Mansha Daswani checks in with leading distributors about the major trends reshaping the kids’ content business today.
For newcomer producers and distributors with great kids’ IP, 2020 was tough. And not for lack of market demand. Indeed, as schools shuttered and playdates were canceled amid the Covid-19 pandemic, broadcasters and streamers alike were very much in need of content to keep young ones occupied. But without physical markets, the business of buying and selling shows was made a little bit more complicated—for upstarts and well-established names alike.
“The biggest impact of Covid-19 has been the lack of face-to-face meetings,” observes Dominic Gardiner, the CEO of Jetpack Distribution. “And the bumping into people. Never before were we able to put a value on a chance meeting in a bar or being sat next to someone at dinner you’d never met before. You now realize how important those are. Otherwise, you’re in a bit of an echo chamber. You only hear yourself. The physical pitching through Zoom is very one-way. And at the end of 25 minutes it’s, Thanks very much, I’ve got to run. It’s ironic that we probably have less time than when you’ve got someone in front of you at MIPCOM, where you have an opportunity to really engage. We miss that.”
There have been some silver linings, though, notes Diane Rankin, the senior VP of rights and executive producer at Distribution360. “Video calls with clients have helped to strengthen relationships. Buyers have made themselves readily available, and with the bulk of us working from home, we’ve been sharing more of our at-home selves and getting small insights into each other’s daily lives—all of which helps us get to know each other better. Also, with changes to everyone’s travel schedules, we’ve had more time to be involved in the development process with producers, actively helping to shape new programs and to more closely support and nurture those projects for international exposure.”
ZDF Enterprises maintained its busy commissioning activity, notes Arne Lohmann, the VP of ZDFE.junior, with a current lineup that includes Grisù with Toon2Tango and Mondo TV France and the live-action adaptation Alea Aquarius. “In the first quarter of this year, we will be busy getting these commissions into production,” he says.
Commissions also continued apace at eOne Family Brands, which had to contend with both the pandemic and integrating with its new owner, Hasbro. “Because our titles are in animation, production hasn’t slowed down either,” says Monica Candiani, the company’s executive VP of content sales.
9 Story Media Group was also able to maintain its output, says Alix Wiseman, the senior VP of distribution and acquisitions. “Production-wise, we’ve seen some challenges with certain processes such as edits and voice records, but overall, we have been very lucky to be able to continue doing business in a safe way thanks to our superb crews, all of whom have gone above and beyond even while working from home,” she says.
Guru Studio acted quickly to get its production staff up and running from home, says Jonathan Abraham, VP of sales and business development. “We’ve also been fortunate to have an amazing property like True and the Rainbow Kingdom that has 19 foreign-language dubs already in-house. Broadcasters see how well the show is performing in major markets like the U.S., U.K. and Canada, and international buyers are buying it and placing it in valuable slots vacated by programs hit by Covid-19 production issues.”
Covid-19 has left its mark on the kids’ sector, with the effects of the pandemic set to continue throughout this year, even as the vaccine rollout progresses across the globe.
“We know ratings on linear services enjoyed a welcome boost, but the pandemic has also taken a toll on their budgets,” with channels seeing declines in ad revenues, 9 Story’s Wiseman explains. “We are anticipating a [sustained] demand for content as lockdowns and school closures continue into 2021, but we will likely feel the sting of some of those deflated budgets.”
The strong performance of educational content in 2020 had Gardiner and his team identifying shows from the Jetpack catalog that could meet that need. Going forward, the company will also be looking for that element in the new series it is considering taking on. “We’re looking at: What do kids learn from this? Even if it’s not just a purely educational series but nourishes kids’ minds.”
Distribution360 benefited from broadcasters and platforms rushing to acquire shows with educational values, striking deals on properties such as mathXplosion and preschool titles like Super Simple Songs. It’s a similar story for ZDF Enterprises, with Lohmann referencing interest in its new Space Nova series. “Space and understanding Earth’s place in the universe is one of the major topics of the series, [which] connects kids with an authentic engagement in STEM.”
Candiani reports that eOne responded to the market’s needs by creating videos from its Peppa Pig and PJ Masks brands promoting a message about the importance of good hygiene amid the pandemic. The interest in educational content has waned somewhat, Candiani says. “We are back to ‘normal’ requests for entertainment kids’ shows.”
According to Rankin, the pandemic also enhanced the interest in content that can be co-viewed by multiple members of a family. “With families spending more time together at home, alongside navigating a fair bit of doom and gloom, there is increased demand for uplifting programming that parents and kids can discover and enjoy together.”
Cécilia Rossignol, executive VP of international sales and development at Gaumont, concurs, noting, “We saw the need for families to have access to educational and entertaining content they could view together, as well as fulfilling the need for ‘feel-good’ content that allows for brief reprieves from the confines of our four walls.”
By far, the most significant sustained impact from the pandemic comes from the accelerated streaming wars—and what that means for the linear channels business.
“We knew that when Disney launched Disney+, they would, over time, migrate from having multiple pay-TV channels in lots of territories—all with their own unique spin on what the brand is and how to maintain audiences,” explains Gardiner at Jetpack. “We could sell a piece of content to Disney in one country and Nickelodeon in another, maybe Cartoon Network in another. The first thing that set alarm bells off was Disney closing the channel in the U.K. over the summer, a matter of months after launching Disney+. [Everyone is] trying to guess the longevity of the linear pay business. How long will they keep both the streaming and linear going at the same time?”
The streaming wars have also created new opportunities, Gardiner continues. “The opportunity on SVOD is there and it’s growing, particularly with HBO Max in the U.S. Suddenly you have WarnerMedia moving into preschool, which is something Turner had not done for 10 to 15 years. An opportunity opened up in live action as well. ViacomCBS seems to be taking an approach where they want to produce a lot of series for their own platforms, but they want to produce for other platforms too. That changes the way you pitch to them. In the past, when you pitched to Nickelodeon, you had to know what their brand values were, what they were trying to achieve with their audience. It’s going to be interesting to see if they’re open to broader ideas, new formats, new producers.”
Gaumont’s Rossignol points out that the competitive digital landscape also means greater opportunities for creators to experiment with different ideas. “With so many new players in the market yielding an unprecedented amount of content, programmers are in a good position to take more risks.”
Candiani and her team at eOne Family Brands were quick to respond to the needs of key European broadcasters amid the pandemic seeking increased digital rights for premium brands such as Peppa Pig. “With more platforms, we have more opportunities to place content and to generate revenues,” she notes. “In addition, the trend is to license non-exclusively, and this is also different from the business with broadcasters, which mainly require exclusivity. Again, streaming provides more opportunities for revenues and more opportunities to increase awareness for those shows that also have a licensing program attached.”
Of course, meeting the demands of the evolving marketplace also requires a shift in mindset. Rankin at Distribution360 cites the numerous factors a seller needs to consider when crafting a rollout strategy for a piece of content. “Is it a series that will be sold to one buyer (i.e., a global platform) in the first instance with secondary windows after a holdback? Will those secondary windows still be there after the holdback? Is it a title where we can negotiate shared windows? And so on. There are a lot more questions to ask and more potential computations to make. Non-exclusive is more prevalent with some of the more niche VOD services, while exclusivity remains paramount with the bigger players. Managing windows and extending the sales life of our programs continues to be key to our business but is now looked at through different critical analytics with future-proofing in mind.”
ZDFE.junior’s Lohmann adds, “The market is getting more and more fragmented, and every client has different needs and technical specifications. It is more a question of optimizing the production and delivery of all items and implementing a smooth, digitized process that suits all different clients as well as our own internal structure.”
FREE FOR ALL
AVOD, in particular, picked up pace in 2020, and it’s an area many distributors are looking to focus on this year. “There are so many new AVOD platforms springing up, particularly in the U.S.,” says Gardiner at Jetpack. “In 2020, we worked with five different AVOD platforms. It’s going to become an important pillar in our business. I always used to say AVOD was part of the long tail. Your YouTube exploitation for many properties was after your pay and free. I think they’re all compressing. There’s now an opportunity where AVOD can stand alone on some properties. We’ve seen that through YouTube brands that have been successful, whether it’s Pinkfong or CoComelon. It’s an interesting dynamic in the kids’ business that a series can be born on YouTube, exist on YouTube and now take the leap into retail. We’re making sure that our skill set is strong and that we’re managing our properties on AVOD as well as we can. We’re one of the top distributors in the world for kids. We want to make sure we can successfully do AVOD as well as sell to free and pay and SVOD.”
With ad-supported linear channels facing a Covid-19-related revenue crunch, financial pressures on pubcasters and the emergence of AVOD services desperate to ramp up their offerings, there is an open question of whether there will be increased content sharing across traditional and digital services.
“Overall, more buyers seem open to having the conversation, and as expected, some are more flexible than others,” says Rankin at Distribution360. “Also, some content is more suited to shared windows—repeatable, episodic, non-arced programs work well as their watch patterns are very different to an arced storyline. Most younger kids’ content works well non-exclusively as it can’t really be over-exposed. With a live-action family scripted series, we’d look at managing the platform/broadcaster and the exposure differently, to nurture a fan base and support a show for potential future seasons.”
“We’re finding that while streamers’ licenses tend to be commensurate with the value of exclusivity, for linear channels, especially public broadcasters, there isn’t always additional budget to pay for additional rights or high levels of exclusivity,” says Wiseman at 9 Story. “We are seeing new trends where some OTT services are more open to sharing windows with linear channels, but it’s clear that it’s more challenging for traditional platforms right now as they pitch themselves against potent streaming services. As such, they are increasingly reluctant to share rights with streamers.”
Abraham says that Guru is always “looking at smart solutions to provide traditional broadcast players with the VOD rights and windows they need. Broadcasters these days have their own OTT platforms, catch-up services and social pages. Guru is finding success by working with our broadcast partners to leverage as many of those outlets as possible, while also reserving as many VOD windows as possible in order to grow our brands around the world.”
Beyond the ever-increasing VOD landscape, there are many other market shifts that creators and distributors alike will be keeping an eye on in 2021. “It will be interesting to see if kids have screen fatigue and if that impacts how they consume content,” Rankin says. “With kids having spent prolonged periods at home, I’d anticipate we’ll also see more action-based, outdoor content, subtly promoting an active lifestyle. On the development side, kids’ content will need to show kids how we express emotions and build relationships in a more distanced world. I don’t anticipate that we are going back to everyone randomly giving out hugs, so learning a new roadmap for human interaction will be something that we as content professionals will need to provide to kids.”
Jetpack’s Gardiner references diversity as being a key element in all development going forward. “Some broadcasters made significant statements to say they had to see diversity on-screen. That’s an interesting challenge for us going forward to make sure we’re doing our due diligence on that and that when we speak to producers, we’re providing that feedback, so they recognize that it’s not just a nice to have; it’s an essential component.”
BACK TO NORMAL?
ZDFE.junior’s Lohmann wonders what kids will want to watch post-pandemic. “Will it be pure escapism with engaging fantasy worlds? Or do we need to commission further educational programming and real-life scenarios? Perhaps a mixture of both, like in our series Zoom—The White Dolphin. Its season two has recently premiered with record-breaking ratings on TF1. This strongly indicates that this is the kind of programming that young viewers are looking for nowadays.”
Guru’s Abraham predicts a “huge increase in short, streamable content as extensions for emerging brands on YouTube and ad-supported and subscriber-based OTT platforms,” and, like Gardiner, anticipates diversity to be a critical factor in new commissioning decisions.
Rossignol at Gaumont sees interactive content becoming a key part of the industry, alongside a “desire for stories that enrich, educate and offer kids a journey into adventure. Children, given the pandemic, are living a very different reality these days—optimism, inclusion and the need to embrace joy are themes to be fostered as we look to our immediate future.”
Candiani at eOne has her eyes on the impact of the digital surge on the linear channels business and is keeping in mind what viewers will want to see whenever “normal” returns. “We can probably expect a decline in commissioning in the future for those who don’t have a strong digital offering. It takes up to two years to develop a show and another two to produce if it is in animation. Pandemic-specific content would hopefully be completely obsolete by the time it gets released, so we are not taking this into account in what we choose to develop or produce. However, it will no doubt have an impact on certain sensitivities around subject matters like sickness and medical assistance, which we are staying on top of.”
She is also optimistic about what the new legislation in France surrounding local content quotas on linear and digital platforms means for the industry. “This will provide a strong influx of investment in original programming out of France, and we do quite a bit in this territory, so this is positive news to look forward to in 2021; we need it right now!”
Wiseman at 9 Story stresses the importance of the industry working together to get past the hurdles presented by Covid-19. “Our approach will be to ride the storm alongside our clients and peers, working collaboratively and thoughtfully so that we can honor our long-standing partnerships in an optimal way. While this unprecedented global event has stranded us all physically, I’m finding the common experience we share is turning out to be one of the most unifying.”