Animation first found a mass audience with the hand-drawn shorts that were showcased alongside newsreels and genre-film double features at movie houses around the world in the last century. And from the humble origins of Warner Bros.’s Tom and Jerry and Merrie Melodies a new art form emerged. So, with incessant technological advances that have made those movie screens portable and palm-sized—not to mention kids’ current bottomless appetite for short-form content being fed by the likes of YouTube, Vine and kidcaster-owned apps—the format is more prevalent than ever before. However, there’s still that tricky monetization hurdle no one’s quite jumped over, which is arguably holding the short-form revolution back.
Whatever it is, it’s everywhere
It isn’t easy to define short-form content. One might think the definition is tied to a specific measure of time. However, content producers are hesitant to draw sharp lines.
“The sweet-spot is probably less than two minutes long,” says Gary Binkow, founding partner and chief content officer at L.A.-based digital media company Collective Digital Studio (CDS). “But there are also Vines out there that are only six seconds long, so that is a big difference.”
Peanuts is a brand that perhaps owing to its origins as a paneled comic strip, has recently found much success with various lengths of short-form content. In late 2013, Peanuts Worldwide inked a deal with France Télévisions to produce 500 90-second animated shorts. Also recently, the company partnered with Vine artist Khoa Phan to transform some of its assets specifically for the popular six-second video platform. In fact, Peanuts was among the first in the kids sphere to utilize the micro-content platform at all.
“Short-form is natural for us,” explains Leigh Anne Brodsky, MD of Peanuts Worldwide. “It really is part of our legacy and heritage.”
Beverly Hills, California-based Genius Brands International is launching traditional 26 x half-hour animated series Thomas Edison’s Secret Lab on US public television this fall, but short-form is very much part of the overall strategy for the property. In advance of the series’ launch, Genius is producing 52 x 90-second promotional music videos.
“We’re going to get them on every digital platform we can,” says Andrew Berman, SVP of global sales at Genius Brands International. “We have found that when you sell a series now, you have to deliver additional short-form content.”
Currently, Nickelodeon is in the third season of its dedicated shorts program that initially started in the US and has since spawned an international program, as well. Nina Hahn, SVP of international production and development, says that shorts have been a high priority for the network for some time and it has had success with the shorts programs and its Nick App in gestating new content. Series such as The Loud House and Welcome to the Wayne both started as shorts and have graduated to become full long-form series that now air on Nick’s more than 70 outlets around the world.
Hahn says that while Nick likes to give creators the freedom to decide how long a short is, she has found certain parameters work best for the format. “We try to get them to limit it to two or three characters,” she says. “Usually it falls between two to four minutes—that seems like an ideal length, but it can stretch, too.”
DreamWorksTV has also seized upon the trend. In just the past few years, the company has produced more than 1,000 shorts, utilizing characters from its robust library like Kung Fu Panda and also developing new IPs such as FiFi Cat Therapist and Life Hacks for Kids. Birkner Rawlings , head of DreamWorksTV at AwesomenessTV, says that while there is not a specific target length, the majority of DreamWorks’ shorts fall somewhere in the two- to five-minute range. He believes it is the ideal length to be able to package the content effectively for most digital platforms. “The bulk of what we are producing for digital is considered short form,” he says. “We want to be wherever kids are, and that is where they are.”
Even Disney has selected short form as the vehicle to bring the iconic Muppets back to TV. Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Animal and Miss Piggy are starring in brand-new Disney Junior series Muppet Moments that premieres on Disney Channel US at the beginning of the month. Featuring amusing and intimate moments between Muppets and kids as they discuss topics ranging from “apologies” to “favorite foods” and “manners,” the first four x five-minute eps will be simultaneously made available on the WATCH Disney Junior app.
Who’s got the time?
There appears to be a connection between the recent rise in the popularity of short-form content and the emergence of the highly scheduled lifestyle of the modern child. “There is a lot of time-fracturing with kids,” says Beau Teague, senior director of user experience at Cartoon Network. “They maybe don’t have time to invest in long-form content and will check out something on a smaller device while waiting to pick up their sister at ballet, or after homework and before dinner.”
Wynne Tyree, founder and president of Smarty Pants, a full-service youth and family research and strategy firm based in Jonesborough, Tennessee, agrees. Her firm’s research bears out Teague’s hypothesis and also concludes that YouTube has been the most successful digital platform in catering to kids’ increasingly hectic schedules. “Kids are using YouTube to fill their every free moment,” she says. “It’s fast and easy and doesn’t demand a lot of time that they don’t have. If you want to know how pervasive it is, listen to kids. They don’t say, ‘Just Google it,’ they say, ‘Just YouTube it.’”
According to Smarty Pants’ Young Love: Clicks, Taps, and Swipes Report, the firm’s annual investigation into US kids’ digital behavior, 66% of children with internet access visit YouTube daily. For core kids age six to eight, that number jumps up to 72%.
Tyree adds that YouTube’s essentially limitless shelf-space is also a key driver. “Kids are really the original binge-watchers,” she says. “They just have an insatiable appetite for content and stories.”
A look at YouTube’s own Watch Time statistics confirms Tyree’s numbers. Watch Time tracks the amount of time users spend per session on the site. According to YouTube’s own calculations, while adults increased their Watch Time by 50% in the last year, that number skyrockets up to 200% in the family entertainment category.
Increasing YouTube’s attractiveness as a platform is its ability to introduce new content to a large audience. Even Sesame Workshop, whose Sesame Street has flourished on traditional broadcast TV over the last 46 years, has a series that’s available exclusively on YouTube outside of the UK. The Furchester Hotel, a co-production with British pubcaster CBeebies, debuted on the Workshop’s YouTube channel in November 2014. New 11-minute episodes, featuring core characters Elmo and Cookie Monster, and their life at the hotel, are uploaded every Friday.
“It’s an exciting platform,” says Carol-Lynn Parente, Workshop SVP and executive producer for Sesame Street, noting that while the series isn’t considered short form, it still speaks to the power of the YouTube platform. “For us, it’s just another way to have kids reach out and touch Sesame Street. YouTube lends itself to a lot of different content opportunities.”
When it came time for the kids entertainment veterans at Toronto, Canada-based Brain Power Studio and New York’s Big Tent Entertainment to fully engage with short-form content, the pair decided to team up for a YouTube channel targeting the teen and young adult market. Built around a wholly original IP, dedicated live-action short-form channel Something Fuzzy is like “Funny or Die for Pets.” The channel launched last year, and Brain Power Studios has been seeding Something Fuzzy with content on a weekly basis ever since.
“We run it like a sketch-comedy show,” says Brain Power founder Beth Stevenson, explaining that every Monday the editorial team gets together and pitches content that is then produced and uploaded to the channel by the end of the week. So far, there are about 60 30-second live-action segments available on the channel.
“It’s a simple equation,” she says. “On YouTube, you can carry out brand-building in a cost-effective way.” And while the content itself can be stripped and pushed onto other popular platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Stevenson says that from an eyeballs and revenue standpoint (more on that later) YouTube is still the go-to platform.
YouTube for kids
In February, YouTube released its new family-friendly kids app, developed for Android and iOS devices. The YouTube Kids app draws upon YouTube’s famously sticky design, but adds kid-centric bells and whistles, including an easier-to-navigate swipeable interface and a number of parental controls. The result is a sealed and safe environ for kids and parents.
“It is the first app built by YouTube for families,” says Malik Ducard, global head of family and learning. He adds that the app will initially rely on the long list of content deals the company already has in place with major kids producers like DreamWorks and The Jim Henson Company, but will eventually introduce new exclusive content. Deals are currently inked with Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton for tech-focused series uTech and notable Minecraft posterboy Stampylonghead for a series called Wonder Quest being produced by Disney-owned Maker Studios.
Ducard says the platform extension leaves the specifics of individual channel characteristics up to creators. “We aren’t prescriptive,” he says. “We provide open real estate for content partners to build their home in the way they want. We know they know their audiences better than we do.”
CDS’s Binkow says that YouTube’s hands-off approach has helped to make its channels, like 4.2-million subscriber-strong, kid-centric Annoying Orange, so successful because it empowers both creators and their audiences. “It’s our biggest platform,” he says. “I think YouTube Kids is a great move on their part. It will help filter content and create more comfort for parents.”
Of course, the YouTube Kids announcement didn’t occur in a vacuum. It is only the biggest platform currently responding to kids’ voracious demand for short-form content. Other digital outlets such as Twitter-owned Vine and Snapchat have also recently announced kid-friendly extensions.
“It makes sense,” says Smarty Pants’ Tyree. “Kids are just living in that short-form space right now.”
Navigating the algorithm
We know kids crave snackable entertainment and they know exactly how and where to find it. The question for the business becomes how can creators make sure that their productions don’t get lost in this vast and ever-expanding digital universe? Of course, big media companies have a leg up in terms of marketing dollars and omni-channel presence, but there are other mechanisms that can help level the playing field for smaller teams. While securing a plum spot on a major network’s broadcast schedule is often a function of luck, long-term relationships and the unexplained alchemy of the corporate world, achieving great placement in the digital sphere has more to do with math and performing due diligence.
Binkow, whose studio specializes in shepherding creators through digital deserts, says understanding analytics is a key factor in online success. “There are ways to maximize what you post,” he says. “You have to consider how often you post, how you tag it, and what happens to it after it is posted.”
He explains that because YouTube is essentially a large search engine, like Google, there are a number of different optimization strategies to be employed. “Tapping into the changes of the algorithm is part of the programming strategy,” says Binkow. “You have to be able to strategically pivot around what you pick up from the analytics.”
CDS has recently utilized its data-mining expertise to migrate popular Vine artists like Logan Paul (7.1 million Vine followers) and Rudy Mancuso (7.7 million Vine followers) onto the more lucrative YouTube platform.
However, arguably the company’s biggest success is outside of the kids space. The CDS team has been working to improve the online imprint of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The task was to effectively graft one of the oldest TV formats, the talk show, onto a YouTube channel to make it more relevant to a younger demographic. Well, mission accomplished—currently the channel boasts upwards of 6.5 million subscribers, far outnumbering its competition. Though Binkow believes that the lessons learned from The Tonight Show‘s digital success are easily applied to the kids space.
“We figured out what part of the overall content worked best in short form,” he says. “In that case, it was the comedy bits, and not the interviews, that had the most traction. Then it’s a matter of knowing when to post it and how best to link with different content on other platforms.”
DreamWorksTV has also poured sizeable resources into analyzing the ebbs and flows of the kazillion ones and zeros that make up YouTube and other digital platforms. “You have to be able to take advantage of the mechanism behind it,” says Rawlings.
Once media companies can master the techniques that maximize digital exposure, the bounty on the back-end is the deep and previously uncaptured information about its target audience.
“There is a lot of powerful data that media companies have access to on our platform,” says YouTube’s Ducard. “Our partners are able to carefully track their IP to see how it is performing and resonating on the platform. They can really see how well kids engage with it.”
For instance, stats measuring the per-second view rate give creators a much more exact picture of their audience than traditional Nielsen ratings. This has enabled creators to home in on specific characteristics of their output and tweak them according to the feedback. “You can see whether or not your content is holding people’s attention, or if they just click away from it in 10 seconds,” says Stevenson, who relies heavily on that particular data set to steer content on the Something Fuzzy channel. “It’s really powerful stuff.”
Creating good content and expertly navigating the algorithm is all well and good, but the bills don’t pay themselves. The survival of every business relies on figuring out just where the revenue is going to come from.
YouTube is a little ahead of other digital platforms in terms of presenting a viable revenue model for short-form content. Like its parent site, YouTube Kids also utilizes a limited ad model. There are pre-roll ads, both skippable and non-skippable, but YouTube Kids does not include any click-throughs to external websites. The app also only runs ads that are deemed family-friendly.
It may be limited, but the YouTube model does translate to cash for views, whereas other popular digital platforms like Vine, simply do not. “YouTube clearly has a leg up in terms of their revenue model,” says Tyree. “It will be interesting to see what all of these other platforms do.”
But the revenue generated by YouTube views can be overstated. “I don’t think the revenue streams just from plays for original content is going to be sustainable,” says Stevenson. “Perhaps if you have a library channel, it would be fine, but there is still a cost associated for us to produce content.”
That is why Brain Power looks at the platform, and other digital environments, as primarily brand-building opportunities. Something Fuzzy’s revenue model is simple—build the brand utilizing YouTube and other platforms, and then once traction is sufficiently established, move to monetize that popularity through deals in the consumer products and promotions areas.
Bigger players also look at digital platforms as brand-building spaces that can help support monetization in more-or-less traditional ways through longer-form content plays and consumer products. Peanuts, for example, will be using short-form content pushed onto every platform in a coordinated effort to promote its feature film The Peanuts Movie due in theaters around the globe this fall.
“Everyone is figuring out that balance right now” says Brodsky, explaining the increasingly blurred line between giving away content and brand promotion. “We do believe that great content has a value.”
For major broadcasters with a large stable of different content, the strategy is a little different. Many of them, including Nickelodeon and PBS KIDS, have developed their own free apps to distribute their growing inventory of short-form content. Last fall, Cartoon Network released its own short-form specific app, Cartoon Network Anything. At press time, the app, available on iOS and Android-enabled small screen devices, has been downloaded 1.5 million times across all platforms.
The micro-content (usually no more than 15 seconds) that it hosts is largely made up of little snippets of series from Cartoon Network’s large library. “We found that when we go that short, it really reveals the essence of a show,” says Cartoon Network’s Teague.
Uncle Grandpa is one series that has worked particularly well in that format. Teague says the app has been successful in driving kids, who were otherwise unfamiliar with the series, back to the network to find full eps. And the network plans to start experiment with bowing original short-form content on the platform.
Because it is a wholly sealed environment, Cartoon Network is able to exert total control over its content. Besides helping the parent brand by promoting series found on its traditional broadcast arm, not to mention (in many cases) fully developed consumer products lines, the app also has its own revenue stream.
“We opened our native content experience to advertising partners,” Teague says. “We work with them to create unique shorts and quizzes and content around their brand.”
He says McDonald’s, the app’s launch partner, was happy with the initial program. Cartoon Network has already lined up a number of other sponsors to develop branded interactive and integrated experiences for the app in the future.
“It was phenomenal in terms of kids and their engagement with the ads,” he says. “They were actually playing the ad. If you can create unique content with an advertising partner within the natural feel of the experience, it really goes a long way.”
The more things change…
One interesting fact that Ducard discovered during the preparation for the YouTube Kids launch in February was the popularity of a particular piece of classic short-form entertainment.
“When we looked at the top Warner Bros.-owned content, our knee-jerk reaction was to expect that something like The Dark Knight might be the most popular,” Ducard explains. “But globally, its most popular title is actually Tom and Jerry.”
It is astounding when you think about it—in the midst of countless hours of shorts that have been produced since, those classic jewels of pure slapstick are still keeping kids’ attention. Seventy-five years later, the only hope today’s creators have of obtaining that same level of success is if they are able to navigate a digital terrain that is changing faster than a clever brown mouse can outsmart a hungry grey cat.
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Kidscreen