Blue Ant Media’s Ward Platt

With its acquisition of David Haslingden’s RACAT Group in May of this year, Canada’s Blue Ant Media dramatically expanded its presence in the Asia Pacific. The deal brought to the company New Zealand’s NHNZ and Singapore’s Beach House Pictures, among other production companies, as well as the ZooMoo educational preschool channel. The venture then expanded its portfolio further with the purchase of the RTL CBS channels in Asia. Blue Ant enlisted Fox and National Geographic channels veteran Ward Platt to run its new global networks and kids’ business as CEO. Platt talks to World Screen about the challenges and opportunities in rolling out the group’s video destinations across the globe.

WS: Tell us about the new global networks and kids’ business at Blue Ant Media.
PLATT: We bought RACAT, which included the production companies NHNZ, Beach House Pictures and Northern Pictures, as well as the ZooMoo channel business and the Runaway Play mobile-games business. So now Blue Ant has six production companies, a bunch of channels—a lot in Canada, two in New Zealand and global networks such as ZooMoo and Love Nature 4K—a YouTube channel network, Omnia Media, and Runaway Play. I’m focused on the global networks piece, which is really about building out ZooMoo and Love Nature 4K as brands and video destinations. Also, because Smithsonian Networks is our joint-venture partner in Love Nature, we’ve now begun to distribute the Smithsonian Channel internationally. We’ve been doing that in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and also helping them out in parts of Asia. They’re keen to grow their channel outside of the U.S. and see us as the logical partner to do that.

WS: How are you positioning ZooMoo?
PLATT: ZooMoo is targeting 2- to 7-year-old kids. It’s nature and animal-based programming, principally using puppets but also some animation and some live action. We launched in Latin America and then expanded to Asia, and now we’re moving into Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and also into North America in a more substantial way. There’s a lot of content out there for 2- to 7-year-olds, but most of it is animation, and a lot of it is ad-supported. We’re a commercial-free destination, very engaging programming, using nature and wildlife as the basis for the content. It’s certainly more educational than the other preschool offerings out there. It was always a little bit hard being a channel by ourselves with ZooMoo, just as Love Nature found it’s hard to be doing it all by themselves, or even Smithsonian finds it’s hard doing it all by itself. Now that we’ve brought those three brands together, and in Asia we also have RTL CBS Entertainment and RTL CBS Extreme [recently rebranded as Blue Ant Entertainment and Blue Ant Extreme], our team there is operating four channels and helping with a fifth one. That scale is pretty exciting because it makes it easier to build the business and have meaningful and productive conversations with all sorts of platforms. For both ZooMoo and Love Nature 4K, we own all the rights to the content, so we have the flexibility to go OTT, AVOD, SVOD, free to air, pay TV. We can be flexible in terms of how we present the brand to consumers. We first launched an SVOD business for Love Nature, which is now in 60 countries, and then we rolled out a linear channel into Singapore and Canada, and now we have deals where we’re rolling out Love Nature 4K as a linear channel in more markets. We’re putting a branded section on an SVOD platform, we’re putting a linear channel inside a telco service, we’re putting a 4K channel onto a pay-TV service or we’re putting a branded block on a free-to-air station. It’s a lot of different approaches.

WS: Given your background at Fox and Nat Geo, what are the major differences for you operating in today’s crowded and fragmented landscape of channel brands?
PLATT: We were fortunate to have quite a bit of success when we built the Fox and National Geographic international channel businesses. We had good people and the timing was right. We’ve assembled some really good people here at Blue Ant to try to do the same. But you can’t just press replay or rewind and start over, because the landscape is different. But it hasn’t changed dramatically. You need to know your consumers better than ever. In the past it was just a wholesale relationship, you built relationships with platforms, they owned the relationship with the consumer, you didn’t worry too much about data other than some people meter data. Now the platforms we’re dealing with have all sorts of data. We need to be better at analyzing that data and creating content that will help drive viewing, which is not easy to do. [The landscape is] certainly different, but at the end of the day, we need to have good brands, we need to have great content behind those brands, we need to present the brands and content in a compelling way to the audience. What’s nice about having a little scale now is you can hire better programming people, better marketing people, better salespeople, and we can make our product better. Over time we want to make even higher quality shows, we want to raise the volume of the shows we make. That will take 18 to 24 months to start to show returns on the investment. That’s OK. In the meantime, we have great content but we maybe haven’t used it as well as we could have, so we’re going to go out there and make sure we present the content we have, the great storytelling we have, as effectively as possible to as many people as possible.

One of the great things about ZooMoo is we have a partnership with CCTV for a show called ZooMoo Animal Friends, which is now in the second half of the second season, so we have 104 episodes produced. It’s a mixture of a show we had produced in New Zealand [combined with] animation that CCTV created. It’s performed incredibly well, reaching over 400 million unduplicated [viewers] in China. It qualifies as local content and airs at 9 p.m. on CCTV-14. That is where we’d like to get to in a lot of countries. We’re exploring similar ideas with partners in places like the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America to localize. We’re using animation, we’re using puppets. If you do it at a high-quality level, it can look and feel like a local product. That’s our goal. It’s not just creating a one-size-fits-all product for the rest of the world. We want to do a certain degree of localization so the characters are more relevant to the consumer and don’t just feel like characters from America.

WS: What are your goals for the business as we head into 2018 and beyond?
PLATT: We’re at an early stage. We want to build the brands. We want to get ZooMoo onto many more platforms and make people understand what the brand stands for, what the key franchises are that define that brand. Same for Love Nature. Blue Ant Entertainment and Blue Ant Extreme are a little different in that we’re rebranding the channels, but not in a significant way; it’s a small rebrand—the look and feel will be the same. And then lastly nurturing the relationship with Smithsonian Networks further since they are our joint-venture partner and we’ve happily worked together on an ad-hoc basis to help them expand their international distribution. It’s really about getting the brands out there and getting more distribution in the short run. And we work very well alongside the content-sales organization. We’ve traditionally sold a lot of the content to other broadcasters. We’re being a little more selective about that. But we’re not stopping that. With ZooMoo, Love Nature, Smithsonian, Blue Ant Entertainment and Blue Ant Extreme, we’re not trying to conquer the world with these brands. There are some obvious places in the world where we think these brands resonate and where there’s still room to bring them to market. There are other markets where it’s pretty tough. And if we have a good content-sales business going in those markets, we’re probably just going to play to the strength of our hand. If down the road things change because we built the brand well and there’s suddenly more interest in the brand, then we could change our strategy. But given that we have six production companies, co-production partners, presale partners, people who buy our content all the time, that’s an ongoing, really important part of our business; it’s probably the heart and soul of Blue Ant. That is not going to change. We’re not trying to build a giant channel business that is going to bully everyone around the world. At the end of the day, we want to have a balanced environment, nurturing our own production businesses and the content they are creating and the partnerships we have to fund those and, at the same time, opportunistically bringing our brands to market in a way that doesn’t upset the overall dynamic.