Kidscreen » Archive » Is vertical content the future of kids entertainment?

For prodcos making content for kids, the world is shrinking…and fast. Screen sizes are getting smaller, episode durations are getting shorter, and content producers are responding with snackable morsels that can be easily consumed on pocket-sized devices.

The reason is simple: Ownership of smartphones is aging down at an extraordinary rate, resulting in higher-than-ever demand for short-form kids programming, according to the latest data from UK-based researcher and consulting firm Dubit.

The migration of kid eyeballs to smartphone screens started well before the pandemic turned the world upside-down. But the radical change in how kids content is consumed was accelerated by quarantine conditions, says David Kleeman, SVP of global trends for Dubit. “We knew that we would get here sooner or later, but it probably arrived a little quicker than we anticipated,” he notes.

During the pandemic, with its ubiquitous lockdowns, online learning and shelter-in-place mandates, more and more parents around the globe began allowing their kids to have phones at a younger age.

“A lot of parents wanted their kids to have the freedom that a smartphone brings,” says Kleeman. “Even if they couldn’t be with their friends or go outside, they wanted to be in touch with [their friends].”

According to Dubit’s latest trend study, 57% of nine- to 12-year-olds surveyed in the US now have their own smartphones. In some European countries, like Germany, that number jumps way up to around 77%.

And smartphone ownership among an even younger cohort is also growing. “In the past, we found that the tablet was a rite of passage for six- to eight-year-olds,” says Kleeman. “But kids are starting to feel like tablets are for babies now. It’s a shift from push to pull—younger kids are now wanting to be in control of their engagement.”

The current revolution in smartphone ownership promises to usher in a “total revision of thinking on the part of content creators,” adds Kleeman.

But one company’s attempt to exploit the growing appetite for short-form, smartphone-exclusive programming for an older demographic offers something of a cautionary tale—namely, the high-profile flop of mobile streaming venture Quibi, founded by former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg in 2020. The startup commissioned hundreds of millions of dollars in content before shutting down operations after only seven months.

Kleeman acknowledges that the timing of Quibi’s launch could not have been worse. It debuted in April 2020 and was, to put it charitably, DOA. “Those little moments that they were programming for, like waiting for a bus or short breaks at work, all at once just disappeared,” he says. “That was obviously out of their control, but there was a major miscalculation beyond that, too.”

The crucial mistake, according to Kleeman, was the underlying incongruity between the programming Quibi was commissioning and the way it was going to be consumed.

“The content has to fit the platform,” he says. “[The series that they were commissioning] were too much like traditional TV. With high-budget stuff, people want to enjoy it, see it on a big screen and become immersed. I think people might have looked at it and said, ‘I don’t want to watch this in five-minute chunks on my phone.’”

Marrying medium and message is as important in the kids space as it is in the adult space, according to Anttu Harlin, CEO of Gigglebug. In fact, the Helsinki, Finland-based prodco has taken this idea to the extreme with its new original series Tadpoles, which was created to be watched vertically rather than horizontally.

Appropriately set in a pond, the animated series is designed to be consumed on a smartphone, emphasizes Harlin. “In Lord of the Rings, the characters are on a quest, moving from left to right across the screen,” he says. “That is meant for a wide screen. We thought that since Tadpoles is going to be watched primarily on smartphones, we need to flip it around [and make the action vertical].”

Just as the physical design of a series has to be adapted to fit the specific size and shape of a smartphone, so too does the duration. That’s where the concept of “snackability” comes into play. “We know that shorter content works better on a phone,” says Kleeman. “Look at the rise of TikTok as the most obvious example.”

On smartphones, the pace of consumption and other factors like FOMO (the dreaded “fear of missing out”) have put an unprecedented premium on bite-sized programming that runs anywhere between 10 seconds and two minutes long.

“If a child watches something that doesn’t really engage them, at least they aren’t missing something else that would,” he explains. “It doesn’t represent a huge time commitment, and if they get interrupted, it’s not a big deal.”

The challenging part of creating short-duration content is that it’s counterintuitive to everything we know about brand-building in the entertainment space.

And this consideration is paramount for Harlin. “I don’t think [short-form content] gives you as deep a commitment to the characters on an emotional level,” he says, adding that revenue from ancillary streams such as licensing and merchandising is only possible when that critical connection is cemented. “We think of micro-content on digital platforms as a starting point; it’s pretty risky to build your monetization model on revenues from mobile alone.”

In the end, while the changing technological environment is transforming what kids watch and for how long, prodcos will want to make sure that their bottom lines won’t shrink along with screen sizes.

That’s why Harlin insists that the age-old tenets of storytelling must apply.

“Whatever the format, we still need people to come away saying, ‘Wow, these characters are awesome’ and ‘I want to hear more of this story!’”

This story originally appeared in Kidscreen‘s Oct/Nov 2022 magazine issue.