From Monolith to Multiform: Managing Complexity in Children’s Media

By David Kleeman, SVP of Insights Program and PlayVangelist, PlayCollective, New York.

When I entered the industry, children’s media was pretty simple: Saturday morning TV and PBS. Both viewed the children’s audience as a monolith; the networks aimed cartoons at 6- to 11-year-olds and PBS covered preschoolers (and then, only with Mister Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street).

As niche cable channels prospered and proliferated, programmers recognized the business opportunities in segmenting the children’s demographic by age – a toddler and a tween have little in common when it comes to engagement, entertainment, learning or buying habits. Suddenly, producers had to understand developmental hallmarks and abilities.

With the advent of the Internet, content creators added a third dimension beyond content and age – platform choice. TV companies initially saw online merely as promotion for their broadcasts, but Web-specific developers were already exploring unique interactive possibilities.

Since the arrival of mobile – smartphones and tablets – calculations for developing across multiple platforms have gotten much more challenging. As a 2013 Senior Fellow for the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, I created the “Rubric’s Cube,” a multi-dimensional set of inter-related considerations for children’s media developers.  These elements – the content and its intent (e.g., to educate, instruct, inspire, entertain), the context of planned use (when, how, why and with whom), the target audience’s age and developmental stage, the affordances of the destination platform or platforms – reflect more than just possibilities; they’re central to any creative or business plan as the basis for how today’s families find, choose, and use screen media.

The children’s media industry used to talk of “360 commissioning,” or simultaneous development across all available platforms. The problem was that the “360” in question was the distributor’s (a bit of desperation, a need to leave no space unbranded) not the child’s (whose mix and balance of platforms vary widely depending on age, location and interests).

(To be fair, this was, to some extent, self-protective bet hedging, at a time when rapidly-changing technology meant one could start creative development for one ecosystem only to find it obsolete before completion.)

Now, industry research is developing more timely methods for mining insights into kids’ and families’ media behaviors and preferences, allowing content creators to be better informed about the nuanced ecosystem they’re entering. And, wow, is it ever necessary.

Between 2010 and 2014, the tablet went from ingénue device to being in 50% of US homes with children; the smartphone reached 75% penetration. The most popular kids’ game titles changed wholesale, as play shifted from computer to mobile.

Moreover, a 2013 PlayScience Global Gaming Generations study found that “tech generations” are shrinking – across ages 2-5, 6-9 and 10-13, interactive device of choice changes substantially. Younger kids lean toward tablets, whereas older kids are oriented toward computer and gaming systems.

Of course, television is still kids’ preferred medium, but even the definition of TV is changing as SVOD services augment family viewing patterns. With rabid use of mobile devices in homes (especially by kids), many developers are also thinking about how to supplement the “bigger screen” screen with “second screen” opportunities. But what uses will unite and enhance experiences across screens as opposed to dividing attention and diffusing a brand?

A big part of the answer may lie in millennial parents. We finally have a moment when moms, dads and kids all grew up immersed in interactive media and where both parents and their children crave shared play experiences. Parents believe in technology’s positive power: PlayScience research around families’ adoption of e-reading found that when parents perceive apps or books to be educational (imparting substantive knowledge or 21st century critical skills), they’re happier about handing over their smartphone or tablet.

Grandparents are engaged, as well. The current generation is younger and more affluent, able and eager to spend for the benefit of their grandkids.

The Rubric’s Cube keeps growing in complexity, now with near infinite variations. There’s one thing that we at PlayCollective know for certain, however,:successful efforts begin with understanding of an experience the audience wants and their motivation to pursue it, not from the delivery platform(s). Success comes from knowing how, when, where and why today’s kids and families play and learn together.

It’s time to cast aside the old “chocolate covered broccoli” or “gamification” that we thought drove mediated learning. Kids are makers, not just consumers, so give them “playification” (design that exploits natural play patterns) and tools for achieving mastery of what sparks them. They will pursue their passions to the ends of the earth (or at least the ends of the internet), and take their parents along for the ride.

David Kleeman is Senior Vice President of Insights Programs and PlayVangelist for PlayCollective in New York, a global research, strategic business planning, and multi-platform product development company working at the intersection of kids and families, learning and play.  From 1988-2013, Kleeman was President of the American Center for Children and Media. He moderates a Facebook forum for Children and Media Professionals.

The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to their colleagues followers and the public at large.  In their own words, they address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital.  Unique to cynopsis, Cynsiders lives on the homepage and is promoted across the daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at [email protected]


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