What do children’s TV buyers want? That’s the question uppermost in the minds of many MIPJunior attendees, hoping to sell their formats to broadcasters across the world. This morning at the conference, a panel convened to answer this question.
It featured (l-r): Frank Dietz, head of acquisitions & co-productions, RTL Disney Fernsehen, Germany; Jules Borkent, SVP, global acquisitions and international programming for Nickelodeon; Adina Pitt, VP content acquisitions and co-productions, Cartoon Network; and Paul DeBenedittis, SVP, programming, scheduling, multi-platform & acquisitions, The Walt Disney Company.
The moderator was C21Media’s David Jenkinson, who kicked things off with a question about what’s been the biggest change to each panel member’s business over the last year or two. Unsurprisingly, it was the proliferation of devices and platforms for children’s entertainment.
“We don’t really think of ourselves as just a linear television screen in a family’s house. I look at content right now as a means to distribute the message about the Disney brand… no matter where they’re at,” said Disney’s DeBenedittis. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful moment, there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity. We’ve all been looking at it, but in the last year or so we’ve really delivered on that.”
Cartoon Network’s Pitt cited the fact that her network spend lots more time trying to see where their viewers are. “Just the sheer volume of screens that children can consume content on has increased, and we need to be wherever they are. So we’re trying to focus as best we can to provide the best possible content so they can consume us on those screens.”
She continued: “We are trying to keep up with our viewers: they’re moving faster than we are in media. It’s probably the best time for any producer to be in the kids business, because there is such a need for good content right now,” she said. “The kids that are watching us want new, they want exciting, and they want events, so we need to be delivering that on a regular basis.”
Meanwhile, Nickelodeon’s Borkent said Nickelodeon has been thinking a lot about “post-millennials… children for whom a mobile device at one or two years old is a normal thing” – by which he meant tablets. “We need to find content for them quickly, and very fast. The biggest challenge for us is how to turn round our content more quickly.”
The panel then dug into some of their recent shows, and why they were commissioned and how they’re performing. DeBenedittis talked about a live-action sitcom called Liv & Maddie, which he said was “creator-driven – a vision from day one about what that show as”, and also praised its star Dove Cameron, and the humour of its script, as well as its pacing.
“Now, more than ever, you’re just a click away. It used to be the remote, now it’s a click: hundreds of thousands upon millions of things you can watch online. We’re competing with YouTube! And the thing that I think is different from us to YouTube is that we can tell a story.”
He added that the fact that children want to watch and play with content on so many devices means companies like Disney are keener than ever to work with outside producers, not just on shows but on digital content that can sit alongside its shows.
Over to Cartoon Network’s Pitt, who said that comedy has been playing particularly well with her network’s audience. “We always knew that kids came to us to laugh, and they associate our brand with comedy, but our action shows are also very funny, and that is now a must-have element in our action shows, that they be funny,” she said. “That’s been a big shift for us.”
Pitt also talked about Ben 10 as a show “way ahead of its time” in that sense, as well as more recent hit Lego Ninjago. And she agreed that a balance of third-party shows and original content has always been important to Cartoon Network. “You have to take risks, you have to find something that feels innovative and different, but not too different that it alienates the kids who are coming to you for different kinds of shows,” she said.
“Our budgets are at a place where we can’t afford to buy just ‘ok’… it has to be great.” And she advised producers to work as hard as they can on getting their shows right before pitching: “Don’t pitch it too early!”
Borkent gave Nickelodeon’s perspective, talking about new show Sam & Cat, which took stars from two other shows – i-Carly and Victorious – and put them into a new format. “And SpongeBob is still there… drawing in the viewers, and we love him for it!” with a movie on the way from Paramount to capitalise on SpongeBob SquarePants’ success.
“It is comedy, we are looking for pure comedy, that is probably the biggest shift for us. We have dabbled in other genres… but for us this year it’s all about pure comedy. Kids want to laugh, they want to laugh all the time, and that’s what we want to bring them with our shows.”
Dietz talked about an upcoming gap for his network as its contract ends with Disney at the end of the year. “That’s pretty good news for the independent producers in the market,” he said. “We are specialised in our market, we know what’s best for our kids, and we don’t have to deal with the group politics in a sense: we can choose what we like. So for us, we are declaring 1st January our independence day!”
While comedy may be the big thing in 2013, the panel were asked if this may be cyclical.
“Comedy is just a constant for all of us, but what’s going to shift is what you combine with your comedy,” said Pitt. “What you’re going to find is we do need action, we do need drama, we do need mystery. There’s always going to be a need for a diversity of genres on any network.”
How about building brands on other devices and platforms – as apps or YouTube channels for example – then bringing them back to linear television? Disney launched a new character, Swampy the Alligator, through the Where’s My Water? mobile game, for example, while Cartoon Network airs a show based on YouTube hit Annoying Orange.
Dietz said RTL is focusing more on making its TV brands big and then supporting them on other platforms, although it’s open to co-operation with companies involved in digital. But the other panellists said they are debuting some content digitally before thinking about possible TV versions.
Nickelodeon launched an app earlier this summer, and is creating content specifically for it, including some digital commissions that “potentially could evolve into TV shows” according to Borkent. Meanwhile, Pitt pointed out that at Cartoon Network, digital is part of the network’s content division, and is thus part of the creative process.
“You’re thinking ‘is this going to start out as an app and then evolve into something else, or is it just going to be that?’,” she said. “We really do need to think about our IP with a very different lens: we really do have to be where the consumer is going to be: is this going to be better as a show, better as an app, or both? It’s a consideration for every single thing that we do.”
She added that Cartoon Network is constantly on the lookout for interesting content online that might be worth a commissioning conversation. “We do check the internet. We are always there looking for content to source. There are some great ideas out there, people just need some help telling that story,” she said. “We’re constantly looking out there to see if there is an undiscovered something.”
Meanwhile, DeBenedittis said that Disney is putting significant effort into its Watch online video platform, including looking to have more video on there that “maybe originates or is developed for” the service. But he added that Disney doesn’t think about these different devices and platforms in isolation.
“I’m a content strategist: for me to develop content only for one platform is not the most efficient way for me to leverage my resources,” he said. “For me it’s really using the platform to distribute the content, as opposed to being very focused on a particular platform and developing specifically for that.”
The panel also talked about China, with a question from the audience about why more Chinese content isn’t making its way onto Western screens. Disney’s DeBenedittis said his company is recruiting storytellers and animators to create content for China, and also bring that back to other markets. Pitt said Cartoon Network regularly takes pitches from Chinese companies.
“The fact of the matter is, it has as good a shot at being picked up as any show that we see. It’s just a matter of the storytelling being tailored a little bit more for our audience,” she said, suggesting that over-complication is one common problem in those shows, where they try to “throw the kitchen sink” into the first episode outlining the story. “Maybe simplify a little, then you can do the prequel as season two!”
The panel finished off with some comedy of its own: which show each panelist would steal from one of the others. DeBenedittis said Adventure Time – “a really smart show… it’s so out there and so bizarre” – while Pitt said SpongeBob SquarePants (“that show just gets better and better, it’s like a good wine”). Borkent said Phineas and Ferb (“really well written”) and Dietz opted for two: SpongeBob and Phineas and Ferb (“for one reason: we made them big in Germany!”)