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Guest Blog: TV Must Go Digital to Get the Kids Back

To look at all the headlines about declines in kids’ television ratings, one might well conclude that young America has stopped watching TV entirely. While that’s far from true, their attention has indeed fragmented across a variety of social media and digital entertainment channels.

This poses big problems for TV networks and for marketers. Networks have been slow to create the kind of robust online entertainment kids can get elsewhere. So marketers looking to spend more online don’t have enough safe digital platforms to shift their budgets to.

What do I mean by safe? In the U.S., advertisers are bound by the strict data privacy provisions of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA prohibits marketers from targeting kids with intrusive advertising (e.g. retargeting and programmatic) that’s now standard in marketing to adults.

Our most recent research from a nationally representative panel of 1,062 children ages 4-12 underscores the situation. Among the 293 kids ages 4 to 6 surveyed, 23% said their top social site is YouTube, followed by Facebook (20%) and Disney (11%). That Disney is about half as popular as YouTube and Facebook is only half of the story. Kids 4 to 6 don’t belong on YouTube and Facebook, so marketers that try to reach this audience with ads are wading into dangerous regulatory waters. Kids ages 7 to 9 don’t belong on YouTube or Facebook either, yet among the 370 survey respondents in that age cohort, 26% cited YouTube and 24% Facebook as their top social sites.

On YouTube, young children seeking Elmo videos can just as easily stumble on footage of an Elmo impersonator hurling the F-word and anti-Semitic slurs at tourists in Manhattan’s Times Square. And then there are the ads for erectile dysfunction drugs, alcohol and other adult products.

For the most part, age-appropriate entertainment platforms kids flock to today weren’t created by TV networks. I’m talking about the kid-friendly likes of Outfit7, MovieStarPlanet, Roblox and ZeptoLab. The next Ren & Stimpy won’t come from Nickelodeon but from some digital pioneer few media buyers have ever heard of.

Meanwhile, the Internet giants plan big things for young audiences. Amazon Prime streams original programming like The Stinky & Dirty Show for preschoolers (Stinky is a garbage truck, Dirty a backhoe), along with such kid faves as Creative Galaxy and Dora the Explorer (a Nickelodeon property). Some of the content contains ads and some does not.

Another giant that is making progress in the youth sector is Google with its YouTube Kids app. If nothing else, this particular venture shows how hard it is to please everyone when it comes to engaging with young audiences. No sooner had YouTube launched the app when a number of consumer advocacy groups complained to the Federal Trade Commission that the app content allegedly disguised ads for toys and other products as "user-generated" videos and failed to disclose the relationship between those users and the manufacturers. Also, unless parents took the time to discover and use the lock within the app that prevents kids from wandering off to, the young ones could find themselves right back in Swearing Elmo Land.

YouTube recently released several updates addressing the initial issues but its moves highlight the level of expertise required to build a digital kids business. It also underscores just how strategically the kids market is now seen: YouTube’s entry sent a very clear signal that the sector is no longer the domain of the media and toy companies. Given the balance sheets of these Internet giants, what they lack in expertise they can certainly make up with liberal use of their ever-growing cash piles.

To answer threat and opportunity, TV networks have to ramp up kid digital offerings to a scale worthy of the ad dollars they’re losing due to ratings decline. And they need to do it fast. This is not an easy task. In fact, it’s two: tackling the rapid rebalancing of kids eyeballs from TV to digital while navigating the advertising technology requirements of the new kids data privacy laws.

If you work at a network, here are some questions to ask your senior team as you plan for 2016:

  • Is your 2016 digital strategy the same as last year?
  • Does next year’s digital strategy involve rolling out a Streaming Video On Demand (SVOD service)? If so, go back and revisit. By my count there are at least 17 SVOD apps either on the market or coming to it soon. I’m fairly certainly they won’t all be winners.
  • Have you done a full review of how the kids data privacy legal changes in the United States will affect your plans (e.g., Delaware just extended certain COPPA restrictions from 13 to 18)?
  • How much are you investing in new digital content development?
  • Can you name the top 10 digital kids startups in the marketplace?
  • If you imagine that 50% of your ad and/or content business will be digital in the next three to five years, do you feel you have enough digital DNA baked into your current management team?

If you take only one point from this piece it should be this: Every TV and media company in the kids space needs to realize they are now in a race to control the digital kids playground. Almost everyone is starting from the same point of under-investment but this will certainly not last. 

Dylan Collins is CEO of the kids digital advertising platformSuperAwesome.