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How HBO Max is separating itself from competitors

Armed with two original competition series, and with former Nickelodeon and TBS execs by her side, Jennifer O'Connell is on the hunt for IPs with a different kind of fear factor.
October 10, 2019

If Jennifer O’Connell was filling out an online dating profile for HBO Max’s kids content, it would say something along the lines of: SVOD seeking creepy IPs, multi-cam scripted comedy, and low-budget, live-action original movies. Turn-offs: anything too soft.

The head of non-fiction and kids, whose remit includes children’s animation (Suzanna Makkos handles adult animation) for WarnerMedia’s upcoming streamer, has a big job ahead of her. In the lead-up to HBO Max’s spring 2020 launch, she needs to build up a kids slate from scratch, and fast.

Her plan is to do it all, including animation for preschool up to young teens; live-action comedies, both multi- and single-cam; and dramas.

But while she wants a bit of everything for the SVOD, there are specific pitches the kids team is looking for right now. O’Connell doesn’t want anything to be too sweet or soft (outside of preschool) because she subscribes to the idea that kids are tougher and smarter than adults give them credit for.

“I think we have to allow kids to be in charge [of our shows] and [know] it’s OK if our audience has to reach a little bit to understand things,” says O’Connell.

This ethos—that kids can handle it—will help separate HBO Max from Disney+ and Netflix, its two biggest competitors in the space, she says.

O’Connell is looking for series akin to The Haunting Hour or Goosebumps, something with a bit of a scare factor. She’s also looking for a multi-cam show, similar to Victorious, about kids in a self-contained world (like a boarding school). She’s lacking lower-budget TV movies—a category dear to her heart as she used to work in the movies division at Disney Channel in the ’90s and saw firsthand how well that style of content can work. And, of course, she wants to increase the library of third-party IPs in the catalogue.

To help her fill these big programming gaps, HBO Max has hired Billy Wee (former VP of original programming at TBS) as SVP of original programming for animation, and Nikki Reed (former VP of scripted programming at Nickelodeon) as VP of original programming for kids, with a focus on scripted live-action shows.

At launch, the SVOD will have original content for each age bracket, but animation will be slower to follow and won’t likely roll out until 2021 and 2022.

To kick things off, O’Connell is focusing on the non-fiction side of her role with new series Karma and Craftopia.

Produced by J.D. Roth and his prodco Good Story (Endurance, The Biggest Loser), Karma is for six-to-11s and will have eight x 60-minute episodes in its first season. Hosted by fitness YouTuber Michelle Khare (1.5 million subscribers), it leans into the popularity of reality competition series with its set-up of 12- to 15-year-olds working in teams of two on a series of challenges and obstacles—leading to potential outcomes that could come back to bite them.

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YouTuber Michelle Khare will lead 12- to 15-year-olds through a series of challenges.

For Craftopia, meanwhile, O’Connell convinced popular YouTuber Lauren Riihimaki (a.k.a. LaurDIY, nine million subscribers) to host eight x 30-minute episodes and four holiday-themed specials. The closed-ended episodes will pit three kids against each other in a crafting competition on a Willy Wonka-inspired set.

“There’s a huge kid audience [for reality competition shows], whether adults are driving them or not. I wanted to give kids a chance, instead of watching adults compete,” says O’Connell. “I feel like these kids should have a shot at showing us what they’ve got.”

Both shows will be finished by the time the SVOD launches, though no premiere dates have been set as the HBO Max team is still finalizing its program scheduling.

Warner Bros. Animation is also working on a cartoon Gremlins series based on the original movie, produced alongside Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.

O’Connell confirms the entire WarnerMedia catalogue is at her disposal. Not only are there thousands of hours of kids content across various brands, but the library also gives her hundreds of existing IPs to build anew—she just needs to decide what to resurface. She is also in active talks with the Cartoon Network team about what previously produced content is best to pick up or adapt.

But even with all of these big plans—and WarnerMedia saying the platform will be filled with 10,000 hours of premium content—O’Connell doesn’t intend to stack the shelves with too much. Instead, she envisions a more of a curated experience. “I think our advantage will be that we have a lot to offer, but not so much that you get lost,” she says.

About The Author
Alexandra Whyte is Kidscreen's News & Social Media Editor. Contact her at awhyte@brunico.com

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