As Amazon, Disney and Netflix all compete online for young viewers, Tara Conlan asks if broadcasters can keep up
To many adults, the choice of viewing options for children is as incomprehensible as the whistling language of The Clangers. There is now a myriad of platforms, apps and subscription video-on-demand (SVoD) services offering access to children’s shows. They include Amazon, Netflix, Freeview Play, YouView and Sky Go.
Children can watch their favourite CBBC shows, such as The Next Step, via the BBC iPlayer – or catch up with Nickelodeon brands, such as SpongeBob SquarePants, on the app Nick Play.
Thanks largely to the rise of tablets, kids have become an important target for the newer entrants to the content market, such as Amazon and Netflix.
Children may not hold the purse strings, but they do know how to pull on their parents’ heartstrings to make them spend money. And record amounts are being ploughed into content aimed at youngsters.
According to IHS Technologies Senior Home Entertainment Analyst Jonathan Broughton, in 2014, broadcasters “spent more on kids’ content than ever before, with European broadcasters alone investing just under $1bn”.
Amazon and Netflix both have large catalogues of children’s shows. They began investing in their own content a couple of year ago. Their programmes include Tumble Leaf (Amazon) and the forthcoming Lego Bionicle: The Journey To One and Lego Friends: The Power of Friendship (Netflix).
IHS figures show that, while Netflix’s total content spend has ballooned, the number of hours of original content as a proportion of its kids catalogue across all territories rose only slightly from 26% in 2013 to 28% the following year. And it has since fallen back to 19%, due largely to a still bigger increase in the amount of original drama and comedy in Netflix’s catalogue.
Amazon’s content spend has also rocketed but the proportion of hours of its original children’s programming over the same three years (2013-15) increased from 14% to 37% before falling back to 28% last year.
Broughton says both companies have moved into original production because they have found it “more cost-efficient to produce their own content. That way, they don’t have to make deals for every single market.
“They don’t need global rights deals for anything they produce themselves. They’ve got the rights as standard.” Now that Netflix has an estimated 75 million subscribers worldwide, it has the financial heft to license big brands such as the hit CBBC reboot of Danger Mouse – the online company holds all rights outside the UK.
The BBC, however, remains the biggest game in town when it comes to UK public-service funding for children’s content. The corporation accounts for 97% (£84m) of the investment in shows for younger viewers in the UK, according to Ofcom.
Its range of shows is unique. They encompass the acclaimed My Life documentary series, Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom, preschool favourite Mr Tumble and CBBC drama The Dumping Ground.
Overall, the BBC is spending less than it used to. But then, so, too, are ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Their expenditure on children’s fell by a massive 74% between 2008 and 2014, to a current combined total of £3m.
One of the few positives is that Channel 5’s new owner, Viacom, wants to reinvigorate the channel’s much-loved Milkshake! brand. Channel 5 Director of Digital Media and Commercial Development James Tatam says: “Our current focus for driving digital growth in the children’s sector has been influenced by the huge success Milkshake! has enjoyed on connected-TV platforms over the past 12 months.”
Milkshake! is an “essential part” of the widely available Demand 5, says Tatam, adding: “Our children’s content has enjoyed growth of 25%, year on year.” Interestingly, on YouView, “where Milkshake! has a standalone presence via its own app… we’ve seen our audience rise by two-thirds during the past year, surpassing all of our growth targets and enabling us to leapfrog our competitors.”
Tatam continues: “We’ve seen similar growth for Milkshake! within Demand 5 on platforms such as Amazon Fire TV, Freeview Play and Sony TV.
“While developing a mobile proposition remains an important strand of our digital growth strategy, we’re also keen to build on our success in delivering a great VoD experience to the TV screen.”
One of Milkshake!’s key properties is the popular porcine entertainer, Peppa Pig, also seen on Channel 5 stablemate Nick Jr, Nickelodeon’s preschool channel. Towards the end of last year, Nick Jr scored its highest-ever daily and weekly share of viewing by children aged 4-15, according to Viacom. Which is good news for Alison Bakunowich. She recently took over as UK General Manager and has responsibility for Nickelodeon’s network of seven channels and their associated multi-platform properties. Among her brands are Dora the Explorer and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Bakunowich points out that Sky and Virgin, the platforms that carry her network, “have enormous reach, second to none and are evolving and developing their products at an amazing rate. Sky has Sky Go and Virgin has launched our My Nick Jr app. Families can actually curate their own Nick Jr channel.”
Nickelodeon has relaunched its Nick app as new mobile streaming service Nick Play. And, in January, it launched its first original online animation, Tinkershrimp & Dutch, voiced by Star Wars actor John Boyega.
Bakunowich explains: “Everyone wants what they want when they want it and where they want to watch it. Our strategy is to serve them the best way possible – using our affiliate partners or Netflix and iTunes, and also our website, plus additional channels such as YouTube, to make sure that our content is wherever they are.”
Keeping up with technology is key to retaining young viewers since gaming and coding are popular with youngsters.
Nickelodeon, for example, launched a coding app in the UK so that “kids can code SpongeBob to make him do things”, says Bakunowich. “This was brilliant and agenda-setting. In the UK, it was the number-one game on our website.”
Broughton points out that parents warm to SVoD services such as Netflix because they are advert-free. But the “major advantage a bespoke kids service has over a generic one, such as Netflix or Amazon, is that it is an inherently safe environment for children. Any brand wants to be trusted and well regarded. But when you are a kids’ brand, a safe environment is essential.”
Another trusted traditional children’s brand, Disney, is also evolving. In November, it launched DisneyLife, its first SVoD service. The studio is mindful that British parents are prepared to pay more for screen entertainment than their counterparts in the US and Europe, according to Broughton.
The new streaming service offers Disney content for young and old and provides different options depending on the device (for example, laptop or tablet) it is viewed on. Subscribers can create up to six profiles per membership contract, to use across 10 different devices.
Broughton applauds the research that went into tailoring the experience for different users. He says that it is “the first time that Disney has properly got control over the whole experience of their audience”.
DisneyLife EMEA General Manager Paul Brown says the reaction, “so far [has] been great. The ease of use, design and the wide range of films, books, music and games available on DisneyLife have all been received really well.
“We are learning all the time and constantly adding further exciting films, series, books and music.”
As we know from Christmas Day’s Gogglesprogs on Channel 4, there are certain films, such as Frozen, that kids watch again and again and again.
Gogglesprogs featured children’s responses to different kinds of TV during 2015. One of the highlights was the sheer joy of watching a little girl’s excitement as Frozen came on.
Brown explains that DisneyLife is “the only service that allows UK families and Disney fans to instantly stream or temporarily download” its huge digital library of films, books, songs and TV episodes. There are also extras, such as “curated character worlds” and deleted scenes.
“Families and Disney fans are at the centre of everything we do,” added Brown. “Creating an environment that is trusted and safe is really important to us.
“During the development of Disney Life we carried out a lot of in-depth research and looked at what parents wanted from a service like this. For example, we designed DisneyLife with built-in controls that allow parents to personalise their children’s use of the service. Their profiles can have different time limits for weekdays and weekends.”
Despite the big bucks being invested by the newer players, Broughton thinks that, ultimately, the older players are still winning.
“The vast majority of viewing is still live and, of course, there’s also the time-shifted viewing,” he says. “So, when we talk about viewing of TV that is not broadcast, it’s a very small proportion.
“Also, children’s viewing is quite regulated. There’ll be set times to watch, say on Saturday or Sunday mornings, so it’s quite easy for broadcasters to maintain that kids’ window in the morning.
“I don’t think they’re overly threatened by the fact that children are increasingly using tablets in primetime, because they weren’t particularly scheduling to them anyway.
“I think a lot of this is quite additive. Even though this looks disruptive on the surface, it’s not a huge threat to broadcast content.”