While kids media companies grapple with the new normal and working under quarantine, many are discovering interesting, and often unexpected, ways to evolve their businesses.
To serve the immediate needs of kids and families stuck at home, a growing number of broadcasters, production companies and SVODs, including Nickelodeon and Hopster, have been developing made-from-home original live-action and animated series. The quick-turnaround projects require companies to rethink their production processes, and also provide critical jobs to keep businesses and freelancers afloat in the short term.
Lockdowns are also forcing companies like French animation studio TeamTO, New York digital agency Sudden Industries and Canadian producer 9 Story Media Group to focus on, and change different aspects of their businesses that could provide more mid- to long-term benefits.
TeamTO, for example, was about to begin market testing on the upcoming second season of its series Mighty Mike with a group of kids in Leeds, England. The lockdowns forced the company and its partner on the qualitative study—UK-based research firm and digital studio Dubit—to pick an online video option instead (pictured).
“In-person studies are clearly not possible right now, and we didn’t want to wait, so Dubit implemented VisionsLive online software to allow us to be virtually present and involved in the process,” says Patricia de Wilde, director of marketing and new business at TeamTO.
De Wilde says some aspects of the process have been more beneficial than in-person testing, such as the studio’s ability to send private live notes or questions to the research execs while they talk to the kids between episodes. “The online communication enables us to form more precise and immediate answers to our specific needs,” she says. “Plus, if we were working in-person with an interviewer that maybe we didn’t know, they might not remember that I asked particular questions.”
According to de Wilde, testing kids online in their home environment with just a parent or a sibling present also helps reduce any nervousness kid participants might feel towards the interviewer and the producer if they were physically present. “When you attend live testing it can disrupt the relationship with the kids,” she says. “Online testing is interesting because the kids kind of forget they’re being interviewed. They feel at ease because they’re in their natural setting, plus it’s a fun additional screen activity they can do at home right now.”
De Wilde says she would be inclined to use the online process again in the future, but because TeamTO and Dubit are still in the testing phase on Mighty Mike, she would need to draw some more conclusions before fully committing. “In any case, the online testing feels like a transparent and possibly more collaborative way of testing the kids,” she says.
The rising value of edtech
For New York’s Sudden Industries, the pandemic is also forcing the company to shift its business priorities. The agency provides digital solutions across all platforms and devices to help companies, including PBS, Nickelodeon and Simon and Shuster, create products such as educational apps, games and websites. Its edtech projects include PBS Kids’ and WNET’s award-winning interactive app Railway Hero, and an upcoming app for kids with brain tumors called My Health Journey. The game is created in partnership with the Brain Tumor Foundation and five major US children’s hospitals, including NYU Langone and Children’s Hospital of DC. The agency also creates original kids IP and is best known for its app-based property Zane and the Steampunk Riders.
As a result of the pandemic, the agency is focusing more on the consulting side of its business to help clients navigate the crisis, which means it’s putting less attention on its own original IP and a few of its ongoing projects like My Health Journey. According to founder and CEO Bob Holmes, a lot of clients in March and April were focusing on their existing digital projects that were already successful rather than taking the risk of investing in new properties. “For them and us, it meant putting aside some original IP initiatives for now,” says Holmes. The company was in the process of developing music-driven podcasts and a new eBook based on Steampunk Rider, which have been put on the back-burner.
Sudden Industries also had to temporarily halt My Health Journey in the middle pilot testing. It’s expected to be released privately through the hospitals’ individual child organizations once piloting resumes and more funding is raised.
Despite pressing pause on some projects, Holmes says the agency is benefitting from the fact that parents are paying more attention to the need for better digital home schooling alternatives for kids. “Since a lot of the digital media work we do applies to kids’ education, this has been great for our third-party consulting,” says Holmes. “It means that a lot of our existing clients are coming back and asking ‘How can we do things better? This isn’t going away, and our audience is growing during these challenging times, so how do we hold onto them?’”
Holmes also expects that changing consumer attitudes about the value of digital screen time will benefit My Health Journey. “Hospitals are starting to realize what parents have with home schooling: There’s greater value and demand for digital educational services for kids,” says Holmes. “This makes it easier for us to translate that value to the people who could provide additional sponsorship or funding for our app. The downside is the health industry has some huge things to worry about right now.”
Keeping spirits up
Meanwhile, senior executives at Toronto’s 9 Story Media Group, including president and CEO Vince Commisso, have been surprising themselves and their employees by opening up more than usual during company-wide group video calls.
“We’re all going a little stir crazy and dealing with different circumstances, but we’re all in this together as human beings, so the calls provide opportunities for our senior teams, starting with me, to show our lighter sides and have fun,” says Commisso.
Amid the lockdown, the company has been holding virtual global town hall meetings twice a week via Zoom and Microsoft Teams that include more than 700 employees. Along with collecting feedback to help improve employees’ work-from-home environments and streamline the company’s production systems, Commisso says he plays games with staff to guess what t-shirt he will wear on the calls, and what background he will use.
“Like many people, our staff are feeling uncertain about life during COVID and life after COVID, so it’s important that we are accessible, provide information, answer their questions and also have some fun while doing it,” he says. “I look forward to surprising them.”
Looking long term, 9 Story plans on continuing its global town hall meetings once the pandemic subsides. “Having the studios temporarily work from home has actually made us function more globally than we ever have before,” says Commisso.
The company also expects its growing HR team will benefit from the increased communication and insight sharing that has been happening among employees. “What’s interesting about this situation in terms of its timing is that it’s dovetailed with our increased investment in HR,” says Commisso. “We’re getting closer to our people in terms of how they feel about everything, which is a really great outcome.”