Kids Play in Fractured Media Playground
'Fun for all ages' label doesn't apply
October 3, 2008
The chaotic and challenging task of
entertaining kids and families is demonstrated vividly
by recent TV ads for Chrysler's Town & Country minivan.
Touting ties with Nickelodeon and sophisticated onboard
gadgetry, the spots show a typical family of four being
able to transfer the individualized experiences in the
house directly to the road. Junior plays a videogame,
his sister watches "SpongeBob SquarePants," mom listens
to satellite radio, and dad gazes contentedly at the
man-friendly dashboard and then the highway. Goodbye
station wagon and "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall."
That tableau is not so comforting for TV execs trying to
woo family auds in a media landscape increasingly marked
by customization and age fragmentation. Mobile devices,
Web video, online social networks, vidgames, DVRs and
homevid options have disrupted audiences' small-screen
habits and upended traditional ad models.
Overall TV viewership has remained steady despite it
all, but except for rare events (generally sports), the
mass-audience virtual campfire has become a thousand
points of light. In the kids-and-family racket, business
has boomed of late, and yet the old label "fun for the
whole family" is about as relevant as a G rating.
Nielsen's long-established, overlapping age ranges -- 2
to 11 years old, 6 to 11 and 9 to 14 -- grow more
archaic by the hour. Titles such as Disney's "High
School Musical" and "Hannah Montana" or Nick's "iCarly"
and "Naked Brothers Band" manage to pull in mass auds,
but internally, a lot of kid-focused networks target
For example, the bustling preschool demo for 2-5s has
mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar derby for dozens
of shows on a half-dozen nets domestically. Tween fare
has also experienced a boom, especially since Disney
made an aggressive move a few years ago to reclaim
ground ceded to Nick in the '90s.
How Disney does it
If anyone can claim to still be aiming for the masses,
it's the Mouse House.
"Do we slice and dice? No," says Richard Loomis, senior
VP of marketing and creative for Disney Channel. "Do we
try to be smart and focused and target people based on
their media habits? Yes, that's something we look at. We
don't ever look to exclude a demo."
Loomis cites "Phineas and Ferb," which launched last
January. The toon was intended to balance out the
female-skewing net's offering, though it still needed to
get everybody into the tent.
"It's a mosaic approach," the exec says. "You have the
foundation of mass media to get kids interested, but
then you complement that with print, digital and
grassroots efforts. We had a big presence on the Winter
X Games for example, which delivered boys."
Other players aren't as interested in completing the
whole mosaic -- content to pursue certain tiles.
"People who try to be all things to all people wind up
being nothing to nobody," says Cheryl Gotthelf, senior
VP at Chorion, the U.K. company behind Nick's upcoming
"Olivia" and Cartoon Network's "The Mr. Men Show."
"Mr. Men," based on the 37-year-old line of books
depicting characters defined by their emotions (source
of the original "Little Miss Sunshine"), straddles the
2-5 and 6-11 demos. Built on today's multiplatform
model, the show has robust ancillary components -- from
online games to consumer products -- that relieve
pressure from the TV show to dominate the entire demo.
For some ages, the T-shirts and games are the entry
point. Adults who themselves grew up on the books are
also fueling sales, as is the case with other new
series, like Nick's "Banana Splitz"-
endebted "Yo Gabba Gabba."
"We have this very elastic program," Gotthelf says.
"Self-expression has hit at the heartbeat of this
generation. Today's consumers, from a very early age,
are about personalization and customization."
As if marketing weren't anxiety-provoking enough, there
are also plenty of pitfalls for programmers and
development execs. Now that the larger age headings are
breaking into smaller units, the temptation is to
micro-target and build a portfolio of programs that,
taken together, reaches everybody.
Such is the case with preschool nets, which appeal at
various times of the day to 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds but
seldom to all of them at once. Tweens, similarly, are a
compressed demo, and while some properties "age down" to
draw 5- and 6-year-olds, the sweet spot tends to be
8-11. That narrow range can drive a vast array of
revenue-producing extensions, from Broadway shows to
soundtracks, but it also can be a straitjacket for
actors. Witness the flap over Vanity Fair's racy Miley
Cyrus photo shoot, or Josh Peck's stoner role in "The
Boys vs. girls
Gender also plays an increasingly prominent role. "Shows
have become much more deliberately aimed at boys or
girls because they can more easily get traction that
way," notes Alice Wilder, who spent a decade as chief
researcher on "Blue's Clues" and now produces PBS'
As the cross-currents continue, some vets caution
against too much calculation by those on the creative
"It's always problematic when show creators try to take
the age of the audience into consideration," says Josh
Selig, founder and head of Little Airplane, the New York
animation boutique known for Nick's "Wonder Pets!" The
company, which employs about 70 people, has just
announced plans to expand into the feature film arena
with family offerings.
How will Little Airplane define the family audience?
Based on material, Selig maintains. "Time and time
again, I've seen people try to make a show more
aspirational and then they lose the younger kids, or
they've tried to go younger and the older ones lose
interest. And before they know it, they've diluted the
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