The rise of digital platforms poses a fundamental problem for conventional content distributors, and is especially problematic for producers and distributors of children’s content. Kids move fast. They have few legacy behaviours to unlearn. They have time to explore new content options and friends pushing them to try new things. And there are many options ‘good enough’ to hold their attention.
Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube all know that to gain users, they must satisfy families. This has stimulated their ongoing investment in kids content. Smaller distributor-producers like AwesomenessTV, ChuChu TV, Little Baby Bum, and DreamworksTV also see an opening against the established U.S. leaders – Disney, Nickelodeon, and PBS Kids.
And so established media companies now have to find ways to replace declining monthly subscriptions and advertising fees, because new sources of content are creating new behaviour.
The answer to this problem could lie in Artificial Intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML), though not quite in the way you might expect. These technologies open up a new playground for highly connected, pioneering children.
Established Strengths vs. Disruption
As yet there is no new business model to provide a safe-haven for traditional media companies – current users, revenue and profit are at risk, with no single answer to replace it. This is a typical disruption scenario, and media is not alone in facing this existential stress – see the table below. However, few industries have been under this strain for so long and have had their franchises so directly challenged by big Internet companies like Google, Facebook, Netflix and the rest.
Interestingly, many of the questions facing the ‘kids content’ industry in 2016 were visible in 2008.
If you were Disney or Nickelodeon in 2008, riding on decades of a dominant Cable TV business model and looking at the rise of YouTube and interactive video platforms, your natural inclination would be to approach the Internet as an extension of TV.
“How can I make incremental money from this new media channel?”, “What do I have that I can adapt to become interactive?”, and “How can I use this new platform to drive users back to my commercialized TV channel?”
This is a normal business response and it has led to TV Everywhere platforms, video-&-games-oriented web sites, and one-off apps featuring characters popularized on TV.
Making smaller, product-oriented forays into digital is intelligent in the near-term: a branded web site or app, some video shorts, some games. These enhance profitability and extend brand relevance for half a decade or so. But they won’t stave off the larger problem of how to keep audiences from being peeled away layer by layer. And they won’t help leaders understand whether they’ll need a larger transformation, and by when they’ll need to transform.
The problem for the TV and video industry, like many other incumbent industries, is in deciding to take disruption seriously enough, soon enough, to shape consumers’ future experiences. Disruption blindsides executives who are comfortable in their dominant market position. They end up not seeing the real opportunity that new technologies and resulting behavioral shifts open up, because those opportunities are too small and conceptual in nature to experiment with… until they’re claimed by someone else.
We’re at a major inflection point, with the proliferation of video content, messaging tools, and mobile consumption, along with the promise of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Internet of Things, and Artificial Intelligence. It’s similar to the moments that gave birth to Yahoo, Amazon, Google, YouTube, and Facebook; commercialized platforms that simplified the way we find and consume ‘information’. And it is even similar to the rise of cable channels in the early 1980s – MTV, Nickelodeon, ESPN, VH1 and more – who took advantage of new, technology-based, commercializable real-estate to serve the needs of large underserved audiences.
AI Will Help Kids Discover, Playfully
In the near future, the winning ‘information’ solution will come from Artificial Intelligence, and it seems there’s a distinct opportunity for AI designed around kids. Most kids will want and will benefit from AI. They endlessly ask questions. They want to go down rabbit holes of exploration and come back with gems of understanding and excitement. They want help learning how to ‘do’. And when they ask an unanswerable question, they are ecstatic to receive an absurd answer – provided it keeps them energized and moving on their exploratory journey.
Most importantly, the market isn’t really offering them a good enough solution right now to the overload of content out there and how to experience it profitably. Parents get tired of answering repetitive or ridiculous questions. Teachers have their standardized educational curriculum to cover. And the current generation of AI-lite solutions like Siri and Alexa cater to adults, not kids.
Whoever cracks the code on AI for kids will win in content engagement. They’ll have the new search engine, the new TV channel, the new messaging tool, and the new gaming platform all rolled up in one entity. Especially if they have a large content library they can draw from.
Step away from the chaos of disruption and a basic insight shows the way:
The natural experimental playground of childhood is improving exponentially. It’s so good that it leaves kids swamped with options.
They need AI to help them explore.
Kids have the most amazing playground of content they’ve ever had in the history of humanity. They have an ever-changing tapestry of communication tools with Facebook, Snapchat, chatbots, YouTube, Minecraft, and more, that let them constantly experiment. And they have a nearly unlimited amount of content – information – to explore on those platforms.
This satisfies kids at their core, because they are sponges of information. They are inherently curious and passionate. They haven’t yet been taught to acquiesce. And they explore the world in ways that weren’t possible for us.
Unlike cynical adults, kids have often not ‘been there, done that.’ They are constantly engaging with novel situations, objects, people, information. They want technology that guides them constantly through information; that satisfies their curiosity and builds their pattern-recognition skills.
Kids want a tool that feeds their discovery loop, on repeat: “What do I like, what do I not like, why, what will I do about it?”
The AI Generation
Which brings us to ‘what’s next’
Content is evolving. Our understanding of content is evolving. The current wave of technology has enabled us to capture, create and distribute ‘too much’ consumable content for mass consumption. YouTube alone has 800 million hours of video waiting for us in the cloud. In the emerging arenas of VR and AR, we’re still populating the digital world with content. But with video and text, there’s way too much to sort through, and a lot of it is compelling.
We need help from Artificial Intelligence. Right now we have search algorithms, newsfeed algorithms and machine learning to help us out. In the future we’ll have more natural human-machine conversation-based capabilities too.
Kids don’t want to explore it all and can’t watch it all. Each kid will want what’s interesting to him or her at any particular moment in time, to enjoy individually or to share with friends.
The promise of AI is to deliver a steady stream of conversational serendipity.
We see the beginnings of personalized, human-like selection tools via Siri, Alexa, Chatbots, and even social media influencers. These are entities that send out signals and lead kids down paths toward personally interesting information.
Kids-oriented AI will lay down even better interactive trails to follow.
A kids-oriented AI will help kids switch from passive viewing to active playing in an instant, at each child’s discretion, and with customization based on what else they’ve done and where they are at the moment.
The AI will accept multiple forms of ‘input’ – from talking to gesturing to drawing. And will provide multiple forms of ‘output’ – photos, gifs, videos of any length, games, and more. And may even be able to provide a safe entry into larger communities of like-minded explorers.
It will make kids feel like they’re not jumping from topic to topic… but instead are gliding around experimentation loops that are ‘fun’ for them. YouTube is successful with this in the video arena – but kids need a sorting mechanism that goes beyond video.
Kids-oriented AI will hold their attention for short and long periods of time by switching them seamlessly from activity to activity. More than any single content library, AI will be the mechanism that families will want to subscribe to. It will attract the eyeballs that advertisers and partners pay to access.
Big media companies stay generally focused on creating a limited number of expensive 22-minute and 44-minute shows to greenlight for TV. But unless they’re also investing in the personalities and discovery engines of Kid-focused AI, and the new types of ‘topic-based’ content that AI can deliver, they’re missing a potentially large method of holding kids’ attention in the relatively near future.
Forget about licensable characters and 22 minute shows, think about delivery personas and universes of topics.
No single entertainment or tech company can currently deliver this vision, but this is where the long-term value lies.
The companies that invest in this direction now will gain at least some of the skills, patents, and outlook necessary to win the kids’ market in the future. They’ll be turning themselves into a learning-entertainment-technology company that likely looks different from anything that’s existed to date. And they may even end up with a platform that adults will buy into for themselves, not just for their kids.
The opportunity right now is clear. ‘Too much’ content combined with advances in technology introduces the possibility of AI experiences that kids will embrace, adapt and reinvent for all of us.
Which companies will be the ones to pursue this opportunity?