Kidscreen » Archive » Is vertical content the future of children’s entertainment?

For prodcos creating content for kids, the world is shrinking… fast. Screen sizes are getting smaller, episode lengths are getting shorter and content producers are responding with morsels that can be easily consumed on pocket-sized devices.

The reason is simple: smartphone ownership is aging at an exceptional rate, leading to a higher-than-ever demand for children’s short-form programs, according to the latest data from UK research and consultancy firm Dubit.

The migration of children’s eyeballs to smartphone screens began long before the pandemic turned the world upside down. But the radical shift in how children’s content is consumed has been accelerated by quarantine conditions, he says David Kleeman, SVP for global trends at Dubit. “We knew we were going to get here sooner or later, but it probably came a little quicker than we expected,” he notes.

During the pandemic, with pervasive lockdowns, online learning, and housing regulations, more and more parents around the world began allowing their children to have phones at a younger age.

“Many parents wanted their children to have the freedom that a smartphone brings,” says Kleeman. “Even though they couldn’t be with their friends or go outside, they wanted to keep in touch [their friends].”

According to Dubit’s latest trend study, 57% of 9-12 year olds surveyed in the US now have their own smartphone. In some European countries, such as Germany, this figure rises to around 77%.

And smartphone ownership by an even younger cohort is also increasing. “In the past, we found that the tablet was an initiation rite for six to eight year olds,” says Kleeman. “But children are beginning to feel like pills are for babies. It’s a shift from push to pull — younger kids now want to be in control of their engagement.”

The current revolution in smartphone ownership promises a “total overhaul of the way content creators think,” adds Kleeman.

But one company’s attempt to capitalize on a growing appetite for short-form, smartphone-exclusive programming aimed at an older demographic offers something of a cautionary tale — namely, the high-profile flop of mobile streaming venture Quibi, which was headed by former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was founded in 2020. The startup commissioned hundreds of millions of dollars in content before ceasing operations after just seven months.

Kleeman acknowledges that the timing of Quibi’s launch could not have been worse. It debuted in April 2020 and was, to put it charitably, DOA. “Those little moments that they programmed for, like waiting for a bus or short breaks at work, just suddenly disappeared,” he says. “That was obviously out of their control, but beyond that there was also a huge miscalculation.”

The critical flaw, according to Kleeman, was the underlying mismatch between the programming Quibi commissioned and the way it was intended to be consumed.

“The content has to fit the platform,” he says. “[The series that they were commissioning] were too much like traditional TV. With high-budget stuff, people want to enjoy it, see it on a big screen, and immerse themselves. I think people looked at it and said, ‘I don’t want to see that in five-minute blocks on my phone.'”

The connection between medium and message is just as important in the children’s area as in the adult area Antu Harlin, CEO of Gigglebug. In fact, Helsinki, Finland based prodco has taken this idea to the extreme with their new original series tadpolescreated to be viewed vertically rather than horizontally.

Appropriately set in a pond, the animated series is intended to be consumed on smartphones, Harlin points out. “In the Mister The Rings, the characters are on a quest, moving from left to right across the screen,” he says. “This is meant for a wide screen. We’ve thought so ever since tadpoles mainly viewed on smartphones, we need to flip it [and make the action vertical].”

Just as the physical design of a series needs to be tailored to the specific size and shape of a smartphone, so must the runtime. This is where the concept of “snackability” comes into play. “We know that shorter content works better on a phone,” says Kleeman. “Look at the rise of TikTok for the most obvious example.”

In smartphones, the pace of consumption and other factors such as FOMO (the dreaded “fear of missing out”) have created an unprecedented bounty for bite-sized programs that are between 10 seconds and two minutes long.

“If a kid looks at something that doesn’t really engage them, at least they’re not missing out on anything else they’re doing,” he explains. “It’s not a huge investment of time, and if they get interrupted, it’s not a big deal.”

The tricky part about creating short-duration content is that it’s counter-intuitive to everything we know about branding in entertainment.

And that consideration is paramount to Harlin. “I do not think so [short-form content] gives you such a deep commitment to the characters on an emotional level,” he says, adding that sidestream revenues like licensing and merchandising are only possible once that crucial bond is solidified. “We think of micro-content on digital platforms as a starting point; Building your monetization model solely on mobile revenue is quite risky.”

While the changing technological environment is ultimately changing what kids watch and for how long, prodcos will want to make sure their profits don’t shrink with screen size.

For this reason, Harlin insists that the age-old tenets of storytelling must apply.

“Regardless of the format, we still need people to say, ‘Wow, these characters are awesome’ and ‘I want to hear more of this story!'”

This story originally appeared in kidscreenIssue of the magazine October/November 2022.

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