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Friday, December 8, 2023

The Future of Children’s Television Isn’t Television

The first video Rachel Griffin-Accurso uploaded to YouTube is so bare-bones, it looks like she’s being held hostage and forced to croon children’s tunes.

It was an experiment, through and through. “I ordered a green screen from Amazon and Googled ‘how to use a green screen with iMovie,’” Griffin-Accurso says of recording that first clip. She was a preschool teacher, not a content creator; she used a camera she found in her house, recording herself by setting the camera on a pile of books so it’d be at the right height. The results are … fine. She stands in front of a chintzy-looking cartoon sea floor in a red shirt and thick headband, singing a ditty a cappella. (“One little blue fish, swimming in the water …”) The two-minute video ends with her waving to the camera, then cuts to a generic graphic asking people to like and subscribe.

It feels slanderous to write about this clip’s shortcomings now, because Rachel Griffin-Accurso is (probably by my estimation, and definitely by my 1-year-old son’s estimation) the finest entertainer for young children working today.

Since uploading that first video in February 2019, she’s gone from a New York–based educator dabbling in digital content to Ms. Rachel, toddler-whisperer extraordinaire, with millions of devoted followers. Her YouTube show, originally called Songs for Littles but recently renamed Ms. Rachel, is an interactive, thoughtful addition to the children’s canon; it now has a cast of merry singing adults, live instrumentals, and puppets, too. It has a modern-day, DIY Sesame Street vibe, with an emphasis on language development that has converted speech therapists into ardent boosters. Linger long enough outside a daycare, and you’ll spot a mom wearing a “Running on Ms. Rachel and Iced Coffee” T-shirt.

Griffin-Accurso’s rise wouldn’t have happened in a different children’s media landscape. She started recording videos because she’d gone looking for language-development-focused programming for her young son, who had a speech delay, and didn’t find what she wanted. “He’s such a visual learner,” she says. “I just thought it would really help him.”

She didn’t know anyone in the television industry, or even how one would go about pitching a series. “I felt like I had a strong show,” she says. “But I didn’t have connections.”

She didn’t even really have a staff or a fleshed-out project, instead learning as she went. Her husband, Aron Accurso, turned into a castmate; a composer and musical director with Broadway experience, he also oversees the show’s music, helps with editing, and moonlights as a puppeteer. Singer-songwriter Jules Hoffman, now another cast mainstay, got the gig initially by answering an online ad in 2019. “I literally opened up Craigslist, I typed in ‘children’s music,’ I saw Rachel’s ad—no pictures, one sentence,” they remember. “Then we met up and hit it off.” While traditional children’s television development can be a years-long process from idea to execution, Ms. Rachel grew into itself publicly, one uploaded video at a time.

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Accurso-Griffith is now making inroads in more traditional children’s media. But the way her story started is representative of a sea change happening in the world of kid’s entertainment: YouTube is the nucleus.

The YouTube Era of children’s programming represents a marked shift in what and how young kids watch video. For decades, children’s television was appointment viewing on a handful of broadcast networks. The UK and Canada had kids' programming on BBC and CBC, respectively. In the US, Saturday morning cartoons were king, while PBS set a gold standard for educational fare with long-running hits like Sesame Street. In the 1980s, the rise of cable led to the creation of several kid-specific channels, most famously Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. 

The rise of streamers and “peak TV” led to a corresponding flood of children’s content, which is a major draw for audiences. How major? Over a third of the shows most in-demand on Disney+ are children’s programming, according to Parrot Analytics. Some of these Disney hits are in-house titles like DuckTales; others are licensed, like the truly delightful Australian cartoon Bluey.

Children’s programming also thrives on less kid-focused streamers. More than 18 percent of Amazon Prime Video’s demand is for kid’s television—in part thanks to the streamer’s catalog of children’s content that originated on YouTube—and more than 17 percent of demand on Paramount+ is for kid’s television, likely because of its library of Nickelodeon shows. Parrot Analytics measures demand for children’s programming at just above 15 percent for both Max and Netflix, a testament to how those streamers have also developed their kid’s entertainment sections. (Max now owns the rights to Sesame Street, for example.)

While the streamers have been jostling for dominance, though, YouTube has surpassed them all. “Time spent with YouTube is even higher than it is with streaming content,” says Nancy Jennings, a professor at the University of Cincinnati and director of the school’s Children’s Education and Entertainment Research Lab. “YouTube has really taken over the space.”

YouTube’s rise is tied to a number of factors. First, there’s how accessible it is. (Free!) Then there’s the sheer volume of video available. “Nothing can really touch it,” says Katie Bailey, editor of the children’s entertainment trade publication Kidscreen. (Trailing far behind in second place, in her estimation? “Netflix.”) It also offers unrivaled variety. Does your kid want to watch hundreds of hours of videos of garbage trucks? What about hundreds of hours of other children opening toys, or playing video games, or reciting Shakespeare, or participating in elaborate pranks, or touching slime? Hand them a tablet or smartphone. And when whatever your child has chosen has finished playing, YouTube’s algorithm has something else ready in the queue.

The audience sizes for kids content on YouTube are staggering. Songs for Littles as a channel has more than 2.7 billion views. Its subscriber count sits just above 4.7 million. The channel for the BBC's popular Hey Duggee has some 2.5 billion views and more than 1.7 million subscribers. But those look Lilliputian compared to the behemoth that is Cocomelon, YouTube’s most popular children’s program within the United States, and its second-most popular channel overall. Cocomelon has more than 162 billion views and 161 million subscribers.

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Cocomelon’s success story is far weirder than Ms. Rachel. The brand started as a YouTube channel launched way back in 2006, specializing in alphabet videos for toddlers; it was created by former filmmaker Jay Jeon as a hobby. (He has two kids.) As it gained an audience, the channel expanded into nursery rhyme animations, went through a few name changes, and eventually rebranded as Cocomelon in 2018. By the time it was sold to a British media startup called Moonbug in 2020, it was an unprecedented juggernaut.

Moonbug’s existence is a case study on the centrality of YouTube to the kid’s entertainment world. The company has grown by acquiring already-popular YouTube channels and making them obscenely popular multi-platform brands. (In addition to Cocomelon, it also owns Blippi and Little Baby Bum.) A year after it landed Cocomelon, Moonbug itself was sold for a reported $3 billion to a Los Angeles–based entertainment startup called Candle Media, which was founded by a former Disney and TikTok executive and is backed by the private equity firm Blackstone.

After Moonbug got on the scene, Cocomelon and its other hits went from being YouTube sensations to simply ubiquitous. Starting in 2020, Cocomelon jumped over to Netflix, where it has remained one of the most-watched children’s titles globally ever since. And that was just the beginning. “Our content is on 180 platforms around the world,” Moonbug’s managing director Andy Yeatman says. In addition to all the major US streamers, Cocomelon and other Moonbug shows appear on international broadcasters like the BBC, Germany’s SuperRTL, Brazil’s Globo, as well as Chinese streaming platforms owned by ByteDance and iQIYI.

When Moonbug started attempting to strike deals with more traditional media companies, they struggled to convey exactly how big the properties they owned already were. “In the first couple years, it was definitely a hurdle to get them to take us seriously,” Yeatman says. “It was, Oh, it’s just YouTube content. But we don’t get that anymore.”

Now, streamers vie for said YouTube content. Moonbug has struck deals to create exclusive spin-off programs based on its preexisting shows for several major platforms. An offshoot of its property My Magic Pet Morphle will debut on Disney+ next year.

Meanwhile, both streamers and traditional broadcast and cable channels are now creating their own content specifically for YouTube. “They’ve moved to embrace the platform,” YouTube’s head of family partnerships Lauren Glaubach says. Disney, for example, has put whole episodes of its new animated show Star Wars Young Jedi on the platform, a move Glaubach sees as expanding its audience. “You look at these full-length episodes on YouTube and there are over 34 million views in total.”

Part of the great appeal of YouTube is that anyone can upload a video to the platform. It’s also the great problem of YouTube: Moderating the world’s largest repository of user-generated video is impossible to do flawlessly. And while Disney is finding additional audiences from using YouTube, it was also at the center of one of the platform’s biggest scandals: Elsagate.

In 2015, YouTube launched an app especially for children, YouTube Kids. It was meant to curate high-quality, child-appropriate videos. And it did, mostly. But bad actors sought to piggyback on the demand for actual kid’s programming with low-quality, hastily-made videos that often included disturbing storylines and imagery. Some of these videos took beloved cartoon characters and created knock-off content with decidedly freaky, unsettling plotlines. (Sample title: “PAW Patrol Babies Pretend to Die Suicide by Annabelle Hypnotized.”) The character Elsa from Disney’s megahit Frozen was a frequently-bootlegged character, so people following the scandal ended up nicknaming it after her.

YouTube conducted a massive purge of the offending videos and channels after the Elsagate controversy; in the years since, its moderation efforts appear to have paid off. (I recently spent several hours trying to find inappropriate content on YouTube Kids; I found some mildly puerile fart videos, but nothing truly disturbing.) Josh Cohen, the founder of creator-economy news website TubeFilter, has followed YouTube’s approach to kids content since the beginning, and believes the platform was “whipped into shape” by the backlash. “It’s a testament to YouTube responding to criticisms,” he says.

Still, to this day, not every parent feels comfortable plopping their kid down with a tablet and YouTube, and that’s one of the ways some of the original children’s television purveyors continue to thrive. PBS, for example, may have far more competition than it did when Sesame Street launched, but it’s managed to carve out a successful lane for itself, in part by adapting early to the digital-video space and preserving its quality-first reputation.

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PBS launched its own digital video player back in 2007. “YouTube already existed at that point and we had been watching it carefully, but we just didn’t feel like it was a safe place for us right out of the gate. But because a lot of kids were on it, we were like, OK, we’ll launch our own player,” Sara DeWitt, the senior vice president and general manager of PBS Kids, says.

PBS did embrace YouTube eventually, though. When YouTube Kids launched, DeWitt says PBS worked to be one of the app’s “anchor tenants,” in part because it wanted to be on the platforms where its target audience already spent time.

For that reason, the public broadcaster has also been on the forefront of another shift. For well over a decade now, PBS Kids has considered gaming as an essential component of its programming. “We made the decision in the early 2000s that our shows were going to be multi-platform. Meaning, it would be shows and games. When you pitched to PBS kids, you really tried to come with a world, because we weren’t launching any shows without a gaming element as well,” DeWitt says.

This melding together of children’s television and children’s gaming is only accelerating. David Kleeman, a senior vice president at the game development studio Dubit, has studied children’s entertainment for decades (he’s the former president of the American Center for Children and Media) and he’s tracking how these two worlds are colliding.

Kleeman has already seen children enthusiastically watching video content within gaming platforms, and believes this type of screen time will be increasingly commonplace in the future.

In 2022, the anime-adventure series Bakugan Battle Planet launched a blended experience where kids playing on Roblox could stream episodes of the series within the gaming platform. Kleeman tested what it was like to watch within Roblox; he navigated his avatar over to a screen, where other people had done the same, creating a virtual screening room. “There were all kinds of other avatars, bouncing and running around,” he says. “It felt like I wasn’t watching TV alone.”

Other industry experts suspect gaming will have an even more prominent role in children’s entertainment in the future. Libby Hunt, the research manager at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Digital Wellness Lab, sees the trend toward more immersive, interactive digital entertainment as already underway. “The popularity of online environments like Minecraft or Roblox really encapsulates this shift,” she says. Hunt predicts even more “blending” of gaming and television in the future for young kids. (This is a trend that is even further along with older kids, who frequent apps like Twitch to watch gaming streams.)

In addition to television shows cropping up within gaming platforms, gaming content is already widespread on television and streaming video, and there’s no sign of that abating. Recently, Amazon’s Freevee platform announced a deal to create channels devoted to Minecraft and Roblox gameplay and tutorials, a category of video already prevalent on YouTube.

The category of “children’s television” has existed for nearly as long as television has, but it is an increasingly leaky category. As spending time on online platforms like YouTube and Roblox supplants sitting in front of an old-fashioned television set, the very idea of “kids tv” becomes as antiquated as Saturday morning cartoons.

Still, some things stay constant. “What really fascinates me is that for all the contextual changes of how we watch, how we play, how we do all those things—child development doesn’t change,” Kleeman says. Kids will always pay attention to a captivating show—whether or not it’s on television is besides the point.

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