Kids TV and the power of serialized storytelling

Why making binge-worthy shows with intricate story arcs and complex characters is not just for grown-up TV anymore.
April 4, 2017

The shift from a traditional linear broadcast model to the prominence of streaming platforms has had far-reaching implications for content production. The emergence of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube has shifted the business and creative models for kids entertainment, in particular. A decade ago, broadcasters with 24/7 linear platforms needed formatted content that could be slotted to fit multiple spots on the schedule. Accordingly, strippable, stand-alone 22-minute animated and episodic live-action fare filled the airwaves. Those days are gone.

Now, as producers navigate an environment increasingly dominated by streaming platforms, new creative opportunities to tell deeper, longer, more engaging and immersive stories abound. And the easy marriage between bingeable content and on-demand platforms is the single biggest reason for the increase in production of serialized content for kids.

“The key thing is the dominance of Netflix and Amazon and other streaming sites and the desire to have kids watch and watch and watch,” says Rebecca Hodgson, head of drama for Manchester, England-based Lime Pictures. David Michel, president and co-founder of Paris-based producer Federation Kids & Famiy, which produces live-action tween serial Find Me In Paris, agrees. “Telling stories that fit the medium is not a fad,” he says. “It simply works better.”

Serialization is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Each production is the result of crucial creative decisions that must take into account different platforms, diverse viewing habits and a fragmented audience. As with any evolving creative process, hard-and-fast definitions are rare.

“You could say there is ‘light serialization’ and ‘heavy serialization,’” posits Brian Hamilton, partner and executive producer at Vancouver, Canada-based Omni Film Productions. Hamilton is an executive producer on serialized animated series Mech-X4, currently in production on its second season for Disney XD. “I am not sure there are satisfying definitions for either one.”

Disney XD's Mech-X4, mixes levels of serialization to achieve the right balance for linear TV

Disney XD’s Mech-X4, mixes levels of serialization to achieve the right balance for linear TV

Broadly, light serialization is characterized by certain aspects of one episode being linked to the next one—creating elements of a story that fit into a broader arc, but where the series doesn’t necessarily have to be watched in order to be understood. Heavy serialization, on the other hand, uses more distinct cliffhangers—like the Perils of Paulina “tied to the railroad track” type of story that echoes the earliest days of filmed entertainment. Generally, the closer a series is developed for a dedicated streaming service—for example, DreamWorks Animation’s deal to produce exclusive content for Netflix (more on that later)—the heavier the serialization. However, the more producers need to rely on a linear broadcast model for financing, the lighter the serialization.

Serialization Part One: Working Together

I: The Marvel approach

Marvel adopted serialization halfway through the run of Ultimate Spider-Man and saw the series' linear ratings jump on Disney XD

Marvel adopted serialization halfway through the run of Ultimate Spider-Man and saw the series’ linear ratings jump on Disney XD

Marvel employed a hybrid approach to serialization for its Ultimate Spider-Man series that debuted on Disney XD in April 2012. In fact, producers adopted serialization halfway through the series’ run with the assistance and guidance of the network.

“The first two seasons of Ultimate Spider-Man were all standalone episodes,” says Cort Lane, SVP of animation and family entertainment at Marvel, explaining how the company fine-tuned its approach to the series on the fly. “We wanted to try something new, and we worked with the network to understand what we could do in terms of stunting and running marathons.”

He says the network loved the idea of adding serialization to the mix. “We saw a remarkable rise in ratings when we started to do it,” notes Lane. “After 52 episodes of a series, to see a jump like that was really significant.”

Lane says the shift was seamless. After all, serialization is in the company’s storytelling DNA—comic books are highly serialized themselves, with arcs running through a number of issues and uber-arcs through the entire lifespan of a character.

Marvel took a careful approach to the transition from episodic to serial—aided by its tight relationship with primary broadcaster Disney XD (both belong to the same parent company)—by chunking episodes into mini-arcs, bigger arcs and uber-arcs.

“We don’t think that kids necessarily want to follow a storyline for a 26-episode run or across 10 or 11 months,” says Lane. He notes that the duration of an arc in real time needs to be considered for linear broadcast, but it is not a concern on streaming platforms.

According to Marvel’s internal research, six- to eleven-year-olds “get excited for four eps in a row,” or roughly a two-hour time commitment.

“It’s really done in varying chunks,” Lane says, adding that Marvel is approaching the next season of its Avengers Assemble series with a similar strategy. “The first couple of episodes, we have a lot of Avengers, and then some of them are taken out of circulation and a new team emerges. That leads us into a ‘secret world’ storyline.”

Lane says with the large cast of characters in Avengers Assemble, the mini-arc format allows the team to create a sharper focus on a smaller group of characters within a story. “That way the audience can really connect and relate to the specific characters and it’s not overwhelming,” he says. “Throughout the 26 total episodes, there are some two-partners, but typically the arcs within the season are four to seven episodes long.”

Additionally, the overall uber-arc of a series has to be considered. “For Spider-Man there is really a series arc, where we are watching a character grow from being a rookie who didn’t know what he was doing to becoming one of the great superheroes in the Marvel Universe—that is the overall series arc that the mini-arcs are servicing.”

From a broadcast standpoint, Lane says that the content team worked with the network to create stunts and programming events around serialized episodes—giving XD powerful promotional opportunities around arcs like Spider-Man’s crossover with the Avengers and the two-part series finale “Graduation Day,” which featured the web-slinging hero taking on archenemy Doctor Octopus to save New York City.

A new Spider-Man series, Marvel’s Spider-Man is slated to bow on Disney XD later this year. It will start the entire arc from the beginning with a retelling of the origin story and use the same varied approach to serialization.

Coordination and collaboration between Marvel and Disney XD is essential, notes Lane. It is especially crucial when considering that each series also takes place within an even larger Marvel universe that includes big-budget movies, live-action series on other networks, publishing programs and more. With many irons in the creative fire, Marvel relies on monthly story summits in which four or five episodes of each series are planned out and carefully vetted, ironing out story anomalies and inconsistencies before a rabid fanbase can point them out. “We always have strong lead story editors supervising the producers, and they work to keep an eye on all of that,” Lane says.

II: Lucasfilm
Lucasfilm, the creator of Disney’s other major cinematic universe, applies a similar formula to storytelling in Star Wars Rebels—which also airs on Disney XD and was recently greenlit for a fourth season.

With the series, Lucasfilm is always striving to find the perfect shade of serialization—striking the right balance between driving the narrative forward while also creating many entry points into the grand mythology.

“At the start of a season, we look towards where we want to be at the end of the season, but we aren’t only driven by that,” says Carrie Beck, VP of animation development at Lucasfilm and co-creator of Star Wars Rebels. “We know there is a journey from beginning to end, but we also have to make each episode has its own beginning, middle and end. Whatever movement we have in each episode will get resolved, but it also moves the characters further along the arc.”

The company’s work, like Marvel’s, is further complicated by the fact that it inhabits a bigger universe that is being simultaneously mined and pushed further in other mediums such as feature films, publishing, short-form content and more. The depth of the universe and the strict adherence to its mythology and timeline could be considered a creative barrier, but Beck prefers to see it as the solid backbone of the IP.

“It’s our biggest strength and opportunity,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of storyworlds as rich and vibrant and beloved as Star Wars. We have an incredible group of people who are passionate about it. Although it takes a lot of work, there is a pleasure in making all the pieces fit together.”

III: DreamWorks & Netflix
It follows that series co-produced or commissioned specifically for Netflix lean towards the heavier side of the serialization spectrum. DreamWorks Animation’s current slate, bolstered by a robust production deal with Netflix, offers a good window into how content is being tailored specifically for the streaming platform.

Last December, Netflix released 26 episodes of Trollhunters, an animated 22-minute adventure-comedy series developed by renowned director/auteur Guillermo del Toro, which made for the company’s largest single release of episodes for a new series.

“It would be hard to imagine that series existing anywhere else,” says Andy Yeatman, director of global kids content at Netflix. “Guillermo had a rich, compelling story to tell, and it would have been hard to fit it into a 90-minute movie.”

The heavily serialized 26-episode release was quickly deemed a success and at press time was Netflix’s most-watched original series for kids.” We have heard tons of anecdotal evidence that kids and their parents have made it through the entire first season at a pretty impressive rate,” says Peter Gal, head of television development at DWA. Yeatman adds that more than a third of viewers who started the series have just a few months later, completed it—presumably watching the eps in order. Plans for season two are already in the works.

That production, one of many to spring from DWA and Netflix’s historic multi-year, multi-series production deal forged in 2013, has reaped the benefits of marrying the binge-happy viewing habits of the platform’s users to its content.

“When we start any new shows, we are always thinking about how kids are consuming the content in this new landscape,” Gal says. “We want to think about the best way to keep that audience engaged. Adding those serialized threads that make it imperative to keep watching is really important.”

Serialization Part 2: Flexibility Matters

Serving linear and SVOD markets, The Deep accommodates full serialization with the inclusion of stand-alone eps

Serving linear and SVOD markets, The Deep accommodates full serialization with the inclusion of stand-alone eps

I: The Deep
Marvel, Lucasfilm and DWA are all big studios, so the question remains: Do smaller producers—those who have to sell to different broadcasters, on multiple platforms—have to take a different approach to serialization? Steven Wendland, VP at Technicolor, says with distribution on both streaming and traditional broadcast to consider, the creative team of co-pro The Deep (DXH Media, A Stark Production) had to arrange the plot to fit different platforms.

“Even if you are lucky enough to be fully funded by a streaming service, you are still going to need be aware of the traditional broadcast models,” he says. “Serialization isn’t fully platform-agnostic. You have to be aware that traditional broadcasters are still going to air a series in different orders, and kids will watch them in a different order.”

He says the key is striking the right balance on the level of serialization. “There is a serial arc, but with the individual episodes it still feels like it can function as a stand-alones,” says Wendland. “It is a puzzle you can put together in nearly any order and it still offers a satisfying resolution.”

For example, the overall plot of the series explores the reason behind a change in the world where sea levels are rising and revealing the existence of unusually large or forgotten sea creatures in all corners of the globe.

“We are able to design one-off creature episodes that work really well as stand-alones,” Wendland says. “But those eps still feed into the bigger overall arc.”

While The Deep has found a home for its first 26 episode season on Netflix in the US, it also has traditional broadcast distribution in more than 125 countries globally. Considering the different distribution platforms and the diverse viewing habits attached to each is difficult. “It is a fine line,” says Wendland, describing how to serve two masters—traditional broadcast schedules and Netflix. “On one hand, you have an audience that really craves a long, deep storyline, and on the other, you have to still make it work within the marketplace of traditional broadcasters.”

II: Free Rein
Lime Pictures’ Hodgson is currently producing Free Rein, a new teen-centric live-action series for Netflix and CBBC. The series walks the same line between creating satisfying stand-alone episodes and relying on heavy serialization. “What we are trying to do is make an episode that is about something specific and that links to the one before and the one after,” she says. “You have to be constantly aware of where you are heading. You need a tight group of creatives working together to pull it off.”

III: Molly and the Cryptos
Terry Kalagian, VP of creative for France-based Gaumont Animation, is currently mulling over the same decisions for the company’s animated series Molly and the Cryptos, currently in development. The animated comedy-adventure series follows 10-year-old Molly as she searches the world for mythological creatures. Kalagian says the story has been developed in such a way that the level of serialization will depend largely on what platform it eventually calls home. “We can make it more serialized or less, depending on who our partner is,” she says. “The series has a beginning and an end, but there are different ways of getting there.”

IV: SpacePOP
Stone Newman, president of global consumer products, worldwide content sales and marketing for Genius Brands International, has used a similar flexible approach to serialization with the company’s SpacePOP tween girls property. Its web series debuted on YouTube last June, and accordingly, Genius devised a formula that fits the platform’s penchant for bite-sized content.

“We followed a telenovela style, but with each episode being three minutes long,” says Newman. “Then we have self-contained story arcs that are six episodes in length.”

While the launch of the IP has been successful on YouTube, amassing 14 million views and around 45,000 dedicated subscribers, Newman says Genius is looking for other platform deals for season two.

“We want to get out there in the broadest possible way,” he says. “The way it has been produced, we can put six episodes together and have an 11-minute episode that would fit traditional platforms. A lot of what the series will look like in the future will depend on who our lead broadcaster is.”

Serialization Part 3

I: Comedy and repeatability
One of the drawbacks of serialized content is its lack of repeatability. When 24-hour kidsnets and traditional broadcast models ruled the roost, repeatability was baked into every series. The same 22 minutes could be watched multiple times, with each viewing offering familiar and comforting beats every time. Iconic animated series such as SpongeBob SquarePants and The Simpsons set the standard for content that could be watched dozens and dozens (and dozens) of times in any order. It stands to reason that serialized content does not possess the same qualities. However, it is not a black-and-white issue. There are, in fact, ways to seed serialized content with repeatability—and in a lot of cases, it’s connected to laughs.

“Comedy certainly brings a level of repeatability,” says Paul DeBenedittis, SVP of programming strategy for Disney Channels Worldwide.

DreamWork’s Gal says he considered the same thing when looking at the company’s slate for Netflix, noting that comedy is still a valuable technique that welds together an audience and characters—forging bonds that will drive IPs through any iteration.

“Comedy is very important,” he says. “You need a tone that balances epic, amazing action with comedic elements.”

Light humor is also interwoven successfully into The Deep, says Wendland. “Comedy offers quick stickiness,” he says. “You laugh and you are engaged. We use it in our show and it works really well. It creates that reaction and engagement in the audience that I think is important for keeping the audience immersed.”

Repeatability can also emerge as a result from deep universes and nuanced, careful storytelling. “A series like Star Wars Rebels provides a level of depth of mythology that intrigues kids and brings them into it,” says DeBenedittis. “You may actually have viewers watch episodes again and again, more because they want to make sure they know all the bells and whistles in each one.”

II: The End?
Another possible drawback of serialized shows that producers of long-arc content must face is how exactly to end it. Producers who develop a series with season and series arcs have to reckon with the increased complexities of wrapping it all up. The task can become more difficult when the arcs fall within bigger universes such as Star Wars. A great deal of its mythology is anchored to specific events (i.e the rise of Darth Vader, the destruction of the Death Star), but the edges of the story are still unfolding across major movie releases.

So, how does a series like Star Wars Rebels come to a natural conclusion, and when? “I don’t know how to answer that question yet,” says Lucasfilm’s Beck. “But we will be able to answer it…someday.”

Planning that far ahead without knowing how an audience will respond to a series is not easy, agrees Wendland. “We had to think about where we ultimately want to take the story,” he says. “What is the scope of the show and how do we accomplish that?”

He stresses that it comes down to balancing options and taking into account what an audience expects.

“It’s a tricky thing,” he says. “You don’t want to string the audience along and make them think that you are promising something you can’t deliver. We are very conscious of that.”

There are more solutions for this dilemma when it comes to animated versus live-action series. While the demand for serialized preschool live-action CBeebies mega-hit Topsy and Tim was evident to everyone, time has taken care of any question of continuing the series.

“We started filming four years ago, so now the boys are almost teenagers—it came to a natural end.” says Billy Macqueen, co-founder of UK-based production house Darrall Macqueen, maker of the series. “That is one drawback of live-action preschool serialization—the actors grow up!”

 

BABY STEPS

Netflix and Henson are prepping to debut the SVOD's first serialized preschool series Julie's Greenroom.

Netflix and Henson are prepping to debut the SVOD’s first serialized preschool series Julie’s Greenroom.


Serialization moves into preschool programming

The next frontier for serialization is preschool. It is a testament to the now ubiquitous nature of the storytelling tactic that a category traditionally thought of as ill-suited for serialized storytelling is quickly adopting it.

Topsy and Tim, produced by Darrall Macqueen, is a forerunner of the trend. The series was initially commissioned for 60 episodes by CBeebies and featured preschoolers’ perspectives on everyday life told through a combination of short and long story arcs. For example, the entire first season showed the main characters attending a new school. There were also mini-arcs embedded in each of the seasons, such as a four-episode arc where Tim visited the dentist.

The runaway success of the series, which has attracted more than 100 million views on BBC’s iPlayer since its introduction, has opened the industry’s eyes to the possibilities of preschool serialization.

Darrall Macqueen currently has an animated series in the works with DHX for Netflix that features serialized adventures for four- to five-year-olds, and another live-action family comedy/drama series in development with CBeebies.

Netflix is also readying the release later this year of its first serialized preschool series, Julie’s Greenroom, produced by The Jim Henson Company and starring iconic entertainer Julie Andrews.

“We encouraged the producers to build in serialized elements throughout the series,” says Andy Yeatman, director of global kids content at the SVOD giant. “It hasn’t been done very often with preschool, but it is something we are encouraging.”

Darrall Macqueen co-founder Billy Macqueen says that he is buoyed by his company’s success with Topsy and Tim, as well as ABC Australia’s kids mockumentary series Little Lunch. He believes the industry as a whole now understands that preschoolers can follow detailed storylines with emotional resonance in a serialized fashion.

“You can still tell complex stories with a lot of emotions,” says Macqueen. “But you have to do it with specific timing.” He contends that one of the keys to Topsy and Tim’s success was its deliberate and age-appropriate pacing.

“You aren’t making a souped-up Jessica Jones or a Stranger Things—the narrative pace there is very fast,” he says. “You have to slow it down. It’s the same kind of pace you find in brilliant series like Doc McStuffins. Preschoolers will stay engaged, if you can find the right pacing.” 

 

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at garyrusak@gmail.com

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