2018: Five notable trends in kids media

David Kleeman

2018 in children’s media was not unlike 2018 in the rest of the world. Disruption, confusion, peaks and valleys – for many, it was a Battle Royale. Here are five things worth spotlighting, that Dubit’s noted over the past year.

The Techlash

Concerns about inappropriate content, marketing and behavior, data safety and privacy are showing up in relentless press stories about a “techlash.” Are Silicon Valley families really banning electronics for their children? Are our kids “addicted” to technology? Almost certainly no and no. That doesn’t mean, though, that worries aren’t filtering through to family practices. In the latest round of Dubit Trends, we’ve seen declines in young people’s engagement with social media and their trust in specific YouTubers.

Perhaps paradoxically, use of YouTube has grown in this recent wave, but that’s not so surprising given the platform’s evolution into young people’s “Me Channel.” It’s their destination for diving into questions and passions, and for being first to discover something new and shareable. In 2019, we’ll be watching to see if the techlash erodes families’ trust in YouTube or leads parents to change kids’ behavior.

Missing thus far from these debates are ideas for models that would be fair to families and sustainable for producers. In early 2019, Dubit will participate in a global conference on ethical practice in children’s digital media.

Netflix Rising

If YouTube is on the spot, Netflix is spot on. For the first time in 2018, Dubit Trends surfaced Netflix’ original shows among kids’ spontaneously-mentioned favorite brands. It has gone from being bought by parents for themselves but kept from “churn” by kids, to being nearly a utility in families’ media universe.

Netflix’ recruiting of top executives from other kid-centric channels, its massive investment in new content, and its ongoing research and development suggest that it will continue to grow, even with the new Disney+ on the horizon. The only blips evident in our research are its failure to break into India, and its trailing behind more localized services like iflix in Asia.

What will we be keeping an eye on in 2019? Will Netflix stand pat on the markets it dominates, or seek to cover the whole world? For IP owners not on the platform, and other distributors, we're exploring what counter-strategies are most effective against a behemoth. And, with so much content arriving on Netflix weekly, we’re considering best marketing practices for those who are on the platform to ensure that the intended audience finds their series.

Magic Numbers

Netflix is famously close-to-the-vest with its data. We know something about their subscribers, but very little about user habits or specific series viewing. That’s only one dimension of growing confusion about program and service metrics, though.

With so many different ways to bring “television” into the home, rating services are struggling to keep up. Some miss out on homes that receive TV from telco broadband services like DirecTV Now, FiOS or Sling TV (an estimated 30 million of the US total 119.9 million TV homes). When kids watch, say, Nickelodeon in one of those households, their viewing doesn't go toward the channel’s ratings.

A recent Bloomberg article contrasted kids’ love for traditional TV and some of its top brands with the sliding ratings for the major children’s channels. We absolutely know that viewing is dropping for these channels, but because of the challenges mentioned above, we don’t really know how steep the drop is now or may be going forward.

For this reason, in 2019 we’ll pay close attention to kids’ own reporting of their video-viewing habits – from the smallest to largest screen, and from traditional to new platforms – and the rise and fall of their favorite characters and brands. For the time being, these are the most reliable indicators of young people’s methods and patterns in sourcing their current and next passions.

Listening is the New Watching

There’s been a lot of attention to voice-activated speakers’ growing role in families’ entertainment. Certainly, as the devices’ listening skills get better at decoding toddler speak (fewer mistakes like this or – worse – this), they make it easier for pre-spellers to surface the content they want.

There’s more to it, though. For families anxious about “screen time” (see Techlash, above), Alexa and her ilk have no screen. The skills being developed for these devices are by and large actively engaging – quizzes or branching adventures, for example. Some are intended for family engagement, such as Novel Effect, which adds music and sound to favorite children’s books in sync with the adult or child reading aloud.

The sonic boom (sorry..) goes further, to include a rush of podcasts for kids. Again, they’re screen free, and a common use case is kids listening in the back seat of the car and adults in the front, while on the way to school or running errands. Parents know that the best conversations with their kids happen in the car, and a great story or nonfiction feature can be a wonderful discussion starter.

Research suggests that background TV (playing constantly without anyone watching) isn’t good for children’s focus, but we’ve been in many homes where the TV appears to be playing to no one, until something from the speakers sparks attention to the screen.

Going forward, we’re eager to hear more about content with thoughtfully-enhanced audio, designed to draw the attention of multi-tasking families so they don’t miss key moments.

Escape from the App Store

Developers have been frustrated with the app store from its Grand Opening. Payment formulas, placement and promotion, rules and limitations make app and game makers feel they have little control over their own creations. Most have found have been few other distribution options, though.

Fortnite owners Epic seem determined to break the cycle. The Android version isn’t installed from the usual app store, giving Epic a break from Google’s fees. Players are discovering that buying Fortnite currency “V-bucks” from the iOS store is more expensive than from other venues, to cover Apple’s cut.

Wherever possible, Epic is pursuing a direct relationship with consumers that they can use to sell the skins, emotes and game passes that fuel their gobsmacking profits from a free game. Epic’s launch of its own store is a bet that its games will remain huge and that it can attract enough other developers to take on the iOS and Android stores as well as Steam.

With both developers and fans rising up, though, 2018 was likely just the thin end of the wedge. The US Supreme Court has already heard oral arguments in an antitrust case against Apple.

Going into 2019, we’ll be evaluating these developments in order that Dubit’s digital studio and its strategy consultancy can give insightful guidance on distribution and monetization strategies. There are many elements to consider: the financial deal, discoverability including promotion and placements, size and fit of the player universe, transparency and ethical practices.

Coming Attractions

The one constant in our industries is change, so we’ll be back in the first weeks of 2019 with five things we’ll be watching in the new year. Until then, Dubit hopes your Christmas is peaceful, bright and playful!

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