Within the last half decade, the kids space has experienced a rapid rise and fall.
As streamers increased their presence within U.S. households, they turned to kids content, a space that has historically been cheaper to produce but yielded higher financial returns, as evidenced by successes like Paw Patrol, Cocomelon, Gabby’s Dollhouse and Bluey.
But led in a cost-cutting strategy by Warner Bros. Discovery (and followed by the likes of Disney, Netflix and Paramount), over the last two years even legacy brands like Scooby-Doo and Sesame Street have become victims of cancellation or disappearance from platforms with little warning and little to no other ways to access the content.
But as many others in the industry are pulling back in the kids space, PBS is gearing up to do even more. “When you think of kids media as just a marketing tool or if you think of it as a way to boost your subscribers, you’re missing a huge opportunity to really use the creative potential of these formats to enrich lives, to help kids want to learn more, and to show them worlds that they might not get to see otherwise,” says Sara DeWitt, SVP and General Manager at PBS Kids.
The kids-focused programming from America’s public broadcaster has been operating for decades, but has always kept to its mission: bringing educational and exciting non-commercial media covering everything from climate change to AI to kids, and to reach them in all the ways children are looking for content while also thinking about those who don’t necessarily have access.
“Fred Rogers set the foundation for us when he talked directly to kids on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood about tough topics like death and divorce,” DeWitt explains. “Kids are observant of what’s going on around them. We always want to ensure we’re offering a safe place where they can learn about these topics in an age-appropriate way, guided by input from child development and subject-matter experts, which is so critical when approaching these topics with young kids.”
DeWitt notes that while PBS Kids doesn’t have the content libraries of places like Netflix or Max, it more than makes up for it in its exploration of new technologies, inclusive content and distribution access. “We’ve done a lot of innovation and experimentation with our content because when something new happens, we realize this is a chance for us to see what the learning possibility is for it,” says DeWitt. “But we aren’t jumping into it because there’s revenue gain potential. It’s more about, ‘What can this technology do that people aren’t paying attention to yet?’”
As part of the 2023-2024 season, the network will debut 26 new series and new seasons of existing series. It has also already given a major boost to the number of episodes available across platforms — a 64 percent increase, to be exact. The comes as the network plans to expand its online library of content, growing the number of episodes on the PBS Kids Video app and pbskids.org from 14 to 40 episodes of existing and new shows like Work It Out Wombats!, Rosie’s Rules and Lyla in the Loop. It’s also leaning into short form, with civics series City Island drawing almost 23 million streams in just four weeks, according to the network.
But it’s not only upping its linear and streaming content. It’s also dedicated to expanding its podcast and gaming presence. While Arthur remains the number one podcast in the network’s library of eight shows and three to come — including Keyshawn Solves It — overall podcasts have garnered 77 million streams and 10 million downloads across PBS Kids podcasting platforms. In the gaming space, the network already has the industry’s largest game library for kids, with 350 free titles available across pbskids.org and the PBS Kids Games app. But within this year alone, 16 new games and 22 game updates will roll out, alongside expanded Spanish language content on both its video and games platforms.
That’s alongside the network expanding accessibility for viewers of all abilities and interactivity through new technologies, including responsive AI algorithms, which the network had been exploring for years before it became one of the biggest negotiating issues of the WGA and SAG strikes. Elinor Wonders Why and the newer Lyla in the Loop, set to debut in February 2024, are two titles the network is conducting testing around AI-assisted conversation, with the help of partners at University of California-Irvine and the University of Michigan. (Think Dora the Explorer or Daniel Tiger, but with the ability to participate in a real call and response.)
But whether it’s AI, streaming libraries, gaming or podcasting, DeWitt emphasizes that the network’s push is ultimately about getting kids more in any way possible. As these expansions roll out, the PBS Kids executive spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how the network is able to go big in a time others aren’t; what’s behind the network’s commitment to the gaming and podcast space; and how streaming has changed its content game (for the better).
You’re doing some programming expansions. Can you talk about the key areas you’ve focused on with this push?
As we have been watching other networks and the streamers really pullback in the kids space, we have been on this mission to try to get even more out, and it spurred us to push a little harder. We are expanding the library of free streaming content available to kids on the PBS Kids Video apps. It’s a pretty significant increase in the number of episodes. We’ve been wanting to do that and have been talking to producers and working on our rights situation to do that. The other expansion is really into content areas. Television, obviously, has been really huge for a long time. We got into the streaming space pretty early. We launched full length episodes in our own player in 2008. Free educational games alongside the content has been a huge part of the PBS Kids portfolio since 1999, 2000. But games are really taking off across all kids media spaces right now, so to be able to lean into that and adding even more games to the library we have — that is our fastest growing platform. This is something kids are really resonating with.
We had all these games on our website, and we launched that games app at a time when there’s just a lot of conversation about digital divide and how many kids didn’t have access to broadband. So one of the reasons why this app can house hundreds of games is because it’s built so that kids can use it in and out of Wi-Fi; that when they have a Wi-Fi connection, they can download the games they want from that library and then when they’re out of Wi-Fi can play it and refresh them the next time they’re in Wi-Fi. We also then have expanded into podcasts. Arthur has been doing incredibly well in the podcast space. We launched our first original podcast, Keyshawn Solves It, in late May. It was an opportunity for us to work with a creator — Ed Jenkins — who we’ve been aware of his work and been talking to him for years. This was the chance we had to actually bring something to fruition with him. But it’s really just thinking about how we can be in more spaces where kids are looking for content and how we can meet them with that PBS Kids gold standard, and in a way that as many kids as possible can access it.
Gaming has a long history with PBS Kids. Can you talk about that history and how it’s informed the way you doing gaming differently?
I started at PBS in the game space after being hired in ’99. The idea there was that in the commercial space, games were something that you purchase, like on a CD-ROM. But the internet allowed more people to access things more easily. PBS Kids television was really trying to set up TV in a way that kids would come away with some information that they could use, and games actually allow a two-way interaction. We can let kids practice skills that they are seeing. Early on, we were working with producers to say we don’t want this just to be a marketing tool for your show. We want you to take that same curriculum advisor who was working with you and think about what is a game that would actually make that come to fruition? Super Why! was one where the games took off really quickly because they made that very clear connection. We are trying to teach kids letter recognition and early sound phonemic awareness, and we can put that directly into a game space and let a kid show us that they can identify the letter A or that they know what the sound is and practice that skill.
Games were also a way to go deeper into the world. The first games I worked on were from Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and he was still alive at the time. He believed very strongly that kids would want to explore the neighborhood and to play with the characters in a social emotional role-play way. He could talk to kids, but he couldn’t let them respond. I think that set up a really good foundation for us to get deeper into what a game could look like in the PBS Kids space. Through the years we’ve done research, and (found) kids who watch the TV shows and then play the games actually come away with greater skill gains than kids who just do one or the other. Both are good, but the combination really adds on to itself. Some of my favorite experiences in terms of world building is around the show Odd Squad. It’s math, live action, kids solving odd problems. The games on the site allow kids to create an agent avatar, and then to go on quests to try to play it. We talked to the creators about getting kids deeper into that world, and that’s when they launched shorts on YouTube, called Odd Two, a spinoff of Odd Squad. Characters look directly to screen and viewers are told about life as an agent. Kids who are watching are able to put in comments and respond to comments in later episodes. We then took it to the next step, the podcast Odd News Network, a radio station that you tap into to get the news about all the “odd” happenings and all the insider information that agents need to know.
Can you talk about your podcasting work? The interest among adults is somewhat newer, but how did PBS Kids enter this space?
Listening to stories is a gateway for reading, and it allows us to build on that curriculum. If you think about teachers reading things out loud or even kids listening to books on records or tapes — they’d ring a bell and that meant to turn the page — it was a step into reading. So that has been part of the literacy development canon for a long time, and a lot of our shows had been in that space. Arthur certainly was connected to books. A lot of Sesame Street even had read-a-long books. Odd Squad in every single format was letting kids think about math in real-life contexts. How would you use math to solve this problem. For podcasts, we’ve known for a long time that audio storytelling is a way that kids learn. What was unique about it was that for kids, the places that they’re listening most often are in a car or on a smart speaker, so that means that we had an opportunity to share a story that a parent might also overhear because they might also be in that space. A lot of PBS Kids shows — because we’re so trusted — a parent leaves the space and lets the kids watch her play. But this was a space that really would get the two of them together and we could start to play on two levels. We could model more ways that parents and kids could talk to one another or ask questions. I think we’ve really seen that happen. We hear from families writing to say, “Oh, we listened to the Molly of Denali podcast on our road trip.” This is a way that families can engage with the content together and have those conversations that we know are so important to the learning gains.
We started doing podcasts in 2019, and the first one that launched was Molly of Denali. The pitch to us, it didn’t take us any time to respond. It was at a time when podcasting as a space was really taking off across the industry. Lots of things were really sticking, and there were a few kids podcasts that were starting to get some traction. So this felt like something that’s picking up and would be interesting for us to add to it, since we’ve already done this in other ways through other media types — records and tapes. Another piece goes back to the mission of recognizing, in those days when the Molly podcast was launching, that they were really more of a middle- and upper-class thing because it required kids to have a device. You’ll see that the PBS Kids podcasts, while they are on Apple and Spotify, they also were all launched on our streaming video players. That’s where we see by far the largest listening audience. We set it up in a way to, one, introduce kids who weren’t familiar with the term to what a podcast is because we thought that would be helpful. But two, to make it easily accessible for kids who wouldn’t have like a device they were carrying around.
How are you deciding the focus and topics of your kids podcasts?
We’re very creator driven, and so we really rely on those producers to say to us, “What is the way that you think your story — your world — would best be reflected in this space?” With the understanding, it has to be organic and natural to the characters kids know. This can’t feel different. That was the same with gaming. We used to early on say no, you’ve got to have the same voice talent. You’ve got to have the same writers. We don’t want the characters in the games to talk in a way that doesn’t feel natural to the way this series operates as well. Same with the podcasting space, but obviously, it’s a different medium. In that space, I remember with the Molly of Denali stories, talking about that curriculum is informational text. It’s a lot about environmental print, which works super well for television because you can show it, but it didn’t work quite as well in an audio only space, because you have to talk a lot about, “I am opening a book, and I am looking at this.” So what we talked about with them is how do we not only broaden the world of this character in support of the curriculum, but also support the other things the series is trying to champion.
That series focused on Native Alaskan culture and was allowing us to go deeper into that Alaska Native experience, the medium of an elder telling a story that then can carry across and Molly can then to others. It’s helping us reflect that oral storytelling piece of the culture. In the case of Arthur, it’s a show about friendships and interactions. It’s built on a curriculum that’s about how kids interact with one another, how they resolve conflict and how they work through problems that they’re facing. So what better way to do it then it to be more hosted and friends talking through things that happen. That works for this, and it also worked for the nostalgia play because they had such an audience that had been around for so long. In the case of Pinkalicious & Peterrific, that is an arts curriculum, and the podcast really is able to prompt art activities that you can do at home, talk you through things and try to bring more of a hands-on experience. The short answer is that it depends, but the approach is really how do we make this curriculum come alive and take advantage of all the affordances that come to us with this new medium.
Let’s talk about your streaming strategy, which feels particularly important as streaming had a boom that led to the pull back we’re currently seeing. How are you thinking about streaming differently than competitors?
We are trying to be in as many places as possible. So there are owned platforms like the PBS Kids Video app. There’s the PBSkids.org video player that you can get through the web. The video app is mobile, but it’s also then OTT. We have the PBS Kids Video app on Apple TV, on Roku, and increasingly on connected TVs. We’ve launched now on Samsung and are continuing to build out to new smart TVs. Another piece of expansion has been through the live linear stream. In 2017, we launched a 24/7 digital channel of kids content, which felt mind-boggling at the time. We got a lot of questions of, “Why would you do this now?” Because who’s watching a linear channel? We were able to say lots of families. The letters from 24-hour hospitals saying thank you for giving us something that we can just leave on and not worry about. That was huge, but we launched at the same time with a live linear stream, which wasn’t happening a lot. So we added that to our video player and that live linear stream now is what we have on YouTube TV, it’s what is going to Hulu TV. It’s something we can put in more places.
Part of what we’re trying to do is just get this bulk of content everywhere. Also, our producers still own their IP. We’re unusual in that we are the exclusive distributor, but we don’t own the content. So that means our producers make their own kind of deals for home video and things like that. There is an Amazon Prime subscription channel of PBS Kids content that the royalties go to our producers. So four years ago, there was a lot of fear in the industry about the cannibalization of different places. So when we started our streaming video business, had expected that our free players had not understood the level of library that people would expect. People were still primarily watching on TV. Then this was something if you only had a streaming platform, you’d watch it there. Kids quickly moves the other way, and so we started having conversations with our producers about putting more free content out there. I think what everyone feels now is that, this is how you make sure kids see your content. More is more. We were able to then in our conversations with our producers and their home video rights able to then expand that library. We felt the time — coming out of COVID where more kids have access to broadband, this is the primary way that they’re accessing content. So for some shows, we had eight episodes, and now we can go to 40. That’s pretty tremendous to be able to really give them a wider library.
You can obviously operate a little differently because of your mission, but also your funding model. How has that aided this gaming, podcast and streaming push?
Because we are noncommercial, we are not beholden to the same pressures. We can really lean into the curriculum, we can lean into the experimentation. I think that’s something that gets missed a lot. We’ve done a lot of innovation and experimentation with our content because when something new happens, we realize this is a chance for us to see what the learning possibility is for it, but we aren’t jumping into it because there’s revenue gain potential. It’s more about, “What can this technology do that people aren’t paying attention to yet?” I think that the vast majority of our funding comes from “viewers like you,” people who donate to their member stations. On the kids side, we also have a large grant from the U.S. Department of Education called Ready to Learn. It’s a five-year cycle that right now is helping us do content that is focused on computational thinking. The show Work It Out Wombats! is the first that came out under that curriculum. Then our new show coming out early winter, Lyla in the Loop, is that next one that builds on that. We have nowhere near the budgets that the streamers have, but we also don’t to watch performance in the same way or tie it to subscribers. What we’re looking at is do kids learn from it? We do want a large audience, but we are focused most on audiences that other folks aren’t focused on. We feel like we are really successful when we know that we’re over indexing with lower-income homes. That’s something that we’re checking on with a lot of our stations regularly. How well are we getting into the neighborhoods that don’t have broadband, where kids primarily go to schools with free and reduced lunch. And so that is something that like we’re thinking of in terms of success. Of course, we also want to reach a lot of kids because we know that all kids can learn from our content, and we think that there’s some really great stuff happening there.
While the ongoing strikes have highlighted the inequities for creators in streaming, one thing it has remained credited for is creating a more inclusive TV landscape. But inclusion has long been a focal point of PBS Kids programming. Can you talk about how the inclusion wave shaped and reshaped your offerings?
The Keyshawn Solves It podcast is an example of a way to work with a creator more quickly. We launch one — sometimes two — big multi-platform shows a year. Part of that’s our funding model and size that we are. We’re not an organization that could launch a ton of content in any given year. But as we’ve diversified our content types, it means that we have been able to do a lot more things with a lot more new creators in ways that we’ve always wanted to that wasn’t the $20 million huge thing, where we also are always trying to think about how we can be representative of the audience who’s watching us and make sure that we were reaching out to newer creators in that space. But we’ve been able to do a lot more, faster. So things like the short form series Jelly, Ben & Pogo Ben, about a Filipino family that came to us from Jalysa Leva In Atlanta. She answered an open gaming RFP (request for proposal) and she didn’t win that but the team who was reviewing it was like, “There’s something else we would like to do with this.” So they worked with her and developed it into a short horn series, and she has since then launched games because it was so successful in the first round. I think what we’re seeing is an opportunity to move more quickly on the things that we’ve always been committed to and wanted to do — be able to tell more different stories and tell them in different ways. That way we can see more quickly what has traction, even another content type.
We are thinking about working with authors for book-based specials, and then how that can operate as something that we could take into another format, depending on how well that does. But that gives us a first opportunity to work with someone and launch something special and unique around it. We’ve been talking to a lot of authors about what we can do in that space. Podcasts is another way to start something new. Keyshawn was an original podcast, and we’ve been really pleased with that performance and talking to (creator) Ed Jenkins about what might we think about. Streaming video has allowed us to do more with language accessibility. Our last four series now have been launched in both English and Spanish. It’s not tracks. It’s actually different versions of the videos. For Alma’s Way, Rosie’s Rules and Work It Out Wombats!, we’ve also been watching the gains in Spanish. So we then are looking at ways we’re rebuilding this larger library of Spanish language content. And when we get to a certain bulk, then we will be able to do more with that. Can we do a Spanish live stream? Actually being able to offer a full translation of all the content in different spaces, That’s something that just in the broadcast space would have been a lot more cumbersome beyond just a SAP channel. It’s something that digital platforms have given us new opportunities with. Same with descriptive audio. We’ve been adding more descriptive audio tracks into all of our shows, and increasingly into the games and building in more accessibility features. The technology has just gotten to a point where it doesn’t all have to be so specific to every game, but you can put in tools that allow our producers to access that library of gaming tools so that all games can turn the sound down. If there is a kid with sensory overload concerns, they can get a little more focus. We’ve really worked with a lot of design experts on color contrasts and ways we can amp that up in our games for visually impaired kids. Really all these new technology changes give us more opportunities to be more accessible to more kids. I think that’s something that we are actively working on grants and donations around so that we can expand that opportunity and that’s not top of mind for all kids television.
Beyond trying to fill a programming hole that has been left by streamers and other networks and studios in the kids space, what is literally fueling your ability to expand?
I know our budgets have not grown. We’ve been pretty flat for many years, but we do get that additional grant support that allows us to do new things. But then I would say we have done more. We haven’t launched as many new series per year. There were times early in my career here where we would launch three series a year, and we don’t do that much anymore. But today, when we launch a series, we’re starting usually with a first order of 40 episodes, five games, usually a short form series, if possible. Also, some kind of podcast. We’re always launching with educator materials, and we’re building things for our stations to use on the ground with communities who want to do hands-on workshops and ways to more directly engage with schools, community centers, libraries. We have certainly expanded that space — all the different ways that a kid might enter into that world right out of the gate. Then, we aren’t doing maybe as many full series in a year, but that’s been pretty consistent probably for the last five to 10 years.
We are doing more short form series. We are doing original podcasts for the first time. We have a few original gaming series — Scribbles & Ink is an arts game that pretty consistently is near the top in our games app stats. It’s not tied to a broadcast show, but that is something that we were able to do because it doesn’t cost as much as a 40 episode show and allows us to do more in spaces where kids are accessing content. Then the other piece is shows like WordGirl, which launched a long time ago. If you think about the footprint we used to have with a single channel and our limited streaming library, because it was no longer in production, it wasn’t getting as much airtime. When we launched the 24/7 channel, WordGirl saw another resurgence because there suddenly was more shelf space. So I think being able to really lean into that catalog has also been great in the digital space. We have really awesome content and we have more space to showcase it now in some ways. We don’t have as much marketing dollars to break through all the noise. I will say that. But we can reach kids on platforms and free spaces.
Linear, as many have said, is dying if not dead. How are you fairing in that distribution space?
We can see in our Nielsen numbers that, like other people, linear is certainly on a decline and fairly dramatic. That said 10.4 million children ages two to eight watch PBS on-air over the course of a year — and that’s 40 percent of kids. We have 15.4 million monthly users on digital platforms, and what we focus on with our producers is two to eight. We have some anecdotal evidence that it ages up, certainly in digital platforms around gaming, particularly shows like Odd Squad and Wild Kratts. Then we have some shows that start to go a little bit older, like Design Squad and SciGirls, but the vast majority of our content is two to eight. We see an uptick again in middle school around the PBS Digital Studios content, which is outside of PBS Kids. But when I’m looking at the television side, we know PBS stations reach more children and more parents of young children than any other children’s TV networks in one year, and that PBS stations reach more children and more parents of young children in low income homes than any other children’s TV network. We’re doing a wider variety of types of screen activity, so those lower income kids who over the air broadcast is the one thing they have, they’re consuming a lot more PBS Kids than other kids in the population.
Interview edited for length and clarity.