Thursday, February 09, 2023

The Decision-Makers: Top Kids TV Buyers Talk Content Strategies at 2023 TV Kids Festival

The 2023 TV Kids Festival opened on February 7 with Paramount UK & Ireland’s Louise Bucknole, Sky Kids’ Lucy Murphy, TFO’s Marianne Lambert and Future Today’s David Di Lorenzo articulating their acquisition strategies in a lively panel discussion moderated by TV Kids’ Kristin Brzoznowski.

Bucknole is the general manager of kids and family at Paramount Global UK & Ireland. Murphy serves as director of kids’ content for Sky in the U.K. and Ireland. Lambert is the director of acquisitions and co-productions at the Canadian French-language channel TFO. Di Lorenzo serves as senior VP of kids and family for Future Today, the parent company of the HappyKids streaming service. You can watch the session in its entirety here.

At Paramount Global in the U.K. and Ireland, Bucknole’s remit covers the Milkshake! free-to-air block and the Nickelodeon portfolio of channels. “We have VOD, linear channels, a FAST platform with Pluto and an SVOD with Paramount+. We’re always looking for content for all of these platforms, so acquisitions are really important.” These sit alongside the company’s internal content pipeline. “We do a lot of commissioning in the U.K. for the Milkshake! block, which is on Channel 5, so we look at about two to three additional acquisitions to bolster what we have and complement that in the U.K. And for the Nick network, this could be anything from preschool to older kids, live action and animation. We look at what gaps we have. It could be franchises or particular IP that is of interest to us.”

HappyKids, a connected TV streaming app, is in the market for a range of programming, Di Lorenzo said, “whether it’s early-learning content from CoComelon or user-generated content in gaming from Roblox or Minecraft or popular IPs like Transformers or Ninjago to YouTubers like KidCity or Diana. Today’s audience is looking for broad-based content across multiple platforms. Our job is to find content that our audience wants to watch.”

Acquisitions are also crucial at TFO, Lambert said, noting they make up about 85 percent of the overall slate. “We also do co-productions and independent productions, but mostly for all our platforms, it’s acquisitions.” TFO operates a linear channel for kids, an educational website for teachers and, “which we’re transitioning into an OTT platform with our linear channel. We also have a YouTube channel, but we mostly use it for promotional purposes. When we buy, it’s for all those platforms at the same time.”

Murphy is catering to an audience of 1- to 10-year-olds at Sky in the U.K. and Ireland. They expect to see “premium entertainment” across multiple genres and formats, she said. “We currently have around 10,000 episodes of on-demand content, and a lot of that comes from the partner channel deals that we have. We carry eight premium channels, such as Nickelodeon and Nick Jr., as well as Cartoon Network and Cartoonito.” This month, Sky is rolling out a Sky Kids linear service, targeting children aged 1 to 7. “In terms of the acquisition deals we do, we buy large packages, e.g., from LEGO or DreamWorks or Moonbug, but we also cherry-pick one-off titles so that we’ve got that entire demographic served with the right shows that they want to watch.”

Brzoznowski asked the panelists about the brand values they keep top of mind when evaluating pitches.

Bucknole stressed the importance of British content for Milkshake!, although she and her teams will consider shows from elsewhere. “We celebrate kids and families within this content.” Nickelodeon’s approach is “kids first,” Bucknole noted. “We want to focus on their point of view. It’s larger-than-life characters and how we bring that slice of life into our content. We follow the brand values of heart, smart and fart! We want it to be entertaining to them. We want them to learn something and also feel that emotion as well.”

For Di Lorenzo, safety is critical, with all content vetted by individuals.

For Lambert, content has to be in French, “which is not that easy to find,” she said. “We started programming a lot of dubbed series, so that’s helped a lot. It has to be educational, but it doesn’t have to be about a specific [subject] like math or science. It can be loosely educational. It can be about social-emotional responses, living in a group, relationships, critical thinking. It’s really important to us that casting be diverse. We want our shows to represent Canada as it is today, being inclusive of all communities, people with all kinds of bodies, different backgrounds and abilities, without making that the center of the story. We want the kids we’re casting to represent all communities and all shapes and sizes. We like to look for material that’s different, a unique way of telling that story. We’re always looking for innovation. And I guess our model is, how can we make them learn a little bit as they are having fun? Humor is really important. We want kids to laugh.”

Murphy at Sky Kids said she starts with, “Are kids going to love what they see? Is it premium, distinctive and original? Just as important, are parents going to love it too? Especially when you’re acquiring and commissioning shows for younger children, it’s really important that parents feel good about what their children are watching.”

Murphy also referenced the importance of representation. “We lean into inclusion and diversity and do an awful lot in that respect. We also have very clear principles around the environment. We want to have shows that demonstrate clear, planet-friendly principles. It doesn’t mean that all our shows are eco because they’re not. But we want shows that do represent planet-positive behaviors. We would shy away from shows with planet-negative behaviors unless we’re talking about that from a news or current-affairs perspective. We’re creating positive TV shows that kids will get something out of. It’s not an empty viewing experience.”

The panelists emphasized the importance of parent-approved content. “Co-viewing is important on all our platforms,” Bucknole said.

“The best shows become part of the family’s life,” Murphy added.

“For preschool, parents are choosing what their kids are watching,” Lambert said. “So if they can enjoy it as well, it’s very important.”

“Based on parental feedback, we’ve brought in family movies and tried to create a section within our app so families can have movie time together,” Di Lorenzo noted.

On current wish lists, Lambert said she’s looking for content for a broad audience segment of 3 to 18. “It’s difficult to find content for teenagers,” she noted. “We want innovation and different ways of telling stories. We have a hard time finding content for 6- to 9-year-olds. Live action also is difficult for us because it has to be dubbed. Since we are educational and our content is used to teach, there are certain things like STEM and examples of girls in science, those kinds of role models. It’s really hard to get a show about math, so we’re always on the lookout for that. Indigenous perspectives are really important. And also, environmental concerns are big right now.”

“We’re looking for killer, not filler,” said Bucknole. “We want the shows that are going to stand out. We’ve got a lot of franchise shows on the Nickelodeon channels. Comedy is really important, and that could be with animation or with live action. Those are the formats that we’re looking for that will work globally. It needs to be lovable characters that will carry globally for the Nickelodeon networks. Specifically for animation, we will look for characters and storylines that will complement what we already have on the channels. How is this going to sit with SpongeBob and PAW Patrol? For Milkshake!, we’re very interested in game shows at the moment and also slapstick and comedy silliness. We’re also looking for content that has a lot of STEM. Sustainability is also very important to us. We know kids love animals, so we’re looking at various animal and pet care [shows]. We obviously would look at any shows that have a great story or are book-based IP, or have the potential to be a franchise. Fact-ent formats are quite interesting for Milkshake! because we’re a public-service broadcaster. Those formats where they’re representing kids and showing their world. Preschool animation is very important to us. We don’t need another Peppa Pig; we don’t need another show about amazing puppy dogs because we have PAW Patrol. It’s always looking for that uniqueness and what makes this stand out. What will make the kids draw the picture, hum the theme tune and play based on that show? They’re always going to be the winners for us.”

“That for me is when you know you’ve got a hit,” Murphy added, “when you hear someone in the street singing the theme song or watch someone coloring in the book. It’s the most lovely thing when you see that that show has landed in that way.”

As for her own wish lists, Murphy stated: “We’re always on the lookout for really good storytelling, whether that’s live action or animation. We’re particularly looking for half-hour specials with that real evergreen longevity. We’re keen to find something for younger viewers that gets them up and moving around. We’ve got lots and lots of songs and sing-alongs, so we’re not necessarily looking for that but something that encompasses music and singing. We’re also looking for shows that spark a bit of curiosity in a child. It’s not necessarily a didactic educational show but something that will make them wonder about the world around them. We’re looking for shows that have follow-through and a lasting value to them.”

HappyKids is fairly well served on the preschool front, Di Lorenzo said. “Our focus right now is really on our 6-plus audience. We’ve been focusing on live-action series, trying to find more movies for our audience, looking at science exploration and things that will bring the family together to watch.”

The panelists then spoke in more detail about the kinds of shows they’re struggling to find in the market today. For Bucknole, live action for 7 to 12s is particularly tricky, especially comedy-driven series. She’s also on the hunt for preschool game-show formats.

Murphy picked up Bucknole’s point, adding, “Particularly as kids get to 7 and over, they narrow down into the enthusiasms and the types of shows they want to watch, whether that’s comedy or something as simple as gaming.” She urged producers and distributors to “come to us with a show idea that demonstrates you understand the audience and why they’re watching what they’re watching and looking at new ways of doing it.”

Lambert cited the difficulties in finding content dubbed into French and shows that will specifically target kids in the 6-to-9 set.

For Di Lorenzo, the biggest hurdle has been finding live-action sitcoms.

The conversation wrapped with a discussion about exclusivity.

“We don’t need exclusivity,” Lambert said. “We work well with other French-Canadian broadcasters, having co-exclusivity or sharing rights. We do have exclusivity for our independent productions, and that’s fine. But acquisitions, we’re fine with sharing.”

For Murphy, “it’s not a deal-breaker,” but a show that isn’t exclusive to her services “won’t attract the acquisition fees it would if it were! There are some shows you want to have because they’re really popular. But if it is everywhere all at once, it will be a much lower fee. The key for us is transparency. We need to know where else shows are going to be playing. We are a pay service, so our customers don’t want to be paying for things that are everywhere. We need to make sure there’s a balance of premium shows that we do have exclusivity for and popular franchises that may be on more than one platform.”

“For us, it’s not really about the exclusivity of owning a show, but maybe exclusive content around a particular show,” Di Lorenzo said. “For example, we did a deal with Moonbug last year where we got exclusive content around Blippi. Blippi is on several platforms, but we were able to take ownership in some specific episodes that were only available on HappyKids.”

Milkshake! is “flexible in the rights and the shows,” Bucknole said. “It depends on the lane you go down, whether it’s a commission or a co-pro or an acquisition, and it depends on the price point. Some shows are franchise IP, so exposure on lots of different platforms is beneficial to build that brand. For the Nick content, it depends if it’s a local pickup or something we look at that is multi-territory or a global pickup—in which case, we probably would want all exclusive rights for all platforms. It depends on the IP, the show and the deal itself. We share a lot of content in the U.K. with other broadcasters, particularly indigenous languages.”

Bucknole added, “We’re much more fluid now because we know that budgets are very challenged, and we have to be smart in our commissioning and acquiring.”

You can watch the The Decision-Makers session in its entirety here.

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