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How Kids Television Became the Most Heated Front in the Streaming Wars

Hollywood’s demand for streaming content is putting kids media creators and producers squarely at the adult’s table.

The world of kids TV has long been thought to be a peaceful one, a place where “Blue’s Clues,” “The Baby-Sitters’ Club,” “Phineas and Ferb” and “Rugrats” are left alone to ramble and play. As more consumers move to streaming-video services, however, kids properties are taking on new importance — and many major entertainment outlets, both traditional and upstart, are gearing for battle. “You can see that streamers are snapping up popular intellectual property and that studios are competing heavily for talent,” says Olivier Dumont, president of family brands for eOne, the large Hasbro-owned production company behind such kids series as “Peppa Pig” and “PJ Masks.”

Chris Nee won acclaim for herself and Walt Disney when she created “Doc McStuffins,” an animated series about a 6-year-old who fixes dolls and toys and in the process, teaches her young audience about staying healthy and navigating early life. Nee had a “great situation” at Disney but decided to ink an overall deal with Netflix when the streamer, like a storybook genie granting wishes, offered her a “fairy-tale” vision of artistic freedom. She now has her own development budget, and the ability to cultivate projects and writers with greater latitude than she ever had before.

“I was looking at the Shonda Rhimeses and the Ryan Murphys and wondering why somebody couldn’t take that active role of being both a creator and a producer and creating an internal sort of house in [kids] TV, and that’s very much what’s happening,” says Nee.

Her first project for Netflix, “Ridley Jones,” is the action-adventure series she wished she’d been able to watch as a child. The program will follow the escapades of the 6-year-old female title character, who protects exhibits in the museum she calls her home, and does so alongside her mother and grandmother. The task isn’t easy, as the facility’s elephant and mummies come to life overnight. Also on the slate is “Ada Twist,” a science-focused series for preschoolers based on the book series from author Andrea Beaty and illustrator David Roberts, which is co-produced by former president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Prods.

The effort is taking Nee to interesting places. She remembers flying to Washington, D.C., to sit down with the former first lady and discuss the series. “She was very, very hands-on and looking at the designs for ‘Ada,’ looking at the hair texture for this character, looking at skin tone — all of the things that matter” in ensuring authentic on-screen representation, says Nee.

Nee’s projects are just two of many slated to launch in the months to come as competition ripens.

While new programming aimed at adults tends to get the lion’s share of publicity from the streaming world, executives behind the scenes readily acknowledge that movies from Martin Scorsese, a new cut of “Justice League” or a new series from Shonda Rhimes can only go so far to keep viewers from “churning,” or canceling their subscriptions.

These executives say properties aimed at kids, young adults and families tend to create the sorts of lasting relationships that keep subscriber money coming in every month.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that kids drive a big amount of the minutes watched on streaming services,” says Brian Robbins, president of ViacomCBS’ Nickelodeon, which is poised to make a significant contribution to its parent company’s soon-to-debut streaming hub, Paramount Plus. “You know as a parent that you’ll go without eating before you take something away from your child that they like. Kids content is an amazing retention tool.”

The pandemic, too, has blown up the amount of screen time kids are getting, as frazzled parents in lockdown mode search for ways to keep their little ones entertained — and hopefully educated — while schools remain physically closed.

Aside from the Paramount Plus launch, the industry’s annual “kids upfront,” a weeks-long period of outreach by kid media properties to advertisers, is looming and may nod to ad possibilities available with WarnerMedia’s HBO Max.

It’s a child, or millions of them, then, that will help steer what is projected to be billions of dollars to streaming outlets, both the ones that have led the charge, like Netflix, YouTube or Hulu, and a new set of challengers from traditional media companies like WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS and NBCUniversal. There are also a bevy of child-focused services — from PBS Kids to Vooks, a company that creates ad-free animated storybooks, to Sensical, an ad-supported service from Common Sense Media that promises age-appropriate content. A survey of 3,000 U.S. adults conducted in the fall by nScreenMedia, a broadband consultancy, found that 75% of parents watch video with their children several times a week or more. Two-thirds of respondents indicated they expect time spent with kids watching TV and movies to stay the same or increase once the pandemic ends.

With that attention comes money. Consumers are projected to spend $41 billion on streaming video in 2021, according to the Consumer Technology Assn., an industry trade organization; that represents a 15% jump over spending last year. Access to exclusive content and canceling traditional video service are two factors behind the rise, according to the group. And every kids TV executive knows that a successful character or concept can also drive millions of dollars’ worth in dolls, T-shirts, books and other consumer products.

Ryan Garcia for Variety

Nee and her production pod, Laughing Wild, have the goal of nurturing a diverse group of new writers and showrunners, like “Spirit Rangers” executive producer and Chumash tribal member Karissa Valencia and the show’s all-Native writers’ room.

“Some places like Disney, they would be much more measured in what they wanted to give any one person,” Nee says. “Like, ‘What’s your capacity?’ And it turns out my capacity is a little absurd.”

Kenny Ortega, the veteran director and choreographer behind the film “Newsies” and Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” and “Descendants” franchises, maintains a good relationship with his former collaborator; Bob Iger presented Ortega with a Disney Legends Award at the D23 Expo in 2019. But Ortega is thrilled that his first Netflix project, “Julie and the Phantoms,” a charming dramedy from creators Dan Cross and David Hoge about a teenage girl who teams up with a ghostly ’90s band to make music, has earned glowing reviews and a wider range of viewers — from teens to 20-somethings to families — than perhaps some people expected.

“They’re up against some heavy competition, especially with Disney,” he says of Netflix. “So I just felt like they put a lot of effort into reaching an audience that might not necessarily go there for this kind of entertainment. They were very clever and very creative and continue to be, months and months after we’ve already [premiered].”

Even without these star creators, Disney has a deep bench of creative resources all its own. More of them than ever, in fact, says Gary Marsh, president and chief creative officer of Disney Branded Television. He can now tap a broader array of talent from the company’s ABC Signature and 20th Television studios thanks to a recent restructuring of studio assets aimed at meeting consumers’ growing desire for streaming entertainment. Marsh is eager to harness such resources for Disney Plus while maintaining a steady flow of content for the Disney Channel and the company’s other kid-focused outlets.

“There are all-new avenues and opportunities to employ talent and different kinds of storytelling,” he says.

The race is on to strike a connection with young consumers before they drift to another media window. “The interesting thing about being in a children’s entertainment division is you’re basically kind of the canary in a coal mine,” says Jennifer Dodge, president of Spin Master Entertainment, the company behind “Paw Patrol” and other properties. “We have all seen the transformation happening over the last several years from a linear programing experience to almost an on-demand scenario for most families and children.”

Meanwhile, the hunt for producers with an eye for kids content continues. Nickelodeon’s Robbins says he expects to make some new talent announcements in weeks to come.

It’s enough to make you go ‘Auuugh!’

Charlie Brown, who once spent his days trying to kick a football held by Lucy van Pelt or play baseball with his friends, last fall found himself in a completely different environment: smack dab in the middle of a social media blowup over beloved children’s IP.

The “round-headed kid” is a critical figure in three TV holiday specials that were, until this year, part of a parade of beloved TV properties enjoyed for decades by the public at large. Like “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” shows such as “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” had been available to viewers on Walt Disney’s ABC, with the only cost being a requirement to watch some commercials over the course of each program’s half-hour span. The broadcast network had aired the specials annually since 2001.

Though Apple promised to make the programs available for free to viewers for a limited period of time, the tech giant’s Oct. 19 announcement that it would exclusively host the “Peanuts” specials on Apple TV Plus spurred backlash. Shortly before Halloween, Apple approached PBS with a deal to make the specials available on a linear platform for 2020, according to the public broadcaster. (The timing of the deal cut too close to come in time for “Great Pumpkin,” but allowed for the Thanksgiving and Christmas specials to air on PBS.)

Celyn Brazier for Variety

Charlie Brown isn’t the only popular kids’ property being placed under virtual glass by a tech giant. “Curious George,” the animated monkey that has helped young viewers of PBS learn about science and math concepts since the series debuted there in 2006, now shows up first in new episodes on Peacock, the streaming video hub that is part of NBCUniversal, which owns the production company behind “Curious George.”

WarnerMedia has devised a similar pact with Sesame Workshop, the producers of “Sesame Street,” whose new episodes surface first on HBO and the streaming hub HBO Max before moving to PBS.

In a perfect world, PBS might continue to get first crack at new episodes of the series it helped build. “There’s a couple instances, and this is one of them, which I would say is an exception to rules that we create,” says Lesli Rotenberg, the chief programming executive and general manager of children’s media and education at PBS, speaking about PBS retaining rights to “Curious George” for later airing. “In every case, I would say we’re looking through this lens of starting with what’s best for children. And so for us, it was really a question of, we know so many families don’t have access to a lot of these streaming services; they don’t have the means. And we want to make sure that we continue to make the content that they rely on from PBS available to them.”

No one is giving up on original concepts, but the scramble for familiar content is intense. The streaming giants love known commodities because they can help deliver families and children with a minimum of marketing; the traditional media companies embrace the properties because they control the rights to so many of them — to a degree that their digital competitors cannot duplicate.

Properties like Bugs Bunny and the Hanna-Barbera library are “the gift that keeps on giving,” says Tom Ascheim, president of Warner Bros.’ global kids, young adults and classics businesses. “It’s one that will be an advantage for a very long time.” One Warner project, “Batwheels,” which centers on a group of crime-fighting vehicles, represents “the earliest entry point for a young consumer with the Batman franchise,” he says, and will help Warner make a new push for preschool audiences.

Nickelodeon has already indicated Paramount Plus will serve as the home for new projects featuring its beloved SpongeBob SquarePants as well as a revival of “iCarly,” the popular series about teens who run their own streaming video show. “Franchises are so important in a world where there is so much content being made,” says Robbins. “You have to figure out a way to cut through.”

At Disney, executives believe new interpretations of their popular characters will boost Disney Plus, the streaming hub that is taking much of the company’s focus. “The jackpot is all of the original ways to reimagine and reinterpret classic Disney intellectual property,” says Marsh. “That is our primary competitive advantage. When we do it well, it works extraordinarily well.” One project in production for a 2021 debut is “Sneakerella,” a musical that marries sneaker culture with the classic “Cinderella.” Another is a contemporary reimagining of the world of Peter Pan.

Amid that frenzy comes new concern that the demand for instantly recognizable kids properties might shortchange the development of, well, something new. “There’s a love for nostalgia and reboots and celebrities attached to projects, and that has been great, but the question is how does the new stuff get nurtured?” asks Cyma Zarghami, an independent producer and the former president of Nickelodeon. Producers, she says, are asking, “What do I have to do to have the next ‘SpongeBob’ or the next ‘Paw Patrol’? And how is the audience going to find it?”

Capturing kids’ attention may be one of the most important missions in the entertainment business. Young viewers are chasing their video playmates to new venues faster than many mainstream companies can follow. If Apple, Netflix, WarnerMedia, Disney and Nickelodeon can’t win them now, who will do so in the future? Yet there’s not one set strategy, and all the efforts, many executives note, are creating a glut of content.

Apple TV Plus spent some time building ties to well-known IP, including “Peanuts” and “Fraggle Rock,” the Jim Henson Co.-produced series that got its start on HBO, among other outlets, in 1983.

But social media kerfuffle aside, the streamer’s interests do not lie in hoarding children’s classics — it is far less concerned about stocking a voluminous library than it is in creating its own originals, such as “Wolfwalkers.” Meanwhile, the rights to “Peanuts” and “Fraggle Rock” offer a development shortcut to crafting new series “The Snoopy Show,” “Snoopy in Space,” “Fraggle Rock: Rock On!” and a “Fraggle Rock” reboot.

Viewer familiarity “really helped expedite the development phase of production, and it allowed us to get into production much more quickly,” says Tara Sorensen, head of children’s programing for Apple. “There was a two-pronged sort of benefit to that. And thinking more globally about the approach, for me, it’s really about bringing families together around the screen to enjoy stories that are heartfelt.”

Coming soon: more preschool programming. “I tend to think about the development slate in terms of building a house,” she says. “So I thought it was really important to build a foundation with the youngest age group.”

Meanwhile, Amazon, which once gained notice for kids shows like “Tumble Leaf,” has scaled back its efforts at producing originals. Instead, it has hitched its efforts to Amazon Kids Plus, a subscription portal that offers kids’ books, movies, shows and games for $2.99 a month. “There’s some advantages there in terms of having a targeted environment for kids programming,” says Vernon Sanders, co-head of Amazon Studios, who notes the company will launch “Do, Re & Mi,” an animated series that features original songs performed by Kristen Bell and others. “This is not a case in which we’re completely abandoning the space, but we will be targeted when we [explore] it,” he adds.

Separately, executives worry their programs will get buried amid a glut of new cartoons and characters and an increasingly fractured audience that has dozens of new ways to watch their favorite. Indeed, some producers confide that younger audiences have become so scattered among different screens and outlets that even a deal with a giant in the business may not be enough to guarantee success. “Once, if you were on Disney in the U.S. or Nickelodeon, that was the Holy Grail,” says eOne’s Dumont. “It’s still part of the mix, but you have to have your property on as many platforms as possible.”

Conversely, there’s the question of whether kids from all walks of life are able to access those shows.

“I’m concerned about the idea of so many platforms being paid streaming services,” says PBS’ Rotenberg. “On the one hand, that means that there is this plethora of content for children, but you have to have the financial means to access it. And so in many ways, the model is exacerbating the educational equity divide and the digital divide in this country.”

Still, the recent boom in platforms and programming also translates to a diverse range of on-screen characters, from HBO Max’s “Young Love” from “Hair Love” director Matthew A. Cherry to Apple TV Plus’ Zen Buddhism-infused “Stillwater” to Netflix’s Nee-produced “Spirit Rangers.”

“I very actively want to make the world of kids TV better, in the act of the work that I’m doing,” says Nee. “I care about what the kids are seeing … but I also care about raising up a new generation of voices, who are going to be the people who take over.”

Hundreds of talented people like Nee will be making programs for kids. Now all they have to do is hope the young ones find them.

Variety's Brian Steinberg and Elaine Low contributed to this post.


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