Netflix isn’t just for adults. If you have kids or spend any time around them, you are well aware that the streaming service offers lots of viewing options for children up to age 12, and they love their shows just as much as we love Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
In fact, it’s not difficult to find a preschooler who is into Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, two of the vegetable characters featured on VeggieTales in the House; a six-year-old who digs those hybrid dinosaur/construction vehicles featured on Dinotrux; or an 11-year-old who relates to the smart-girl sleuths on Project Mc².
Netflix first began providing content for children in 2011 when it launched a dedicated kids section. And, at first, the kids section was populated with TV shows and movies licensed from PBS, Disney Channel, and Cartoon Network, among other sources.
But in 2013, Netflix got ambitious about producing original content for kids and committed to a deal with DreamWorks Animation for 300 hours of original content that has, thus far, yielded programming including Turbo FAST, Netflix’s first original series for children; the aforementioned Dinotrux, which debuted just this month and is based on Chris Gall’s books; and All Hail King Julien, which has won three Daytime Emmys, including one for Outstanding Children’s Animated Program.
A total of 14 original shows made for Netflix’s kids section have premiered to date on the streaming service, with six of those shows produced by DreamWorks and eight from other production partners. And there are plenty more in the pipeline.
Why make such a big investment in kids programming? “The way we think about it is that as an on-demand service we want to have something for everyone in the household,” reasons Erik Barmack, Netflix’s VP of global independent content.
Barmack, who grew up in the ’70s when kids had to be satisfied with Saturday morning cartoons, thinks it’s great that today’s youngsters have more viewing options. “I think the level of sophistication and programming is really high now, and I’m not just talking about Netflix,” he muses. “I’m talking about kids television in general.”
Here, Barmack talks to Co.Create about how Netflix approaches programming its kids channel as well as the unique benefits a streaming service has when it comes to procuring and producing content aimed at its youngest customers.
According to Barmack (and an anecdotal search of parenting blogs), parents in search of programming for their kids to enjoy come to Netflix with an appreciation of the fact that it’s a subscription service that doesn’t interrupt its shows with messages from sponsors hawking merchandise. “It creates a whole different experience for parents, who can be sensitive about advertising,” says Barmack.
No advertising also benefits Netflix in that the streaming service isn’t required to—or pressured to—cater to the wants and needs of advertisers when it produces content. “That really gives us a lot of flexibility about how we think about programming,” Barmack says.
While television networks typically have to meet strict specifications when it comes to programming, Netflix is free of those conventions. “When you’re in an on-demand world, you’re not obligated to fit a particular structure,” says Barmack. “We don’t have to produce 26 half-hour 22-minute blocks that will show up at a particular time. We start from a base of, ‘Let’s be really open-minded as to what the right format is for the show.”
Kids programming on Netflix is delivered in varied formats. The upcoming Kong—King of the Apes will first be shown as an animated movie when it debuts in 2016, then it will appear as episodic series. Meanwhile, Project Mc², the tween-oriented live-action spy series, has just three episodes.
Another plus for Netflix: The streaming service isn’t locked into programming for kids in three-year cycles. That means a preschooler will have access to relatable content right through his or her tween years (and beyond). “We have content that grows as they grow,” Barmack says. In other words: Kids won’t grow out of Netflix.
“We have a lot of data because we’ve been doing this for several years,” Barmack says. “We can look at what’s been working, what reaches a broad audience and so on.”
That said, the kids programming team at Netflix doesn’t make decisions based solely on statistics. “We also want to be thoughtful,” Barmack says, noting that programmers routinely ask questions like: Are there enough shows for different age groups and different educational segments? Is the selection of content broad enough?
“We might find that we’re missing a really great show for five-year-old boys,” he says, “so it’s like, ‘Let’s go find a show like that.’ In all cases, our decisions come down to: Is the story idea good? Do we feel the team can execute on it? And is there a programmatic need for that show? It’s part art, and it’s part science.”
It isn’t just adults who are being exposed to television programming from around the globe these days. Netflix is giving American kids the chance to watch a lot of shows produced outside of the U.S. Mako Mermaids: An H2O Adventure is from Australia. Netflix will air a new season of Canada’s famed Degrassi series called Degrassi: Next Class starting next year, and Kong—King of the Apes comes from Japan. “I like the idea that we have kids content from 15-plus countries,” Barmack says, noting he is particularly proud that Netflix can offer that kind of international exposure and variety to its young audience.
According to the results of a global Netflix research study released in June, 85% of the dads surveyed have introduced their kids to the cartoons they grew up watching, or they plan to do so, and 66% of those fathers use Internet TV services like Netflix to co-view these blasts from their past with their offspring. Netflix has been clued into this reality since it launched its kids channel, and the streaming service runs episodes of classic series like Danger Mouse, Reading Rainbow, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
Netflix is also aggressively invested in new versions of what it calls “heritage programs.” While the reincarnation of Inspector Gadget premiered last March, The New Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show bows October 9, and an updated Danger Mouse is due next spring. A new version of Popples is slated to run later this year, and a fresh take on The Magic School Bus dubbed The Magic School Bus 360 is in the works for 2016. Oh, and let’s not forget the Care Bears. A fresh take called Care Bears and Cousins is premiering next year. “It’s a pleasure for parents to introduce a show they watched to their kids,” Barmack says. “There is a joy factor there that’s really important to us.”