launching this month.

Whatever the format, content must be “authentic and sincere,” Buhaj said. “That’s easy to say, it’s hard to do.”

The panelists were then asked what they have to say to all the producers and distributors at MIPJunior hoping to pitch them.

Sorensen revealed what she doesn’t want to be pitched about: “We’re not looking for short-form content. I am not looking for reality programming. I am looking for scripted series with evergreen characters and stories that can live on our service for years to come. Authenticity is important. It is about creators driving the vision. There has to be a unique perspective. There are ideas that are regenerated over and over again, but the execution differentiates them. And not only are we thinking about the child, we’re also thinking about the family as whole. Our customer is the Prime customer, which is an adult who triggers that subscription service. So in certain instances we’re thinking about co-viewing. On the younger side of the demographic we’re really thinking about how parents can engage in that learning with the child.”

Blaevoet said, “When you present us a program, be creative, passionate and have fun while you’re pitching.”

Buhaj said it’s important to “ask why we would be a good partner for you.”

Muller reminded producers to “understand the person you’re pitching to. Research us. And try and communicate your passion…just not in the toilet please!”

Carugati then presented the panelists with World Screen Kids’ Content Trendsetter Awards for their contributions to children’s media. “They carry a serious responsibility in that the programming that they select and program helps shape tomorrow’s citizens.”