Big Bird heads to HBO as kids TV landscape shifts

Adriene Hill Jan 15, 2016

Big Bird heads to HBO as kids TV landscape shifts

Adriene Hill Jan 15, 2016

Sesame Street launches its 46th season on Saturday, with a new theme song, a freshened up street and a new address, brought to you by the letters H, B and O. The children’s show will be available initially only to HBO subscribers. After nine months, episodes will move over to PBS.

The shift ranks as one of the most dramatic changes in an industry that itself is undergoing dramatic change.

For years, kids shows were pretty much a Saturday morning affair. Lots of cartoons and lots of ads for sugary cereal and toys. Then the broadcast networks discovered they could make more money airing sports and general programming.

Kids shows moved to cable, and players like Nickelodeon and Disney still attract lots of little eyeballs. But streaming services like Netflix and Amazon — as well as YouTube — are gaining on them.

“We’re seeing a new paradigm where parents and families have more choices,” said Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, a non-profit that rates and reviews kids programming. “Where you are seeing cord cutters and streaming systems that give more options to children and their families.” 

A 2014 study from SNL Kagan found that nearly a quarter of the TV content on Amazon is for kids. Nearly a fifth of the shows on Netflix are geared to children. Choices ranges from the classics like PBS’s  “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to original content like “Tumble Leaf” on Amazon. 

Steyer says there are good reasons subscription services are going after kids.

“It’s a big market and you can make a lot of money,” he said. “You can also build lifelong loyalty among kids and families.” That’s because it might be easy enough to cancel your Netflix subscription when “House of Cards” ends, but it will be a lot harder once your kid has become deeply attached to “Dinotrux.”

And loyalty isn’t the only payoff. 

Tim Westcott, an entertainment-industry analyst with IHS, says “kids will watch episodes of an animated show repeatedly. So you’re going to get a lot more mileage out of that content if you’re targeting a kids’ audience.”

Westcott says parents may also be more willing to pay for a subscription because their kids won’t be “bombarded with commercials and advertising.”

But parents won’t settle for the basic stuff that used to pass as children’s programming. And that’s driving up costs.

Sesame Workshop, which makes “Sesame Street,”  lost more than $7 million in fiscal year 2015. Part of the reason the Workshop struck a deal with HBO, was to help keep Sesame Street on the air.

“Kids are used to seeing really high quality media,” says Lesli Rotenberg, general manager of Children’s media at PBS, which produces shows like “Curious George” and “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”  “And that’s what they expect all the time now.”

Rotenberg says creating a show has also become much more involved. “We used to think about a show as being linear and narrative,” she said. “Now we think about a show in terms of trans-media. We’re creating a world that kids can play in.”

And that world extends to tablets. computers, smartphones. PBS Kids, for instance, has more than 40 apps.

But for all the changes in kids TV, Rotenberg says kids still want the same things they’ve always wanted: fun characters, who their parents will let into the living room and good stories.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.