It used to be that kids would wake up early on Saturday mornings and gather in front of the TV to get their fix of age-appropriate animated shows, live-action series and specials on most of the major broadcast networks.
These days, kids age 2 to 11 — especially “tweens” age 6 to 11 — can watch their favorite cartoons and series any time of day, over and over again, without ever getting out of bed — and they don’t even need a TV set in their room.
The first generation to grow up in a truly multiplatform video universe has a bevy of content to watch on their iPads, mobile phones and television sets originating from traditional linear cable networks such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and even HBO, with its recent acquisition of Sesame Street. Plus, there are kids’ offerings from streaming subscription video-on-demand services like Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu.
The new ways of watching create opportunities for content providers — and challenges for distributors looking to maintain and grow audiences of very young viewers.
Programmers are using original and acquired kids’ fare designed to stimulate and entertain their young minds, while hoping to build brand loyalty with parents and, ultimately, with their kids as they get older and make their own TV-purchasing decisions.
“The magic of children’s television is that it really lowers churn,” Sandy Wax, a veteran children’s TV programmer and former president of NBCUniversal-owned preschool network Sprout, said. “People tune into an HBO or a Netflix for the big tentpole events, but you also need an everyday reason to subscribe. If you’re smart, then you’re maintaining a really solid kids’ library.”
The data shows that kids watch a lot of TV on a lot of platforms. Children aged 2 to 11 spend 41% of their daily viewing watching a TV-connected device such as a tablet, on par with their teen siblings as well as adults 18-34, according to Nielsen total-day audience numbers for the first quarter.
But kids still watch most of their TV on the big screen: 59% of daily viewing still comes from traditional television.
With viewing occuring on multiple platforms, there are a lot of ways to reach young viewers with targeted content.
“There’s a lot more places to get the content, and there are new people making content,” Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon and Viacom Media Networks Kids and Family Group, said. “It is competitive and people are consuming more content in more places, but what’s happening right now is that the dust is settling on viewership, and the penetration of homes with SVOD platforms in them has leveled off, and the good stuff is rising to the top.”
Ratings for the top kids’ networks — Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney Channel — have slipped in recent years as young viewers access more content digitally. But executives from those networks say they aren’t losing viewers — rather, they’re reaching them online.
ONLINE BRAND APPEAL
An established presence on traditional TV creates brand appeal on digital platforms, and that gives the more-entrenched players an edge over newer distributors, Nickelodeon’s Zarghami said. In the second quarter, Nick posted a 5% year-to-year increase among kids 2 to 11 and a 6% increase among 6-to-11-year olds, on the strength of shows such as Henry Danger and the venerable SpongeBob SquarePants.
“We have linear television, we have our apps and our websites, and we own and make our own content, which puts us in a unique position,” Zarghami said. “The linear feed is still a giant marketing platform that’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”
Added Paul DeBenedittis, senior vice president of strategy for Disney Channels Worldwide: “For decades, we have been producing relatable content for kids and families that all connects back to our trusted brand. We use our multiple platforms as tools to drive our content, which fuels our reach to kids and families.”
Disney Channel — which was cable's most-watched network among 6 to 11 year-olds during the second quarter and a top-10 cable network among total viewers during the quarter despite a 21% year-to-year falloff — continues to reach its core 6-to-11-year-old viewers with original movies like Descendants and popular scripted series such as K.C. Undercover, which live on the linear network as well as its “Watch Disney Channel” TV-everywhere service.
Trying to reach viewers wherever they are, the network often premieres new episodes of shows and new original movies online prior to their linear debuts.
“We have utilized a pre-linear strategy in the past and will continue with select premieres,” DeBenedittis said. “Most recently, we have moved to make our content available across all platforms on the same day, so that kids and families can enjoy however or wherever they want at the same time.”
Kids watch a lot of video on digital devices, and that has spurred OTT services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon to aggressively acquire and create original content to serve those subscribers. Executives with the streaming services say kids-targeted programming often leads to co-viewing with parents — the consumers who ultimately pay the subscription bills.
“When you look at Amazon as a business, a lot of our customers are families, so kids’ content is important to us for that reason,” Tara Sorensen, head of kids’ programming at Amazon Studios, told Multichannel News. “Philosophically, everything we do, from our preschool to our 6-to-11 content, has elements that we have embedded to create co-viewing opportunities for us.”
With half of its subscriber base regularly watching kid-targeted offerings, Netflix also has stepped up its game with regard to offering quality children’s programming.
At this past January’s Television Critics Association press tour, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said the OTT provider plans to spend a large portion of its 2016 budget on kids and family programming. This past June, the network announced the launch of five original animated shows for kids, along with the renewal of its freshman original animated series Kong: King of the Apes.
Those shows eventually will join others already on the air, including the tween-targeted Degrassi: Next Class, an extension of the long-running, Canadian-produced Degrassi franchise that has aired in the U.S. on PBS and Nickelodeon; a reboot of the 1980s series Inspector Gadget; and toddler-targeted Project Mc².
Hulu recently shored up its Hulu Kids offering by securing subscription-VOD streaming rights to popular series from Disney Channel, Disney Junior and Disney XD, including K.C. Undercover, Gravity Falls and Austin & Ally. Overall, the streaming service will offer more than 500 episodes and more than 20 original movies from Disney-ABC Television Group’s suite of networks.
The deal complements Hulu’s existing agreement to stream current seasons of Nickelodeon-themed content as well as shows from Cartoon Network.
With so much competition in the category, Hulu vice president of acquisitions Lisa Holme said the network’s strategy of acquiring existing shows with built-in followings helps attract kids and families to Hulu Kids. More than one-third of Hulu's subscribers access Hulu Kids on a daily basis.
“The goal is to make sure there are a few noisy and attention-grabbing shows people know that we have, like Curious George,” acquired in a March agreement with NBCUniversal Television, Holme said.
With the goal of acquiring and maintaining subscribers, Amazon’s Sorensen said streaming services have more flexibility than traditional linear channels to explore in-depth stories and subject matter targeted to kids of all age groups without having to worry about adhering to time period constraints, which allows viewers to engage in as much content as they want whenever they desire.
From its preschool-targeted shows like the Emmy-winning Tumble Leaf and new animated series The Stinky and Dirty Show, to live-action series aimed at tweens, such as Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street and the upcoming soccer-themed The Kicks, Sorensen said Amazon is on pace this year to introduce a new kids’-themed series every four to six weeks.
“We can present them as individual shows and really tell richer stories with serialized arcs that we believe will have greater impact with our customers,” Sorensen said.
Linear TV networks like Cartoon Network are also looking to bring kids and their millennial parents together with new series that promote co-viewing. The network earlier this month renewed its remake of its own 1990s animated series The Powerpuff Girls for a second season after it performed well both on the linear and digital fronts, according to the network.
In addition, Cartoon has used shows such as The Powerpuff Girls, Adventure Time and The Regular Show to build its online and on-demand presence. Online video plays on Cartoon Network’s app were up 196% in the second quarter, compared with second-quarter 2015.
Also, on-demand orders of Cartoon Network shows in Q2 increased 14% from the same quarter last year to a whopping 110 million VOD orders.
"There’s no question the kids marketplace is crowded, but to remain a leader in the space, our focus is on building on our strengths to differentiate our network and our content from the rest of the pack," said Christina Miler, president and general mangaer for Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang. "Between the reach and scale of our linear network and the massive engagement Cartoon Network has in the digital space, we have a consumption advantage and tremendous platform through which to build awareness for and interest in our content."
With all the distribution players vying for quality kids-targeted content, the category has become a virtual playground for content producers, according to former South Park animator Ryan Quincy.
“It’s like the Wild West, the landscape is so open,” said Quincy, who’s developing an animated series for Disney XD, Future-Worm!, which will debut Aug. 1.
“It’s a great time to be a creator, especially in animation right now, with all of the different avenues and platforms where you can see shows and develop content,” he said. “You can access this content anywhere at anytime so you have to be that much more on top of your game.”
For kids and families, the increase in kids’ fare provides more viewing options than ever before on television.
“Gone is the model of the chokehold of two or three big companies and a public broadcaster controlling the few programs going into American households,” Wax said. “The winners are kids and families because there’s going to be a lot more choice in this type of environment.”
Added Nickelodeon’s Zarghami: “We’ll definitely need more content because viewers have more choice … We have more series that are working than we’ve ever had in the past, but we’ll have to continue to find more [hit] shows to continue to give our viewers what they want to see.”
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