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Something for First-Timers and Old-Timers Alike at Kidscreen 2014

Approaching the show like a “newbie” brought this old-timer a sense of renewed optimism and youthful excitement.

We’re all in the same boat when it comes to finding the right business model to survive in the midst of cataclysmic changes across so many sector of today’s New World Order:  technology, banking, retail, and most definitely, a deluge of changes happening in the kids’ entertainment industry!  

So, at the recent Kidscreen Summit, in order to maximize my chances to be as “in the know” as possible, I psyched myself into taking some fresh approaches to this major annual kids’ media conference (which I’ve attended for 10 + years - so I undoubtedly qualify as one of the “Kidscreen old-timers”).  

Charged with my personal mission to see Kidscreen though fresh eyes, I decided to quietly join one of the official introductory tours offered four times on Day 1 by Kidscreen organizers Brunico Communications.  There I was amidst a half-dozen real “first-timers” who trailed the Kidscreen leader around the 3rd floor of the New York Hilton just like a group of…compliant kids! 

First we were led to the 3rd Floor Americas Hall lunch room, where we got a really smart suggestion:  here’s where to go for any impromptu meetings, if you cannot find a place to sit in the Delegates Lounge (which I secretly knew as an experienced Summit attendee would be jam-packed all day, every day).  This fantastic spill-over meeting space has plenty of 10-seater round tables, and except for lunch time, is essentially empty all day.  You can never be too thin or have too much conference meeting space. Excellent recommendation (some of us nod our thanks).

We continued to tag along behind our guide, our virgin voyage in full swing.  Like a mischief-making youngster, I started to whisper, to network with one of my tour-mates and see if he truly was new to the Kidscreen Summit.  Yes, confirmed this industry veteran, this was his very first Kidscreen – he was an Englishman who lives in India where he’s the Head of Production at a most impressive CGI studios, Prana Studios (the Prana team worked on Disney’s Planes and other lower budgeted productions too).    

Another great tip - which I nearly missed by talking when I should have been listening (!) – if you didn’t win the advance-sign-up-lottery for Tuesday’s “Lunching with …” we rookies could stand at the Sutton Suite door and fill in for any no shows.  As aspiring kids content creators, who wouldn’t want to have a shot to lunch with 20-plus top broadcasters who can green light your projects?

While I didn’t line up for Tuesday’s lunch, I did follow another suggestion for later in the day Tuesday:  the Kidscreen Awards Ceremony which I embarrassingly admit I attended for the first time.  Thankfully, Sean Cullen, the stand-up comedian M.C. was pretty darned funny, because no one got to speak but him.  Yes, with more than 20 awards handed out, not one kids channel executive or creator/producer, was allowed to thank anybody. Each winner did get their picture taken holding their new awards with Sean, who kept the awards show moving by making fun of the kids business. Imagine that!

The rest of the Kidscreen Summit truly was very democratic and balanced, with an impressive range of new sessions and traditional topics.  Fist timers and old-timers all picked up very quickly that the most compelling trends in today’s “kids business” seems to be all about apps, the web, and streaming services. 

The opening keynote address provided a much larger canvas than we’re used to working with. Grant McCracken, a famous anthropologist, energetically paced the stage passing along insights into the media–scape.  SHIFTING PLATFORMS, CHANGING AUDIENCES core message is that “mainstream” content is now too boring for… the Masses!   Audiences, especially kids, are getting more and more sophisticated, smarter, fast-moving targets who are extremely tech savvy.

According to Grant, “We’re all in this extraordinary transformational cycle… a new generation is coming.”  He shared a personal anecdote about his buddy’s daughter, the two-year old “electronically enabled” Emily, who wants her Dad to stop talking, so what does she do?  Emily waves her hand across the air, like she’s swiping a tablet – that’s how she tries to get Dad to move on or stop talking.

He added that producers used to “step it down – when they made content for kids [which is so] patronizing, so now we’re going to have to step it up!”  His recommendation for the best survival strategy is to “Get ready for a smarter faster audience.”

But it’s not only producers who have to stay on their toes.  These days, traditional TV channels are facing a brand new crop of competitors:  the SVOD networks (like Hulu, Amazon, Netflix).  These alternative purveyors of media, generically referred to as “digital platforms” used to go after older big catalogs.  Of late, these guys have shifted their acquisition gears pretty dramatically.  Now the SVODs pick up only the shiniest catalog gems and most importantly for producers, they’ve also started to finance original content being made specifically for their “channels.” 

Staying true to my “what’s new” focus, during the SVOD Effect panel, there were a few revelations about the business nature/growth of the digital content marketplace.  For Canada’s global powerhouse DHX Media, licensing of digital (read: SVOD, EST, etc.) now accounts for 30% of their annual revenue, according to Josh Scherba, SVP, Distribution.  He clarified that individual territory markets are changing so quickly now that DHX doesn’t know which platform their content will wind up on, so they just project a sales figure next to the Territory name, instead of breaking down which rights might be licensed.   SVOD deals are in their own distinct rights category, like home video, but now the established television networks want to grab onto these SVOD rights too…. “Which is OK, they just have to pay for it [and don’t seem to want to]” warned Richard Goldsmith from The Jim Henson Company.  My biggest takeaway lesson from this panel:  pitch to TV networks and SVOD platforms at the same time, they’re direct competitors!!

When considering other lightening speed changes, another heavily attended session focused our collective audience attention on websites, apps and games.  Staking his claim that U.S. pre-school channel Sprout was the first multi-platform channel starting nine years ago, SVP Programming Andrew Beecham confirmed that THE PRIORITY for Sprout is to always drive the kids and parents using the apps, mini-games, streaming the video clips online, back to their linear TV channel, since that’s where and how Sprout monetizes.   

Lauren DeVillier, VP, Digital Media for Disney Channels Worldwide, shared that multiplatform really does drive engagement and their audience back to TV.  She expanded on how a lot of Disney Jr. appisodes are being made from repurposing Disney’s content, but in such a way that kids 2-7 are truly immersed in the experience on Disney’s WATCH  platform, where long form episodes have been re-engineered - interactive pieces are woven inside of Disney’s  original catalog of “classic” content.

From the sole indie producer on another cool panel HARNESSING THE POWER OF THE APP, Blues Clues co-creator Traci Paige Johnson mentioned she saw app creation as a “proof of concept” approach today’s producer should use to develop any new intellectual property. 

Independent development consultant Leanne Preston of Bright Box Creative agreed new tools and approaches are essential for today’s producer (whether young, middle-aged or older).   She commented, “Overall we all must adapt to the new technologies and new audiences. Everybody’s experimenting.”

My closing question for Leanne – did she make time to attend any sessions, or did she, as an experienced Kidscreen participant, focus on pitch meetings at her dedicated table within the Delegates Lounge?  Normally she doesn’t attend sessions, but this year Leanne took out time to attend one session -  NEXT-GEN MOVES:  WEBNETS TO WATCH. She asked me, “Did you know that there’s a new kid-friendly YouTube-type of channel, called Battery Pop?”  Good lord, no I didn’t attend THAT panel …. Missed it and really meant to be there too!

Keeping abreast of the changes in the kids business is a full-time job in itself, picking and choosing from what’s new and what’s most important to be abreast of - everything?  Forgiving myself a little, I reflected that this year I actually learned way more than usual and concluded:  maybe it was the best idea ever, to approach Kidscreen 2014 as if I were a “newbie.”   Could explain why this old-timer felt there was a sense of sweet optimism and youthful excitement at this year’s Kidscreen! Certainly better than having a panic attack about how fast things are changing in the kids business!

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Catherine Morrissey writes regularly for AWN about the international animation industry.

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