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Disney, Nick and Sprout dish on creating content for the digital-first age

Touchscreen devices seem almost custom-made for TV's youngest viewers. And as viewing migrates to streaming and mobile, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Sprout open up about how they are serving - and attracting - these very early digital adopters.
April 2, 2014

According to a 2013 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology, more than 90% of young people are considered to be digital natives in the developed world, a statistic not lost on major US kidnets Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Sprout. In their efforts to offer the best, most accessible content to tech-savvy kids, wherever and whenever they want it, all three broadcasters have recently launched new innovative streaming-based services aimed to educate and entertain their youngest viewers.

It’s a clear sign of the times, given the impact SVOD services like Netflix have had on more traditional linear television. But despite all the talk of how SVOD services potentially breed cable-cutters and cannibalize linear ratings, traditional TV remains on top. Metrics guru Nielsen’s December 2013 cross-platform report on global media consumption patterns found that traditional TV is the most-consumed form of media among all demographics.

And with TV holding strong as the top destination for viewing, kidnets are seeing the new multiplatform landscape as a prime space to offer highly measurable, non-linear extensions and original IP designed to complement linear programming.

While the nets are certainly going to great lengths to establish a non-linear presence with core six to 11 viewers, the interesting thing is that much of their effort in the SVOD and app space is focused on preschool programming. A smart move considering the percentage of US kids under two who used a mobile device in 2013 rose to 38% from 10% in 2011, according to nonprofit organization Common Sense Media’s 2013 report, Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America.

Beyond the affinity preschoolers have for tablets and smartphones, Gary Pope suggests another reason why broadcasters might be interested in appealing to the demo in this way. The childhood development expert and co-founder of UK-based family research and branding agency, Kid Industries, contends that kidnets have a lot to gain by thinking differently when it comes to digital. He says digital-first experiences for preschoolers, if well executed, could be more beneficial when it comes to gaining and retaining new viewers as they grow older.

“If a viewer has a good learning experience that is playful and emotive, and solidifies a memory that he or she is able to recall, then it’s much more advantageous for companies to gain a customer through an interaction rather than the passive viewing of linear TV,” says Pope. “It gives kids much more connectedness to the content.”

To that end, almost a year since it introduced the free interactive Nick App, which has amassed more than eight million downloads globally since its US debut in February 2013, Nickelodeon turned its attention to preschoolers and unveiled My Nick Junior.  The commercial-free, interactive VOD channel is inspired by the Netflixes of the world and personalized media services like Pandora.

First launched in 2012 on CanalSat in France, the platform is now available to more than two million Virgin Media TiVo homes in the UK, to Verizon FiOS customers in the US, and advanced discussions are underway between Nick and five more international partners across three continents.

The hybrid experience, which features both scheduled programming and on-demand options, lets parents customize video playlists for their preschool child and curate titles according to developmental themes such as “science and nature,” “creativity,” and “problem solving.” Preschoolers can also rate their favorite episodes. My Nick Junior then “learns” the child’s preferences and programs accordingly, choosing from a library that features 650 episodes of Nick Jr. series.

According to Pier Gazzolo, COO of Viacom International Media Networks, the model was test-driven in France in August 2012. As of October 2013, more than 600,000 episodes were viewed per month, and by January this year, users had created more than 120,000 personalized channels.

More importantly, Gazzolo says My Nick Junior didn’t cannibalize Nick Jr.’s French linear channel. “We continue to grow our ratings. Viewers are watching on the linear channels, then going to My Nick Junior, then switching back to linear to watch more,” says Gazzolo. “It actually complements more than it cannibalizes, and is a great way to connect parents with their kids.”

Nickelodeon Group president Cyma Zarghami says staying on top of digital trends is something the network can’t afford to ignore, despite the fact that 95% of all preschool viewing in the US still takes place via linear TV.

“Television is where we’ve been able to build our brand equity and trust with the audience, but at the same time we don’t want to be caught not knowing where the audience is going, which is why we are building best-in-class platforms,” says Zarghami.

“When and if the day comes where there is a true shift in the viewership, then we will have as much equity and quality in both places as we possibly can.”

Further growing its digital footprint, Nickelodeon is releasing the long-awaited Nick Jr. App in the US this spring as a free, live-streaming branded platform for iPads. Its launch will coincide with the debut of more than 100 hours of new preschool content for Nick’s 2014/15 preschool slate, including Dora spinoff Dora and Friends and STEM curriculum-based Blaze and the Monster Machines.

The ad-supported app, according to Nickelodeon Group SVP of Nick Digital, Matthew Evans, features live-streaming of network shows, educational activities, short-form videos and a unique function that lets characters like Dora the Explorer and Twist from The Fresh Beat Band respond to users through tap interactions. Full-length on-demand episodes and the linear feed of Nick Jr. can also be accessed by households that subscribe to a TV service package with Nick and any one of its 18 distributors.

Evans says it is not a re-skin of the Nick App and was developed specifically for preschoolers as the primary users, as opposed to My Nick Junior, which is more of a parent-driven platform. “We’re giving kids the opportunity to feel empowered through guided exploration and engagement with the Nick preschool characters that they love,” says Evans.

Meanwhile, staying focused on the SVOD revolution has been top-of-mind for Nick rival Disney, but the Mouse House has opted for a slightly different preschool strategy.

Recognizing the explosion of mobile device usage by preschoolers, Disney decided to launch its brand-new original animated preschool series Sheriff Callie’s Wild West on its WATCH Disney Junior app last November, a full two months before premiering the show on its US Disney Junior block and channel in January.

The app-launch strategy, a first for Disney, was risky but it paid off. Sheriff Callie’s television debut drew record ratings and was the top-ranked show in its time period across all preschool demos. The series also generated more than 23 million video views via the WATCH Disney Junior iOS app between November and January.

“We had a lot of conversations about whether or not we should even try this type of launch, and there was a lot of talk about cannibalization of content, but we just didn’t see that,” says Lauren DeVillier, VP of digital media for Disney Channels Worldwide.

She attributes the launch’s success to a combination of factors—including the quality of the show’s stories and characters and Disney’s use of short-form teasers to introduce kids to Sheriff Callie’s cast before making full episodes available on the app.

“The WATCH apps stand up to all of the other distribution portals based on their content alone. When you look at Hulu and Netflix, it is the content that people are attracted to. Our apps are only as good as the content inside of them,” contends DeVillier. She adds that the tricky part of promoting a digital-first show is managing the plethora of media access points consumers use today. “We had to be really clear about messaging. In addition, the concept of WATCH is still really new. We still have a lot to do in educating consumers on what it is and how to get it.”

Launched in 2012, Disney’s suite of WATCH apps for Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior and ABC allow authenticated Comcast cable subscribers to access top Disney series live and on-demand anywhere they want. To date, they have generated a whopping 1.5 billion video views, but DeVillier says linear still leads the pack. “We’re always driving back to the network because it is the primary touchpoint,” she says.

Even with this first success, DeVillier wouldn’t reveal whether or not Disney has any short- or long-term plans to launch any more original preschool shows via the app-first route. “We talk about it and look at each project individually. Digital is such an integral part of the overall strategy for what we do with our shows now,” she says.

Case in point is the Disney Junior Appisodes app for iOS devices, which lets kids interact with various activities embedded into episodes of select Disney Junior shows like Doc Mc Stuffins, Sofia the First, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Jake and the Never Land Pirates. Since launching in 2012, the app continues to resonate with consumers. In December 2013, a total of 11 of the top 50 grossing kids apps for iOS were based on Disney properties (Disney Junior Appisodes included), according to digital analytics firm App Annie. “For us, launching Appisodes was a natural evolution of getting kids really engaged in the stories and being able to move narratives forward,” says DeVillier.

While Disney continues to dip its toes into the digital-first space for preschool, Nickelodeon’s approach has been to premiere new preschool programs to its built-in TV audience first. “The idea that we would introduce content to eight million homes, when we have 95 million homes to do it with, is counter-intuitive to the business we’re in. As long as the TV platform [for preschool] is bigger than the digital platforms, we’ll continue to use the TV channel as our mother ship to introduce content, and then migrate to digital,” says Zarghami.

Nick did premiere Wallykazam!, the kidnet’s first preschool series with an embedded literacy curriculum, as a free download on the US iTunes store a week before bowing the program on its Nick Junior block in early February. However, Zarghami says the decision was part of a coordinated marketing campaign, not an overarching business strategy.

“On special occasions, if we do believe there is an appetite to put more content in one place than another to experiment or drive the audience to digital, then we can do that,” Zarghami says. “We have some great ideas about extended content that could go on the Nick Jr. App that would be exclusive offshoots of the content we have for TV.”

For My Nick Junior, Gazollo says there are no current plans to launch digital-first content.  “If we and our partners reach a place where we both feel it would be beneficial to launch new content there first, we might consider it, but that has not been part of the plan so far,” he says.

As Disney and Nickelodeon continue to evolve multiplatform preschool strategies, 24-hour US preschool net Sprout has been blurring the lines between linear and digital for nine years. It launched as a VOD channel before taking to traditional airwaves.

“Launching on VOD first was a very good indication of us being prepared for where we are today, on every screen wherever kids can access us,” says Andrew Beecham, Sprout  SVP of programming.  “Our linear service, which is all about short-form content, is still the key because it is the only place where you get the full Sprout experience from our signature blocks. But VOD is fantastic for kids who need a deeper experience and may want to watch multiple 30-minute episodes.”

Further expanding its on-the-go digital reach, the network recently launched Sprout Now, a web-streaming app that gives its authenticated channel subscribers access to content on multiple platforms and is part of cable giant (and Sprout owner) Comcast’s ongoing TV Everywhere initiative.

Among the app’s current features are almost all of Sprout’s linear content (including originals like The Chica Show and third-party series such as Sesame Street), a simple-to-use, icon-driven interface, and a tool for creating user favorites lists.
Sprout Now adds to the network’s growing library of apps, which helps drive eyeballs to Sprout’s linear and web services. “We are very good about leading our viewers from one platform to the next. We have the same programming on all of our destinations, but it’s packaged in different ways to suit what kids and parents are doing at key times of the day,” says Beecham.

As for launching new digital-first preschool original series, Sprout is taking an inventive approach that falls somewhere between the mindsets of Disney and Nickelodeon.

The channel, which is in the midst of transitioning its linear service to an originals-driven slate, is using the digital-first approach to test new short-form appisodes that could potentially be turned into long-form commissions.
Enter Edison the Invention Detective. Created by New York-based interactive media company yummico, and produced in partnership with DHX Media, the new 11-minute appisode series follows the adventures of Edison, a young girl inventor who loves to solve mysteries.

“We believe this is the first time an appisode is being used by a US broadcaster as a low-cost alternative to traditional TV pilot development,” says yummico co-founder Traci Paige Johnson of Blue’s Clues fame. (When asked if Disney would consider creating original appisodes for pilot development, DeVillier says it plans to stick to appisodes based on its iconic brands. “We have no current plans to do this, but we are always looking at innovative new ideas,” she says.)

With Sprout’s first Edison appisode set for an April launch to kick off a period of public and internal evaluation, the channel is also readying its new original series Ruff-Ruff, Tweet & Dave, a preschool game show that encourages viewers to play along on a tablet or smartphone. A reward system for answering questions correctly and for coming back to the program is a key feature, along with the series’ audio watermarking technology. “It’s a great way of extending the video experience,” says Beecham.

Assessing the new landscape, Johnson expects the wave of new streaming platforms and digital products aimed at preschoolers to continue to swell. “The next five years will be telling as the seeds of digital-first and subscription models on tablets grow into bigger trees,” she says. “Anything can happen, which is exciting and nerve wracking, but you have to keep making things with heart that speak to kids and parents, and the best will rise to the top.”

About The Author
Jeremy is the Features Editor of Kidscreen specializing in the content production, broadcasting and distribution aspects of the global children's entertainment industry. Contact Jeremy at jdickson@brunico.com.

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