Photo: The award-winning Dumb Ways to Die: inspiring for Kids TV?


Get 100% funding to make an animated film with a public service message; a great, catchy soundtrack that you can’t get out of your head once you’ve heard it; a bunch of off-the-wall characters each with their own story to tell; and then make an iPad and smartphone app that lets you interact with your characters.

Now, get it distributed around the world and watch a global success roll out before you as your cartoon is watched by over 52 million people of all ages, becomes part of the curriculum in schools around the world and is parodied endlessly on YouTube, then watch as your work receives accolade after accolade from your peers in the sunshine of the Cannes Lions advertising festival.

Sounds like the perfect next Cartoon Network project?

That would pretty much sum up a success story for most kids TV producers and broadcasters, wouldn’t it? But actually it’s a description of what happened when the Melbourne Metro, an Australian train service and McCann an advertising agency, put their heads together to solve a problem they were having with rail safety.

McCann came up with the brilliant Dumb Ways to Die, a three minute pop video in which the children of the Moomins and the Mr Men explain a number of stupid ways to die, before the final three characters demonstrate how dumb it is to die at a railway station.

Welcome to the world of Branded Content.

Dumb Ways to Die is not, however, an isolated example. Brands and the agencies that represent them, are increasingly talking about becoming broadcasters. They are creating content strategies that build a long-term relationship with their audience and they are, to some extent, doing this without broadcasters, using multi-platform campaigns.

Many of the iconic global brands are exploring longer form content as a way of extending their own brand values to entertainment. Intrinsically, brands recognise that people choose them for a host of reasons, and once they are attached to a brand, it’s not easy to let go, and providing them with great entertainment is part of their strategy to make you a member of their brand audience.

In the UK one of a number of insurance comparison sites, Compare the Market,  hit upon a gem of a character in the lovable guise of a Russian meerkat called Aleksandr Orlov and his gang of meerkat business colleagues. Alexsander has gone on to publish a series of books, online videos and games and have taken on a cult status that far outshines his insurance company namesake.

As MIPJunior keynote speaker, Michael Acton-Smith, the founder of Moshi Monsters and the guys at Rovio, the makers of Angry Birds  can testify it is possible to create a brand in the kids sector that can grow to include film and television but it’s no longer essential to start with TV to ensure success. With brands outside of the entertainment business, like Red Bull, investing in content it can’t be long before the Dumb Ways characters or Alexsander and his friends expand into full blown entertainment franchises, so what’s stopping them?

None of this should surprise a kids TV producer, when you consider the brands TV has created, such as the Power Rangers, Sherlock, the Teletubbies, Star Trek, Nordic Jumpers and Millionaire and look at the merchandising and licensing business that surrounds them we’ve done pretty well for ourselves. But that success has, to a great extent, been built on the old media world of TV networks and cable channels, as Acton-Smith says, Moshi Monsters is the first global kids franchise to grow entirely in the online space.

For TV producers, going directly to your audience using YouTube or Vimeo is becoming a viable possibility. But with Google’s recent closure of their investments in channels — which was close to an old media strategy, by the way — the investment money to make the great content is a little thinner on the ground.

This is precisely where we might learn something from the advertising world and cut out the middlemen altogether by working with brands to create entertainment IPs — like Dumb Ways to Die — that engage with their consumers and our audiences.

Looked at that way, it’s not very different from working with a broadcaster. They too have certain values and ways of thinking that attract their audience to them. It’s those values that shape the content and make a Nickelodeon show a very different one from a Cartoon Network or CBBC one.

If there is a reason that TV producers are not seeing a boom time of new commissions from the branded content space, it’s the clash of business models involved. Creativity in advertising is rewarded by the rate card and the retainer, a work-for-hire, cost plus model, that television has moved away from in favour of a licensing model.

Advertising traditionally works in short campaigns with clear objectives, whereas TV aims at getting a second series, and a third and so on. Ironically, it’s been TV’s ability to build loyal audiences around their content that has driven the campaign driven advertising world for the last 50 years. But now, with broadcasters moving into a digital space already occupied by YouTube, Facebook and others perhaps it’s time to look for new ways to work with brands.

Take Dumb Ways to Die. On the surface, this is a real success for the Metro and the agency. But if you think about it a little, surely they have missed a trick, that we in the world of kids TV might have been able to pass on.

Once the 4.25 million people who live and work in Melbourne have seen this film, surely that’s job done for the Melbourne Metro?  OK, so maybe the 15.9 million people that visit Melbourne each year also watched – but that still leaves us with 32 million people for whom the basic advertising message is wasted?

Well, train safety is a global issue, so I guess the 32 million people who have been made safer by Melbourne Metro will still be grateful, and I wouldn’t want to prevent them from protecting themselves, but I think they are missing a trick to squeeze the maximum return on investment out of this campaign.

Crucially, it all comes down to licensing.

It comes naturally to a TV producer to license their work around the world, a show made for the BBC, particularly a kids show, HAS to be licensed to a number of territories just to find its budget.

So why wouldn’t McCann or Metro Melbourne license Dumb ways to Die to the London Underground, or the New York Subway, in fact to all train companies around the world (at last count there were 188 of these in 53 countries)?

Each train operator would get a low cost safety campaign that they know works, they can guarantee it would be popular and get the message across but for a fraction of the cost of initiating the campaign themselves. If done quickly, they could capitalise on the success of the Metro campaign in their territory, and all they need to do is record a localised version of the song. And Metro Melbourne would get license fees that would more than likely see them covering the cost of the campaign – perhaps they could donate any profits to a suitable charity for the victims of dumb ways to die?

The advertising business doesn’t work this way at the moment, and TV producers don’t like to work on ratecard, but as Branded Content becomes the next “black” in the world of the Mad Men and brands increasingly talk about becoming broadcasters, and kids are increasingly finding their content outside of the normal broadcast channels, perhaps kids TV producers should proactively be seeking relationships with brands and agencies and developing smart ways to make content, make audiences and make (swear word spoiler) money?

So who knows? Maybe the next Cartoon Network hit will be a global, multiplatform hit, exclusively living on its own YouTube channel and funded by a brand…


This is the first in a series of posts exploring the present and future of Kids TV, in the run-up to MIPJunior & MIPCOM 2013. Enjoy!

About Author

Mike has spent over 16 years exploring the multi-platform market working with producers and broadcasters to develop innovative cross platform formats, from Bafta nominated kids’ game-shows to online dramas with shops and mobile virtual worlds. Most recently, Mike worked for Pact. the trade association for independent content makers, helping shape policies with the team there and focusing on the needs of the digital sector. Over the years Mike has worked for a number of innovative content companies including Somethin Else, So Television, Illumina and Bomb productions where he helped produce multi-platform game shows, documentaries and interactive dramas. Mike served on the board of Northern Fim and Media, has been a judge and consultant at the Rose D’Or International Media festival, A BAFTA and RTS judge and on advisory groups for BBC Online and Skillset. An accomplished speaker, trainer and teller of tales about the digital market.

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