Dennis, Gnasher and Minnie are being digitally reinvented to future-proof the comic for tomorrow’s children. Pippa Shawley logs on
"Slime is officially dead,” declares Emma Scott, CEO of Beano Studios. As the custodian of one of Britain’s most beloved brands, she is responsible for bringing the Beano brand into the 21st century.
The Beano comic is still profitable, she points out, although the 35,000 copies it sells each week are a far cry from the 2 million copies it sold during its heyday in the 1950s.
While the comic remains the flagship of the brand, Beano Studios is diversifying, last year launching Beano.com as an entertainment platform for children.
The decision to create the platform was twofold, she explains. First, it addressed a lack of places to share Beano content, which includes animation, sketch shows, quizzes and short-form articles. Second, it allows the company to harness data for commercial and editorial purposes.
While the platform is “powered by the essence of rebellion”, the content aggregator offers peace of mind to parents, as Scott and her team are careful to abide by regulations for kids.
While data is collected to help inform editorial and to take to advertisers, it is randomised in accordance with the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa) and the EU General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into force in the UK in May.
Beano’s target audience of six- to 12-year-olds may be digital natives, but that doesn’t mean the internet has managed to keep children away from content designed for adults and teenagers. In the latest report on children’s use of media, Ofcom found that almost a quarter of eight- to 11-year-olds have a social-media profile, despite the fact that users must be 13 or older to join most of the sites.
The report also found that 81% of eight- to 11-year-olds use YouTube, mostly to watch prank videos and music videos. One YouTube prankster popular with the Beano crowd was Logan Paul, a 22-year-old vlogger based in LA. The Beano website had featured Paul in its zeitgeisty content, alongside other popular figures, including singers Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa. But when the YouTuber recently uploaded a video of the body of a man who had committed suicide in a Japanese forest, Beano’s social-media team quickly flagged it with the wider team.
“We rapidly put up a post afterwards that we thought he’s a bit of a loser,’ says Scott, but the event highlighted the need for a child-friendly internet. “It’s a difficult world for children to navigate, let alone their parents,” she says. Beano will soon be announcing a new area to help parents understand their children’s internet experiences.
She also believes that Beano has a role to play in helping children consume media: “Both as a parent myself and as a responsible person in the media, I think it’s absolutely beholden on us that we help children prepare for some of the more difficult issues that emerge when they hit their teens, how they manage media and how they use and don’t use media.”
If all this sounds as if Beano is in danger of becoming a fun sponge, don’t despair. While Beano’s online platform acts as a safe space for children, it’s also packed full of the content they love. Since launching in 2016, over 1 million users have visited the site.
The analytics read like a diary, with visits at their height at 3:45pm, after school has finished. Many users are still online at 9:00pm, but they’re also up at 6:30am on Saturdays. “I think we’re doing a lot of favours to British society for lie-ins,” laughs the CEO.
Beano’s online content is strongly influenced by its readers and viewers. Beano Studios’ head of insight Helenor Gilmour oversees the Beano Trendspotters, a group of 20 nine- to 12-year-olds, who keep the grown-ups up to date with what’s going on in the playground.
The children, who live all around the country, speak to Gilmour via Skype or Facetime each Wednesday, telling her what they’ve been watching, playing or hearing about that week.
“It’s really important that our content creators understand their audience, so we bring a lot of people into the building,” says Scott.
It is fascinating to hear about the chatter of the playground. Slime and fidget spinners are out, while Grand Theft Auto is in, despite its 18+ certificate. “You get interesting insights into different parenting styles,” she smiles.
One subject that has popped up several times is Michael Wolff’s Trump exposé, Fire and Fury. “I found it extraordinary that they knew [Wolff’s] name,” she says, “although we had three different spellings”.
The audience research has also covered growing anxiety among children. Already, the children in their final year of primary school are discussing their SATs. “I find that quite concerning that, five months before an exam, 10- and 11-year-olds are worrying about it, and I know teachers worry about that as well,” she says.
The solution, argues the Beano boss, is light relief: “We have a role to play in making people laugh and popping pomposity, because that’s what the comic’s always done and I think that’s what our place in British life is.”
The website, like the comic, addresses children’s fears by poking fun at them. From voting for Donald Trump to the scariest fancy dress costume, to surmising that Minnie the Minx leaked 2016’s SATs answers, the Trendspotters help shape Beano content.
“These children have got years ahead of having serious lives,” says Scott. “I think it’s important that they know it’s OK to be silly sometimes.”
Last year, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport found that spending on children’s television by PSBs had fallen by £55m in the past decade. To address this, the Government announced plans to launch a £60m fund to stimulate greater variety in a market dominated by the BBC.
The CEO welcomes the plans. “What we need is more diversity of the durations, of genre, of ideas, that really reflect what children do and don’t like.”
However, she questions how effective the scheme, which will last three years, will be: “What happens at the end of that, unless the commissioners have money to spend?”
Although the finer details of the plan have yet to be announced, Scott is hoping that Beano Studios will benefit: “As a content creator, I fully expect us to be going forward and pitching ideas to that fund. And us as a platform, well, if we’re allowed to, we’d absolutely love to have our ideas and other people’s.”
Beano Studios is already creating much-loved content for CBBC. Its animation Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed is the most-watched show on the children’s channel. A new series launches this month. For the first time, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed is going global, with the series being sold across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Australasia.
Meanwhile, Beano.com has already launched in Australia. Scott hopes that the British brand will spread to other English-speaking territories, as well as countries where kids are keen to learn English, such as India.
“Clearly, if you haven’t watched The Great British Bake Off, you might not know who Noel Fielding is if you live in India,” she admits, “but I would hope that, when the time comes and we move into those markets, that we’ll have enough English-language content that will entertain children there, as well. We’ll find out, we’ll have to find our own trendspotters in those cities.”
As Beano prepares to celebrate its 80th birthday in the summer, plans are under way to mark the occasion, including new charity partnerships and an exhibition with a national institution.
Beano will also inspire this year’s Summer Reading Challenge, with children being encouraged to read books around the theme of “Mischief-makers”.
For Emma Scott, seeing all the projects develop has proved rewarding: “It’s quite a privilege to be able to take an iconic British brand and reimagine it in its own right, but also to bring a very different kind of media proposition to children and prove that it is working.”