When Kay Benbow, controller of UK-based pubcaster CBeebies, addressed a children’s television conference a couple of years back and boldly stated she was looking for live-action drama, the room was, reportedly, a bit stunned.
“Most people there frankly thought I was bonkers,” says Benbow. “But if you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
Inspired by fond memories of watching live-action literary adaptations such as Heidi and Anne of Green Gables as a child, Benbow believed the time was right for CBeebies to harness the strong UK tradition of live-action drama. Only this time it would serve the interests of preschoolers. “I felt like the CBeebies audience deserved the same quality and drama as the older audience,” she contends.
In fact, Benbow, an industry veteran who enjoys some freedom from strictly commercial considerations in working for a public broadcaster, was onto something much larger than just nostalgia for TV series of the past. She was among the first to recognize that the next significant TV trend for teens, tweens—and even preschoolers—would be focused on serialized live-action drama. In fact, a new genre boom was just around the corner—one that would present producers and broadcasters with some unique challenges, as well as sizeable rewards.
” Video-on-demand platforms allowed adults to dig deeper into dramas, and I think kids are craving that, too.”- Matt Hornburg, marblemedia
The popularity of reality TV and adult prestige dramas has helped set the stage for the current flood of live-action drama, particularly for tweens and teens.
“Over the past 15 years, we have seen so much high-quality drama for adults,” says Matt Hornburg, co-CEO and executive producer at Toronto, Canada-based prodco marblemedia. “Now, we are seeing that type of programming trickling down to kids across the market.” He adds that the popularity of YouTube and the current glut of primetime reality TV series have created a higher demand for “real life” characters in the tween and teen market.
Brian Irving, Toronto-based executive producer of Fresh TV series Backstage, a live-action teen drama that is currently readying its second 30-ep season, agrees the popularity of reality TV and online video platforms is connected to the current rise in drama for tweens. “We saw that shift from comedy in primetime to more reality TV,” he says. “That style of show is really like manufactured live-action drama, in essence.”
Over at Canada’s DHX Television, whose Family Channel is home to drama franchise Degrassi, VP of original production Michael Goldsmith says the kids audience was hungry for more dramatic fare, after years of being fed a steady diet of three-camera sitcoms. “At one point, there were a ton of the same type of shows,” he notes. “We do a lot of research, and focus groups just kept telling us they wanted to see something different—and that they were open to drama.”
The widespread adoption of platforms like Amazon and Netflix also played a role in spurring the production community towards drama, as the genre seems to be particularly well-suited for on-demand delivery.
In fact, even the comedies produced by these platforms, such as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix) and Red Oaks (Amazon), have serialized characteristics, including multi-episode narrative arcs. So it is not surprising that kids producers are also considering the change in viewing behavior signaled by the rise of SVODs.”Video-on-demand platforms allowed adults to dig deeper into dramas, and I think kids are craving that, too,” says Hornburg.
David Michel, president and founding partner of Paris-based prodco Cottonwood Media, credits Amazon for getting the ball rolling with its tween/teen-focused live-action series Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, which debuted on the platform in 2014. “Amazon started this wave with their first few shows,” he says. “They put drama back in people’s heads, and now everyone is interested again in teen drama.”
Goldsmith agrees. “We are all watching TV differently now,” he says. “Drama works for binge-watching. It is a really good medium to satisfy that.”
Dovetailing nicely with these trends is a financial incentive designed to stimulate the production of live-action drama in the UK, where a tax credit introduced in April 2015 has proven to be a major shot in the arm for the genre—assisting indie producers and their well-heeled corporate counterparts alike.
“Disney was spurred on by the recent UK tax credit to invest in the market,” says David Levine, VP of programming, production and strategic development for Disney EMEA. “It really allowed us to move ahead with a full season of The Evermoor Chronicles.”
The tax credit offers producers up to a 25% credit on 80% of their UK production spend, and has quickly become an invaluable piece of the co-production puzzle. (Producers contend it is still too early to tell whether or not the recent Brexit vote will mitigate this new advantage.)
“[The tax credit] was a broad foundation upon which we built our ongoing series production here,” says Levine. Disney is taking advantage of the incentive by riding the success of The Evermoor Chronicles, while also readying The Lodge, a music-infused 10-ep series that bows in the UK and select European markets this fall.
For Zodiak Kids Studio, the tax credit assisted in a co-pro deal with ABC Australia to finance additional seasons of its 25 x five-minute live-action drama The Secret Life of Boys. “With the tax credits shifting, there are now financial models that make sense,” says Steven Andrew, creative director for Zodiak-owned The Foundation. “That really helps.”
A successful live-action series has been known to yield valuable and rare co-viewing opportunities—an attractive feature that is sure to perk up the ears of potential buyers. Over the past few years, much ink has been spilled over the growth of multiple screens and an increasingly fragmented audience—Mom and Dad are watching a series on TV, while their kids consume their own content on a tablet or phone. However, some of the best live-action dramas have the prized ability to cross standard demographic lines.
“We can tell that we have our core audience, as well as some 18- to 34-year-olds watching,” says Backstage producer Irving. “You have adults watching it for nostalgia purposes, as well.”
Goldsmith says when DHX’s distribution arm is shopping around the broadcaster’s original productions like Degrassi: The Next Class, it always emphasizes the series’ co-viewing potential.
“We get a lot of adults watching with their children,” says Goldsmith. “Something like Degrassi hits older and younger than its 14-year-old target, for sure.”
Billy Macqueen, co-founder of UK indie prodco Darrall Macqueen, which produces preschool live-action drama Topsy and Tim for CBeebies, says that while his innovative series is designed for preschoolers, it also ages up towards the core-kid demo.
“It’s the kind of thing where those seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds aren’t shouting about watching the series to their friends at school,” he says. “But they are happy to watch it with their siblings—it is nostalgic for them.”
The stretching of traditional demographic appeal is also recognized by bigger producers such as Disney. Levine says upcoming series The Lodge has ingredients baked in that will appeal to a wider demo than the company’s typical three-camera sitcom. “The older kids are going to appreciate the complexities of the story, while the younger kids will really be able to appreciate the singing and dancing aspects,” Levine says.
Maca Rotter, executive director of consumer products at Mexico City-based Televisa, has been mining the tween serial drama genre for 15 years through telenovelas. She says drama series have the advantage of covering a wider demographic than their comedic counterparts. “We try to balance it,” she says. “We want to make it interesting for adults, as well as having those dramatic storylines that might generally appeal to a girls audience. We also make sure to add the humor to bring the boys in. It’s a wide audience, for sure.”
While it has arguably never been a staple in preschool programming, a closer look at CBeebies’ Topsy and Tim reveals how live-action drama can work for the youngest of audiences. The series is now moving into its third 60 x 11-minute season, which zeroes in on the quotidian dramas that fill a typical preschooler’s life.
“Each episode stands on its own merits, but the series also has a large arc that rewards serial viewing,” says Topsy and Tim co-creator Macqueen.
For example, the first season featured the subtle drama of a rainy day, followed by the main characters moving bedrooms, dog-sitting their grandmother’s pet and eventually moving into a new house. The second season, which bowed in July 2014 and regularly scored multiple places on the BBC’s top 10 most-watched slots, took the two principle characters through another 30-ep arc. It explored storylines about their new neighborhood and culminated in their first day of school.
Benbow credits the series and its creators with proving that drama can work for young audiences. “Drama really does resonate with preschoolers,” she says, adding that CBeebies has also found success with live-action series Katie Morag. Encouraged by the reactions to these productions, CBeebies is currently producing another live-action drama that sits between its core audience and older-skewing CBBC, dubbed Apple Tree House.
Benbow lauds her producers for devising cost-effective production strategies that consider strict UK regulations limiting the use of child talent, as well as budgetary demands, given that live-action dramas are by nature more expensive per minute than traditional animated programming.
One of the techniques that propelled Topsy and Tim to success, and that gives the series its unique perspective, is scenes shot at the height of an average preschooler.
“That is just a great effect,” says Benbow, adding that clever creative touches like these have made the series stand out.
Perhaps more important than any technical aspect is the series’ tone. Both Benbow and Macqueen agree the foundation for the show’s success is in its non-condescending approach to the audience—both in terms of content and production values.
“The under-twos are actually much brighter than we have been giving them credit for,” says Macqueen. “It is obvious they have the ability to understand a narrative.” It is just as apparent, he adds, that they expect the same quality in production details—such as set design—as the prestige dramas their parents are busy binge-watching. “Kids can smell when they are being ripped off,” he says. “If it is not authentic, there is simply not going to be any emotional connection.”
Benbow stresses that prodcos should approach drama for teens, tweens and preschoolers in much the same way they would for an adult audience.”It has to be absolutely done in the same way that any drama would be done,” she says. “The principles are the same—everything is done to the same degree and with the same care.”
Authenticity is perhaps the biggest factor that determines whether or not a drama series will resonate across territories. Zodiak’s Andrew believes the best way to make sure a series will have international appeal is, somewhat paradoxically, to genuinely reflect its culture. For example, he believes the rise of Harry Potter in the ’90s paved the way for North Americans to better accept the British accents and cultural references that appear in his series today. What was previously seen as rough edges that needed smoothing out for international consumption, can now be viewed as being essential for cultivating an authentic experience.
“In the past, we all tried to emulate that Californian feel-good factor,” he says. “Everything was sunshine, pretty people and blue skies, but we don’t live under those conditions.” Andrew says he found success with Secret Life of Boys by embracing its UK origins and accepting that international territories might not specifically recognize all the references in the series, but will still be intrigued by them. “You have to take a look at yourself and see what is unique and special about a specific locale,” he says.
Examples abound of production companies utilizing local settings and their cultural histories for maximum effect, including: CBeebies’ Katie Morag, which is shot in the Scottish Highlands; Cottonwood Media’s Paris Opera (lead picture), currently being lensed on location in the City of Light; and Disney’s The Evermore Chronicles, which taps into the UK’s rich fantasy tradition.
The concept of authenticity can also be extended to the content of the series, the types of characters that are portrayed and its plot.
In Odyssey, marblemedia’s live-action drama currently in production, the storylines and characters will reflect a different reality than the typical multi-camera sitcom, says Hornburg.
“The characters are super-authentic,” he says. “We are showing kids who are wrestling with real problems of today. They are characters with flaws and real relationships, too. The parents are going to behave like real parents, rather than the goofballs they have been portrayed as in sitcoms over the last 15 years.”
With more live-action productions coming down the pipeline, it is interesting to forecast what the genre might look like in the near future. According to Hornburg, there is a misperception that dramatic storytelling is not as well-suited to digital extensions as comedies. However, this old assumption is quickly being debunked, he says. In fact, the future of the form is likely to be shaped by extended interactions that also play well on VOD platforms, where dramatic series currently seem to have the most resonance.
“For a long time, people thought drama didn’t warrant having an extended experience, but I actually think it has the best opportunity for one,” he says. Hornburg points to the company’s success with an app based on its 12 x 22-minute live-action mystery series Open Heart.
“The app was designed to encourage audiences to engage in a parallel experience with the series,” he says. It offered users the chance to interact with the protagonist’s phone through reading text messages and seeing pictures that were sent during the episodes.
“We could see a huge spike in usage between airings,” says Hornburg. “It really showed us the power of character-led dramas—the universe is so deep that the audience really can’t get enough.” As such, marblemedia is currently developing similar digital experiences for its other series, and Hornburg can envision an interactive future for serialized drama across multiple platforms.
The gamification of serialized drama is also on the mind of Zodiak’s Andrew, after a promising start for the 25 x five-minute Secret Life of Boys. The series aired on CBBC and ABC3 in Australia in 2015 and featured opportunities for the audience to interact with each episode to uncover extra punchlines, character insights and hidden narrative secrets.
“We had 92% engagement on it,” Andrew says. “It was astounding. I am not pretending we cracked the code, but we have made some real inroads to connecting the narrative with interactivity.”
Andrew says he would expect this type of interactivity to become the norm for teen and tween live-action drama in the future. “There will be an explosion,” he predicts. “There is going to be a real evolution in entertainment.”
Extending the conversation: The pros and cons of using social media in the service of kids live-action dramas
Producers of live-action drama must weigh the value of social media as a tool to both extend the viewing experience and promote their series.
Producers typically recognize that many series actors have their own social media profiles that can be used to drive engagement. But there are, of course, dangers associated with linking a show to a real-life personality.
“We sit down and have a talk with our stars,” says Backstage producer Brian Irving from FreshTV. “We don’t go out of our way to promote it, but we know they are in a generation where they are going to use social media.”
Producers in different territories need to manage myriad considerations if they decide to integrate social media into their series. “You aren’t even supposed to have a Facebook account until you are 14 in the UK,” says Billy Macqueen, producer of preshool live-action drama Topsy and Tim. “So really, we don’t promote it in that way.”
However, CBeebies controller Kay Benbow says social media has been an invaluable tool for continuing the conversation with parents about Topsy and Tim, and even preparing them for content in certain episodes.
“We used it to let them know that we were doing an episode…where Granny’s dog died,” says Benbow, explaining that the heads-up gave parents ample time to decide how they would best approach the sensitive topic with their kids.
Benbow says that instead of receiving word after the fact that the particular episode had shocked or upset kids and parents, the use of social media served to cushion the blow and extend the conversation between parents and producers. “It was amazing the responses we got,” she says. “It really showed us the power of using that medium to talk to parents.”