Digital platforms usher in a new era for kids factual content

One of YouTube's most successful channels, FunToyzCollector, features a woman opening Disney toys - and it generated US$4.9 million in revenue last year. Kids factual has never had a huge presence in the TV market, but now, the digital revolution has afforded plenty of opportunities for this form of entertainment.
October 16, 2015

Historically, kids factual has never had a huge presence in the overall kids TV market. It’s a genre traditionally driven by public service broadcasters, which tended to tailor shows to fit in-house needs, and then later the likes of cablecasters such as Discovery Kids and Nat Geo Kids took the reins.

But the launch of digital platforms like YouTube, Hulu and Netflix has changed the game—in more ways than one. In fact, they’ve challenged the very notion of what kids non-fiction content is.

Take, for example, the strange and wonderful phenomenon of unboxing videos—literally, videos in which kids and adults open packages on camera. Between 2013 and 2014, the number of unboxing videos on YouTube grew by 57%. A Google search will now deliver more than 20 million channels that offer up seven-plus years of content and draw more than a billion views every year. According to Google Consumer Surveys, one in five consumers has watched an unboxing video.

If you think it’s just a weird fad, consider the fact that one of the most successful channels on YouTube right now is FunToyzCollector with five million subscribers and 7.6 billion hits. It features an unidentified woman opening Disney toys, and it generated an estimated US$4.9 million in revenue last year, according to OpenSlate, a video analytics platform that analyzes ad-supported content on YouTube.

While that viewership might be neither the industry’s cup of tea nor its intended target, it does clearly demonstrate three things. One, kids are insatiably curious. Two, factual entertainment is whatever the hell they say it is. And finally, kids will come out in droves when content aligns with their interests.

“I think YouTube has almost single-handedly reinvented factual kids content,” observes Dylan Collins, CEO of London-based marketing platform SuperAwesome. “The number of video views driven by how-to guides, science walk-throughs, etc. is phenomenal. One of the key changes is the emphasis on quality of information being given versus quality of production.”

Kids are brought up on social media now. Most of what they experience on screens is “real”—well, at least it’s real people in real-world situations. They’re less concerned with what it looks like than what content it offers. (Visit social video platform Vine if you want plenty of evidence.)

“The biggest searches from kids are ‘how to do’ something, or ‘what is’ something,” observes Zodiak Kids Studios CEO Michael Carrington. “Kids are not necessarily just going to watch piano-playing cats anymore. They’re seeking out everything from watching snakes attacking crocodiles, to baby condors being born, to time-lapse footage of buildings being created or ships being built.”

On-demand accessibility has inarguably changed things for the kids non-fiction genre.

Malik Ducard, global head of family and learning at YouTube, has three sons and admits to occasionally binge-watching digital video edutainment on a Friday night. In fact, he says, “I’ve caught my sons after bedtime with my laptop watching some of these edu-tubers late at night. It’s kind of one of those things where I can’t be completely mad at them because they’re watching stuff that’s really broadening their minds and their horizons.”

Digital platforms have changed the value of screen time and put an emphasis on easy and fun education. “I saw it with my 13-year-old when he had to solve for the perimeter of a circle,” observes Ducard. “When I was growing up and I had to figure that out, my mom told me to go look it up. In this age, ‘Go look it up’ means turning to YouTube, and that’s the first thing he did.” His son landed very quickly on a video that walked him through it. “He naturally thought I remembered it,” he laughs. “He’s still none the wiser that I didn’t.”

Ducard points to factual YouTube creators like the VlogBrothers (Hank and John Green), who create amazing content around history, social issues and science. (John also wrote the hit YA novel The Fault in Our Stars.) Then there’s Michael Stevens with Vsauce, who answers questions like “How much does a shadow weigh?” and explains difficult scientific concepts in entertaining ways. Or SmarterEveryDay, MinuteEarth, MinutePhysics, thebrainscoop—there are literally thousands of YouTube channels explaining the world to kids in fun and educational ways.

“In the YouTube space, there is a fine line between creator and viewer, where viewers often see themselves as participants or even creators”

- Malik Ducard, YouTube

It’s changed the kids factual dynamic. They aren’t sitting back—they’re leaning forward into their learning. “In the YouTube space, there is a fine line between creator and viewer, where viewers often see themselves as participants or even creators,” notes Ducard. “It can be a sort of light participation, by liking a video or commenting on a video, or a more advanced one, like creating a response video or creating a fan video based on something they love. We see a whole range of activity, and sometimes that scales by age, but oftentimes it is really driven by the tastes and interests of the viewer and that individual.”

Of course, this revolution hasn’t gone unnoticed in the broadcast world. Ashley Rite, director of development and international sales at Tricon Films—a company that produces and distributes shows like The Next Star and Supergroup—says she’s seeing an almost insatiable need for programming “that feels like it’s happening that very moment.”

Scripted animation takes a long time to come to market, but magazine formats and factual offer a faster turnaround. That’s not to say those big animated series are ever going out of style, but the mix is changing, and new opportunities are coming up fast. “We’re seeing broadcasters being more responsive to user-generated platforms that have been successful—the Maker Studios of the world and AwesomenessTV,” she says.

It’s giving everyone permission to take more risks, and giving them the freedom to look for non-traditional approaches to programming. “When everybody looks to the user-generated content on YouTube, and to web series like High School Video Game,” observes Rite, “I think it pushes traditional producers to look outside of what’s normal on any channel or platform.”

That openness even extends to where things are sourced. “I’m definitely finding that location is much less of an issue,” she says. “When we used to do format sales, even as little as five years ago, it was strictly a format sale. Now it’s a larger conversation about us producing or tweaking the existing series to work for a broadcaster internationally. [Kids] don’t care if it feels too Canadian, or too German, or British, because they watch everything.”

But while digital is driving the evolution of the genre, it’s certainly not—at this point in time, anyway—driving revenue. Broadcast remains the backbone of the funding model.

“One of the challenges for monetization within the digital kids space is that the infrastructure for advertising is very under-developed,” notes SuperAwesome’s Collins. “Once this is addressed, the size of the market will be five times what it is now. Mobile transactional revenue suffers from the same issues—it monetizes at about 1% of the general games category. The reality is that digital content for kids will always require multiple revenue streams. There are no silver bullets.”

Models are still evolving, though. Genevieve Dexter, founder and CEO of Serious Lunch, who worked with Toff Media on Horrible Science and Maverick on operation ouch, says she didn’t even approach digital platforms when it came to funding Horrible Science. She had funding from an outside body, but part of her reluctance came from the fact that platforms like Netflix still prefer to do top-up financing and want a broadcaster on-board. Plus, a worldwide deal with a digital platform can make other distribution deals less attractive.

“Netflix says: ‘We’ll put in 15%,’” she says, “and then the distributor says, ‘I’ll put in 15%—but not if you do the deal with Netflix,’ because they want to do that deal themselves. I’ve seen lots of distributors buying worldwide rights and then essentially just selling them lock, stock and barrel to Netflix. That’s easy money.” But even that is changing, she notes. Digital platforms have built expansive libraries and can afford choosier nowadays.

While the digital markets sort themselves out on the advertising and revenue fronts, evolutions in technology and storytelling are helping to address some of the financial imbalances.

“Traditionally, factual is not something you can commercialize extremely well, and the margins on making it have always been quite small,” contends Zodiak’s Carrington. “So, it’s not been a priority in any independent production company’s business plan—to live off a small production fee on the back of a huge expense. Having said that, production costs have fortunately come down over the last decade or so, with new technologies and new cameras and new ways of shooting.”

Carrington says it echoes the days when cable and satellite first came along. They broke new ground—mostly because they didn’t have much money to get channels up and running. “They had to find new formats and new technology to help them bring stories to life,” he says. “And I think that is where we are again now. Creative things happen and stories are broken down in different ways.”

He notes that the world seems to be moving at an ever-faster clip right now. “I’m sure it’s always felt like that,” notes Carrington. “But we’re constantly asking ourselves how new platforms and new technologies are changing storytelling, and we keep coming back to the conclusion that storytelling hasn’t really changed. It’s how you execute it and use technology to give it some kind of new visual sense—make it dynamic and interesting. And, of course, how can you use the platform itself to interact and engage with the audience?”

When it comes to engagement, Novel Entertainment co-founder Mike Watts contends that the factual shows performing the best in the UK—CINEMANIACS, Operation Ouch, Horrible Histories, Mister Maker—all have a lot in common.

“They impart information, and inspire kids as well as entertain them. They are all fast-paced and entertaining, which seems to be the best way to engage kids and draw them in.”

Carrington says he still sees kids factual falling into two general frames—preschool, with excellent examples like Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies and Andy’s World; and older, personality-driven shows such as Deadly 60, Horrible Histories and the legendary Bill Nye the Science Guy.

“These things have to provide invisible learning,” adds Serious Lunch’s Dexter. “They can’t be didactic or specific. You can’t have a halt in the comedy to explain this particular scientific point unless it’s gruesomely interesting in itself. A lot of times, it comes down to the scripting and the on-screen talent and their ability to pull it off, because it can fall flat as a pancake.”

But what’s the biggest lesson that digital has taught the genre?

“Go for it,” suggests independent children’s media consultant Justine Bannister. “It’s extraordinary what kids are watching and how they find stuff. Everything has changed very radically in the last two years. Whatever people will watch is content now—whatever is entertaining or compelling. It’s an extraordinary period right now.”


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