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Finding the long-term gains in short-order TV

While some may mourn the slow decline of the standard 52 x 11-minute season, companies like Atomic, DreamWorks and LoCo Motion are finding the upside to shorter orders.
November 1, 2021

Classic linear TV has been dominated by 52 x 11-minute and 26 x half-hour formats for many years. But the way kids watch content—along with the devices they use—has changed dramatically. That evolution has only intensified in recent months, and now bingeing an entire season on Netflix in one day is considered as normal as only watching two-minute clips on YouTube. Not to be left behind, prodcos are breaking the mold with new formats. Short-order seasons around 10 episodes long are emerging as the new normal, while anthologies are growing in popularity with streaming platforms. Kidscreen chatted with experts from across the industry to examine the strategies behind these new models and how they may shape the kids content landscape for years to come.

This summer, DreamWorks Animation released the second season of Gabby’s Dollhouse on Netflix, and it was just 10 episodes long. It’s the 27th kids series DreamWorks has made for the streamer, and it’s a departure from the partnership’s roots. When DreamWorks’ first original kids series Turbo Fast premiered on the SVOD in 2013, the order was for 26 episodes—a volume that has been the traditional standard in kids TV, thanks to linear scheduling.

The 52 x 11-minute format (or 26 x half hours, depending on how you slice it) has offered a lot of comfort over the years. It’s an assurance for toy companies and retailers of entertainment longevity. It’s a job guarantee for behind-the-scenes and on-camera talent. And it (often) results in a consistent and steady stream of cash flowing back to the producers.

But that’s not how kids are watching TV anymore.

“We’ve been a part of all this experimentation, and the learning that has gone on over the last number of years when kids exploded onto the SVOD scene,” says Teri Weiss, head of preschool at DreamWorks Animation. “SVODs are always learning and are very data-driven, so there’s a lot of information that they’re garnering in terms of kids’ ever-changing viewing habits.”

To keep up with these rapid shifts in audience behavior, broadcasters and SVODs have scaled back on how much content they’re ordering—and releasing—at a time. Rather than parsing out 52 episodes over the course of months, streamers are more likely to drop a batch of 10 episodes all at once, and then bring the series back for a 10-episode “second” season six to eight months later. Since Turbo Fast was released, DreamWorks Animated Television’s shows have rarely exceeded 13 episodes per season; and in the last year, all of its new seasons have ranged from six to 15 episodes.

In 2016, SVODs in the US and UK ordered an average of 18 episodes of a kids show per season, according to Ampere Analysis. That number dropped to 13.9 episodes in 2020. And for original commissions, the median is even lower at just 7.5 episodes per season in 2020. So how can a company entrenched in a 52 x 11-minute approach adapt?

Several content producers have switched up their business models to accommodate this changing format demand. They’ve found that it is possible to sustain a business based on shorter seasons by creating additional content released elsewhere to maintain viewership, trying more experimental shows that never would have been greenlit before, and using shorter seasons as an opportunity to keep staff together between renewals and prevent burnout. A question that producers of short-order seasons are facing, however, is whether these new formats can have the same impact as the traditional 52-ep standard. Will kids remember a show as easily without the frequent refreshment that’s possible with a bigger-volume order? That’s the million-dollar question, and Atomic Cartoons CCO Matthew Berkowitz thinks the answer is—just like the basic principle taught in improv classes—”yes, and…”

While traditional linear channels have long been favored by producers looking to build a franchise, Atomic Cartoons ultimately chose Netflix for its first original series Last Kids on Earth. Based on a graphic novel of the same name, the show launched with a 66-minute special on the streamer. Seven months later came 10 episodes, technically as a second-season order, followed by another 10 episodes in a third season six months after that. The eps were popular and made Netflix’s Top-10 list in multiple countries a number of times. But that short-order episode count isn’t enough to build a brand, says Berkowitz.

To boost awareness, Atomic partnered with Finnish studio Gigglebug on several animated shorts, which were released on YouTube in the lead-up to the Netflix premiere, so fans of the book series would know it was coming. Atomic also partnered with Popcorn Digital and YouTube Kids to release more shorts on the AVOD around the season three launch. Those videos—which total 30 minutes of live-action and animated content—have 14,500 subscribers, three million views, and importantly, acted as an additional entry point to interest kids in watching the show on Netflix.

This led to a master toy partnership with Jakks Pacific and a video game from Outright Games, which helped even more kids discover the series. Atomic paid for the additional content itself, and while it declined to share numbers, the company recommends all producers set aside “a few hundred thousand dollars” to cover ancillary content for short-order shows with franchise and licensing potential. (By contrast, a typical 11-minute episode costs between US$150,000 and US$200,000 to make, after tax credits and subsidies are applied, Berkowitz says.)

“As a production company, our big expenditure was the YouTube shorts. Then it was about putting in the time to be collaborative partners with everybody else in that universe to help support things and be a centralized point,” says Berkowitz. “It just kept steadily feeding and feeding the growth.” Not all of the shows Atomic makes are destined to be franchises, though, and part of its growth strategy is to have a diversified pipeline that uses many different styles with varied storytelling techniques. In that case, fewer episodes actually means that many shows that never would have been greenlit previously are now on the table, says Berkowitz.

last kids on earth

LoCo Motion Pictures, a small Toronto-based prodco, concurs. When CEO Lauren Corber founded the company in 2015, she originally assumed she’d make feature films due to the difficulties of funding a series. While she didn’t end up making a single movie, she has built a business entirely on producing shows that have fewer than 10 episodes per season. This includes Detention Adventure (pictured, at top)—the first original kids series for CBC Gem, the Canadian pubcaster’s SVOD—which now has three 10-ep seasons.

“I think it would have been much more difficult to raise the financing for a longer production,” says Corber. “For Detention Adventure, in particular, this is the first series [the creators] made that has gone to camera, and it’s harder to get a broadcaster to take a chance on someone new when there are much higher dollars at stake.”

Dedicating your entire pipeline to short-order seasons isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Corber has cobbled together financing from different Canadian funds, negotiated discounts with unions, and been successful with series greenlights—but she’s had to have multiple series in production at a time to maintain a sustainable business, she says.

While short orders create a financial challenge, there are creative and talent upsides. Mercury Filmworks VP of originals and co-productions Chantal Ling believes that focusing on traditional-length seasons can become a grind on a production team.

“It’s a very long haul, and the burnout on a 52 x 11-minute show is real for your staff and for the artists who are churning it out over two years,” says Ling. “It has to be managed very well and focused on the creative, which is a lot more challenging with that many episodes from a team and studio perspective.”

Shorter formats, on the other hand, breed more creativity because team members are more likely to be excited about what they’re working on and bring a fresh perspective to each scene. A typical 52 x 11-minute show takes around 18 to 24 months to produce, whereas a 13 x half-hour series is probably closer to 15 months, depending on the project’s scope.

Having shorter seasons on some shows has saved Mercury Filmworks from becoming “a cookie-cutter factory,” says Ling. One project from its fledgling originals department, Pangors of Puddle Peak, will likely have a shorter format.

And on the service work side of its business, Silvergate Media’s Hilda for Netflix had 13 episodes in both its first and second seasons, and its quick renewal helped Mercury keep the production team together from one to the next.

On a series with longer seasons, it’s common to wait years in between renewals, meaning that much of the team moves on to other projects. But when there’s only six months between shorter seasons, they can all keep working together and at least get into scripting—even if they only get a soft greenlight from partners—which is good for morale, says Ling. It can also breed its own kind of innovation and creativity.

“In theory, we should be able to get audience feedback quicker with a shorter order,” says Ling. “Sometimes you’re waiting two to four years to get the next season out. But with a shorter order and schedule, you get to screen quicker, so you can pivot [if something isn't working].”

To maintain quality, keep staff happy and focus on that creativity, Ling acknowledges there can be financing challenges. The cost per episode is higher than on a 52 x 11-minute show, because a production company isn’t able to amortize its costs over time. An intricate background, character or detail might only be used once in a short season rather than five times in a longer one. In response, Mercury seeks out co-production partners on several of its originals to share the financing load.

Does that mean the 52 x 11-minute format is dead? Before you start planning a funeral, there are still plenty of buyers eager to commission traditional full-length series, producers happy to make them, and toy companies chomping at the bit for the licensing rights. But while it’s not quite done yet, there are some pretty solid benefits to trying out a new format.

“I think everybody is taking a look at content consumption and the way that’s being digested nowadays, and we definitely find fewer 52 x 11-minute orders” says Atomic’s Berkowitz. “There are certainly shows where we really hope that we could get that kind of order, but for the most part, we are seeing a shift away from that—even from the more conventional terrestrial linear broadcasters. I think we just have to realize, accept and adapt to the fact that [the industry] is transitioning.”

The drop on drops

gabby dollhouse

An episode of Gabby’s Dollhouse launched on YouTube before its Netflix premiere to drum up interest.

Devotion to a brand is often fostered over years of repeat viewing, but the binge-watching trend has thrown a wrench into traditional franchise-building strategies. Consuming an entire 10-episode season in a single sitting and then moving on can render the experience entirely forgettable—no matter how good the show is. To build it into a popular IP, prodcos need to find new ways of engaging audiences.

For DreamWorks Animation Television, the solution was more—more content, more touchpoints, more chances to connect.

“We call it ‘always on’ content,” says Weiss. In order to maintain momentum in between season launches, and continually stay in front of its audience, DreamWorks supplements its series with YouTube content. Netflix and DreamWorks released the first episode of Gabby’s Dollhouse on YouTube eight months before its premiere, where it has since racked up 12 million views. After the YouTube launch, the team started to identify important elements that worked well—like music, DIY and baking—and turned them into unique additional content for the AVOD.

The channel boasts 174,000 subscribers, and is now populated with nursery rhyme videos, songs from the show, and funny compilations, with audiences ultimately redirected back to Netflix to watch the core show.

YouTube videos were regularly released between seasons to keep kids engaged with fresh content, and test new ideas.

“We thought Gabby’s Dollhouse had the potential to be a big franchise for us,” says Weiss. “[The YouTube content] was about experimenting with the ways we can engage with the youngest audience as early as possible.”

The European bottleneck 

Not everyone in the kids entertainment industry is eager to embrace new formats. Toy companies and retailers are among the slowest to change, and they have been very hesitant when it comes to snappier seasons, according to several producers we spoke with. This is especially true in Europe, where there’s a strong linear broadcast presence that is still picking up more traditional 52 x 11-minute shows.

“The [European toy companies and retailers] still prefer the big audiences, the daily exposure and the regularly scheduled time periods over on-demand platforms,” says Berkowitz.

Since European markets prefer shows on linear that have a plethora of audience data to back up their success (unlike SVODs), Berkowitz says that YouTube stats and having an existing property as the underlying IP are crucial for a producer to prove that the brand has on-shelf potential in the region.

For Last Kids on Earth, the show alone wasn’t enough to bring on European toycos and retailers. Atomic focused first on building up the brand in the US, where consumer products partners were more accepting of the SVOD model. Once Jakks Pacific was on board, it was easier to bring its US success story—in combination with the YouTube stats—to Europe and get retailers there on board. Hopefully in the future, it won’t take so much convincing, he says.

“As the SVOD numbers go up—and I don’t just mean with the big platforms, I mean even as the linear broadcasters get more into digital—I think we’re going to steadily see toy companies and retailers recognizing that viability,” says Berkowitz.

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

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