Nonfiction kidvids skew younger, go wide and up the entertainment ante

The phrase 'home videos for kids' automatically brings to mind images of Barney, Disney classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or animated theatrical releases like The Land Before Time....
October 1, 1998

The phrase ‘home videos for kids’ automatically brings to mind images of Barney, Disney classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or animated theatrical releases like The Land Before Time.

What doesn’t spring to mind is Mummies Unwrapped, Zoo Life or the Eyewitness series-titles of some of the more popular reality-based edutainment videos that are competing for kids’ attention. Although they are often not front and center at retail, nonfiction kidvids have slowly been establishing themselves in the marketplace.

Traditionally, reality-based videos have targeted children over the age of seven, but the trend in recent years has been to go younger, and there is more out there now than just nature documentaries. Nonfiction titles cover everything from sports to history to profiles, and are produced in ways that appeal to kids as young as four.

‘Parents are realizing that there is more out there for kids to watch than just fiction,’ says Madeleine Boyer, VP of brand development at Time-Life Kids. The Alexandria, Virginia-based company markets a variety of kid videos, including the highly successful Zoo Life series hosted by Jack Hanna. ‘They want their kids to learn something while having fun,’ she says.

Specialty channels and programming blocks like Discovery Kids and A&E Biography for Kids may have had some influence on the growing interest in reality-based edutainment. They’ve taken what was once considered in-the-classroom-style documentaries and brought them to the mainstream.

Producers and distributors of this genre have also become more savvy to what works with audiences.

Marrying fiction with nonfiction, for example, is an instant way to gain kids’ interest. For example, each video of the Ancient Civilizations for Children series by Wynnewood, Pennsylvania-based Schlessinger Media is hosted by fictional archaeologist Arizona Smith and his young detective in training. Viewers learn about the ancient world as they help the pair unlock ancient mysteries.

Henry the Lizard is the animated tour guide for the Amazing Animals series from DK Vision in the U.K. Using a cartoon host has done wonders for the series, says Simon Jollands, creative director at DK Vision, which is a division of DK Publishing.

‘It not only makes it entertaining, but helps to brand the product,’ he says. ‘That builds familiarity and credibility with parents and kids.’

Such was the case in 1991 when DK Vision began selling videos based on its Eyewitness series of books for young people. The award-winning texts, known for their colorful design and layout, are translated into 34 languages and have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.

‘Having the Eyewitness name and reputation to fall back on really helped to set us apart in the marketplace,’ says Jollands.

PolyGram has been relying on consumers’ familiarity with the NFL and Major League Baseball to sell its new sports releases to young people. New videos, such as Unforgettable Finishes and Greatest World Series Moments, are designed to appeal to both parent and child, says Sal Scamardo, senior director of special programming at PolyGram.

‘These are titles that will be interesting for fathers and sons because they are entertaining and allow for a general viewing audience,’ he says. While boys may buy these videos, sports tapes for girls remain an untapped market.

Since most nonfiction titles focus on generic topics-animals, nature, weather-they are impossible to trademark, making branding a challenge. These videos are often stand-alone products that do not have the licensing support that Disney or Universal Studios Home Video has with its tapes.

‘You’ll find in this category that if something works, there will almost always be knockoffs,’ says Time-Life’s Boyer. ‘So it’s important to be creative in how you present your titles because if it does well, the market will soon be flooded.’

Time-Life Kids is also promoting a three-video series entitled Bugs. With the fall release of two feature films, Antz from DreamWorks and A Bug’s Life from Disney and Pixar, the company is hoping to cash on in the trend.

‘Having a series of tapes, instead of just one, also makes it easier in the marketplace,’ says Steve Ades, president of Fast Forward Marketing, an international video distributor based in Marina Del Rey, California. The company has recently begun producing toddler videos, including one it developed with Duke University entitled It’s Potty Time. Selling to specialty retailers has been the key to its distribution of children’s titles, says Ades. ‘While these subjects have mass appeal, they don’t always do well with mass merchandisers. We are selling three titles in Gymboree kids clothing stores under the brand `Gymboree presents,’ and that has been working very well for us.’

Direct marketing has also proven to be a successful marketing tool in the nonfiction category. National Geographic Video, for example, utilizes its membership list to promote its kids titles.

‘We let them know about the kids videos through our catalogue or direct mail,’ says Denise Burckson, director of home video for National Geographic, whose titles are distributed by Warner Home Video. This fall, the organization is releasing several kids titles, including Animal Holiday, and two new videos that are part of its Really Wild Animals series.

‘It’s very important to make the most of your distribution channels because retail is a very competitive environment,’ she says.

In addition to retail placement, packaging is critical to the success of nonfiction titles. National Geographic kid videos, for example, have the organization’s branded yellow border around the package. Covers have to be original enough to be eye-catching, but informative enough for parents to consider the products credible, says Time-Life’s Boyer. ‘It’s important that you hook the consumer immediately because there is no outside demand created for the product the way licensed items do for other releases,’ she says.

Not having the licensing does have one benefit at retail. Nonfiction titles are often cheaper (under US$11) than the well-publicized theatrical releases, which sell for around US$15.

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