Global Kids Media: Where It Started, How It’s Going, Where It’s Headed

By Emily Horgan, Advisor-in-Residence, The Project X Institute

Where It Started

2010 must have been a wonderful time for US kids media executives. International channels Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney Channel had successfully launched during the 1990s and 2000s, helping to create new franchises on a global scale.

In 2010, YouTube was also quietly solidifying itself as a go-to platform for kids: free at the point of use, no requirement to sign up, and accessible on any connected device. The skew on desktop versus mobile viewing was obviously higher than it is today, but a new behavior was being established with families around the world. Kids content was available on demand, and at scale.

This development was supporting a burgeoning cottage industry for kids content production. Creators were realizing that there was money to be made serving younger audiences on YouTube. Unboxing, “let’s play” gaming content and low-budget animated nursery rhymes would become established formats on the platform.

As the 2010s progressed, streaming would hold an increasingly central position in kids’ viewing. Families have long been known as a loyal and lucrative consumer segment. Industry disrupter Netflix also recognized the value of supporting this need, and invested heavily in kids content. Today, up to 60% of its subscribers access kids content.

As digital-first IPs and creators from YouTube matured, their business models diversified. Companies like Moonbug Entertainment and PocketWatch entered the space to support enhanced commercialization across content distribution and consumer products. For kids content at least, exclusivity has never been key. When you have a hit, broader distribution means bigger revenue. More is more.

How It’s Going

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic thoroughly cemented kids on-demand media consumption patterns, with the global rollout of multiple new streaming services giving parents more viewing options as the working/parenting lockdown struggle took hold.

The pandemic also emphasized and normalized time spent by older kids on platforms like Roblox and Minecraft. Suddenly, online was the only option to socialize with friends. Whilst adults question when the metaverse is coming, kids are already there.

This is the reality of building a brand for kids today. A stand-alone series or game isn’t going to be enough to push franchise levels of success. A YouTube channel, a Roblox presence, and distribution on multiple platforms also need to form part of the mix.

Brand origination continues to come from multiple places: digital-first IPs like CoComelon and Blippi; streaming originals like Gabby’s Dollhouse from DreamWorks. Traditional avenues still work too: Bluey started with ABC Australia and is now a global hit.

One group that appears slightly underserved by traditional media formats is young teens/tweens. Viewing by this group often bleeds into content targeted at adults. Nielsen Streaming Content Ratings from 2021 saw the ultra-violent Squid Game pop in engagement with this demo. Netflix have made an excellent play for this audience more broadly, with investment in a vast volume of “teen” movies. In terms of transitioning the audience, this dovetails nicely with marquee Originals like Stranger Things.

Discoverability and Data Disclosure

Looking forward, the kids content industries face new challenges in discoverability and data disclosure. Legacy series from the 2010s would not have enjoyed the same level of success if they hadn’t been nurtured on their home platforms, through heavy investments in marketing and programming. The scant 7- and 28-day benchmarks shared by Netflix with program makers measure the bingeability of a show, but this mainly suits drama – kids binge television in a very different way. Today, kids content companies struggle to understand the performance of their content across different platforms. An independent measurement solution seems to be the best answer.

Gearing discovery algorithms and visual real estate completely towards a narrow perception of bingeability may not support the pipeline of new kids shows that need space to grow and find an audience. Netflix has yet to have a kids original which has broken through at a franchise level – and there may be good reasons for this, relating to the design of their interface and approach to marketing and promoting new shows.

On the other side of the coin is YouTube. Content performance data here is as transparent as you like, though this radical availability isn’t as helpful as it might sound. Too much data is nearly as difficult to assess as too little. However, as the platform is more dependent on social media than other streamers, there is a playbook that’s regularly iterated, based on users’ experiences. This playbook changes though, like it did for kids content creators in 2020, after the platform was heavily sanctioned by the Federal Communications Commission.

Where It’s Headed

As we look to the future, I think it’s fair to say that, as far as kids content is concerned, YouTube hasn’t killed and won’t kill the television star. Both will have their share of attention, though the television star will also be the streaming star. Could the metaverse in the 2020s be for kids content what YouTube was in the 2010s? Could there potentially be a cottage industry growing in the metaverse that will be a new source of kids IP for the next decade? Certainly, any kids media company that’s dipping their toe in this space now will need to be all in by 2030.

The other question is the space that YouTube inhabits in the daily lives of kids worldwide. The platform didn’t do right by younger audiences for more than a decade. The sweeping changes introduced since 2020 are said to impact creator income by as much as 90%. Taking this into account, it seems unlikely that the platform will continue to thrive as a hotbed of creative industriousness in the same way that it did during the 2010s. Another factor to consider is how the kids AVOD space is evolving. As Netflix enter this space, with others potentially following, it feels like YouTube’s position might not be as solid as it once was.

About the author:

Emily is an independent media consultant and former Disney executive. She currently works with clients focusing on creative and strategic development of kids IP, distribution landscape analysis, and digital anti-piracy enforcement.

She has undertaken extensive research and published analysis on the Netflix kids’ strategy. She also has significant first-hand experience in SVOD and YouTube from her time at Disney.

Emily’s background is television, where her specialty was driving content distribution strategies across EMEA that synergized with other businesses including consumer products, publishing, and gaming. She has worked with many leading franchises including Star Wars, Marvel, Disney Princess and Mickey Mouse, devising approaches for all release windows from theatrical to social.

Before joining Disney, Emily worked in production and broadcast management in Toronto and her native city Dublin.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Mediagenix or The Project X Institute.