When Eric Nelson’s 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte, or 10-year-old son, Asa, discover that they cannot rewind or fast-forward a TV show, they are perplexed – and their father is, too. It is hard to explain the limitations of live television to children who have grown up in an on-demand world.
"They say ‘live TV’ the way I say ‘doing my taxes’ – with resignation," said Nelson, a literary agent in New York.
Charlotte and Asa, like many children, perceive all of television to be more Netflix than Nickelodeon: on demand and on their schedule, not the networks’. Their expectations – that every episode of every show is available anytime – give a glimpse into the future of entertainment, and are already shaping the decisions of media executives who are their grandparents’ ages.
Netflix, Amazon and other streaming video services are competing ferociously for children’s programming. And networks that cater to children are starting to show programs online before they appear on old-fashioned television.
"Kids today don’t know a world where they had to wait for a program," said Tara Sorensen, the head of original programming at Amazon Studios.
As Sorensen’s title indicates, Amazon and its rivals are commissioning new shows, including, they hope, the next big hits for children while bidding handsomely for the rights to repeats of shows like "SpongeBob SquarePants."
But stalwarts like Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel are not yielding ground. They are promoting new phone and tablet apps that give cable and satellite subscribers streamlined access to programs. Disney, for example, is planning on showing the first nine episodes of "Sheriff Callie’s Wild West" online this month, several months before showing the program on the Disney Channel. New business models are being tried all the time: "Sesame Street," while still available free over the public airwaves, can now also be seen for $4 a month on YouTube.
Children like Charlotte Nelson – who likes to turn on the Nintendo Wii U and watch movies on Netflix when she wakes up – are hot commodities, they just are not old enough to know it.
Disney, Netflix and other companies are being driven in part by studies that show children are gravitating toward tablets and phones, and away from the big-screen television. A study by Common Sense Media, released in October, found that "the average amount of time children spend using mobile devices has tripled" since 2011, from five minutes a day to 15. The average amount of time in front of the TV set is still much greater – about 75 minutes a day – but the group said it was "down substantially" from 2011. Children are increasingly choosing a personal (and malleable) touch screen over a television screen.
Disney and others also are influenced by the fact that children are natural binge viewers, but with a twist. When children are enamored of a show (or, more specifically, a character) they want to watch the same episode over and over again and learn every detail of it. Instead of binge viewing as their parents do, they dij‘ view.
Certainly this repetitive behavior has been observed by researchers at least since the invention of the children’s book – everyone can remember a cherished book that was read and reread. But the streaming services and video-on-demand systems powered by cable providers make it easier than ever. There are fewer chances to stumble upon a broadcast episode of Cartoon Network’s "Adventure Time," and certainly no rewinding of a VHS tape. And tantrums about a lost DVD have been superseded by tears when a Wi-Fi connection fails.
According to Amazon, 65 percent of the most-replayed programs on its streaming service, Prime Instant Video, are shows for children. Within the Amazon Kindle’s subscription service for children ages 3 to 8, called FreeTime Unlimited, nearly half of all video views are second-, third- or fourth-time views.
For younger children, re-watching involves learning – shows for preschoolers are the ones re-watched most by families that subscribe to Netflix. For older children, it involves enjoying the humor in specific episodes.
Netflix enters programming negotiations armed with these observations. Its executives assert that it does not need to license every episode of a hit children’s show, as long as it has enough episodes to satisfy its youngest viewers.
Netflix’s latest deal with PBS, for example, includes 30 episodes of "Arthur" produced from 2009 through 2011, out of a total of 195 episodes. "We understand how kids watch, and we use that information in how we license," a spokeswoman said.
Netflix and other streaming services put a premium on being the only destination for must-see programs. But so do cable channels like the Viacom-owned Nickelodeon – so the competition can be fierce. A licensing deal between Netflix and Viacom ended in May. A few days later, Amazon Prime started carrying Nickelodeon’s "Bubble Guppies," "The Backyardigans" and other series. (Those shows also are available through Nickelodeon’s apps and websites. The channel said its app had been downloaded 5 million times.)
Netflix tried to one-up Amazon by announcing deals with Disney, PBS and Scholastic. But both services will soon compete in another category, original programming for children. Netflix will start DreamWorks’ "Turbo: F.A.S.T.," an animated spinoff of the film flop "Turbo," in December, and will have 300 hours of original programming from DreamWorks later. Amazon is set to start offering three of its own children’s series next year.
Not surprisingly, families with children are more likely to subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime than those without, according to GFK, a market researcher.
"Popular children’s programs can be a really big driver of use," and can keep parents paying for the services, said David Tice, a GFK media analyst.
Of course, the major media companies that produce and distribute programming for children shudder at the thought of being portrayed as enablers of binge viewing. Public relations representatives for several companies took pains to note the parental controls built into their services.
On the plus side for some parents, Netflix and Amazon’s streaming services have no advertising, unlike traditional television. Nelson has noticed that while Asa is annoyed when he cannot fast-forward through boring ads, Charlotte is not. Why? He chalks it up to the fact that she has seen so few commercials in her life, because she is accustomed to streaming. "Instead of being annoyed" by the ads, he said, "she’s intrigued."
This year, both children took a liking to the Nickelodeon series "Peter Rabbit." But only 18 episodes have been broadcast, and they had to wait a week for new ones. Try explaining network scheduling logic to a 6-year-old.
"What about YouTube?," Nelson said Charlotte asked him. He had to explain about the future episodes, "They literally haven’t made them yet, honey."