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HomeEntertainmentCreator of 'Doc McStuffins': Do streamers even understand children's TV?

Creator of ‘Doc McStuffins’: Do streamers even understand children’s TV?


In the fall of 2019, The New York Times walked one story captioned, “Netflix goes all out to amaze kids as streaming wars intensify.”

In the writer’s attempt to showcase the streamer’s important foray, he pointed to Chris Nee, the prolific kids’ TV creator responsible for the groundbreaking series Doctor McStuffins, who had switched from Disney to Netflix in a sweeping deal the previous December. After about a year, Nee already had five new narrative series in the pipeline, including progressive entries like Ridley Jones (featuring a young female adventurer and a non-binary bison) and Ada Twist, scientist (about a young black female scientist). In a short time, she had become the poster child of what was possible when Netflix’s ambitions and resources coalesced.

Now, nearly four years later, Netflix has quietly scaled back its efforts on kids — bringing pacts to an end and high-profile developments from the likes of Meghan Markle. Nee even reveals she no longer has an overall deal there, and she’s convinced that streamers like Netflix have never understood how kids consume content — and they’re not particularly interested in learning.

When we last spoke, in the summer of 2021, the streaming business was starting to fill up with kid fare and everything seemed pretty rosy…

A lifetime ago!

How would you describe the children’s side of the business today?

The entire industry is in a place of great disruption, but I’d been more aware of the fact that we’re reaching a crisis point in children’s TV, which has a lot of animation, than of the issues that arise in live action. I was particularly focused on what was happening in the children’s business and felt like, “Oh, we’re in an era where things feel really unstable.” And unlike other periods I’ve been through, this one felt bigger. I felt like every player was unsure about their next move, whereas in the past it felt like a studio or an outlet didn’t quite know what their mission was.

We are now seeing streamers like Netflix and Max, who had aggressively pushed into space, pull out. From where you sit, what’s happening?

Well, what’s interesting is that they didn’t know about this business and it’s fundamentally different from the mature side of the business. Part of what we’re seeing now is a reckoning in the sense that all parts of all these companies are catching their own tails, to figure out who they are; but the children’s business in particular is very specific and often works in opposition to how things work for adults.

How come?

I’m not trying to point to any particular place because they’ve all had a hard time, but with Netflix, part of the algorithm’s idea was that you wouldn’t get served the same thing twice. But watching again is the bread and butter of TV for younger kids. That was the big lesson from it Blues clues. On average, children watched an episode five times in a row. So when some of my first shows came out and I have a special kid profile that I use like I was a kid, I watched them disappear. The technical side didn’t seem to want to bend and learn that you need to do things differently. That with these shows, once a kid watches, you’d have to offer it to them for a period of time — whether it’s three months or six months, until they stop clicking on it. Children reading aloud cannot type the name of a program and find it again. The other thing we really got to see is what a trusted brand actually means.

Like in a Disney?

Yeah, and I think everyone looks back and says, “Once Disney picks a show, it’s really, really going to stick with it. They’re going to market it like crazy and they know how to introduce you to a new show. But I also believe that Mickey Mouse and the brand are so well known, even to young children, that when a new show comes out on Disney, they feel like a friend brought it to them, and that’s what’s missing from the streamers . Look, all things are worth a try, but the great pitch in all parts of that company, which was the same pitch to kids, was, ‘We’re not going to have an identity. Here you will find everything.” Well, I actually think it’s too much, especially for kindergarten – there’s no doubt those platforms just don’t really work. They don’t find their audience. At the same time, in terms of disruption, we’re seeing the world where launching stuff on YouTube turns out to be a big part of making people aware of your show and, other than acquisitions, the streamers don’t get it. out with their own series of how to relinquish and integrate that.

One thing I’ve heard streaming executives talk about is how hard it is to get kids, especially preschoolers, to sample new shows; it was very different when Disney Channel offered content on a linear network and passive viewing became active viewing. Is that feedback you also received?

When I was doing We, the peoplea show for teens about civics (for Netflix), which of course we were thinking about Schoolhouse Rock. But why had we looked at it (in the 1970s)? We had looked into it because we had no choice. It was forced on us and then it turned out to be really good. I usually think I know how to solve something, but right now I don’t know all the answers. I know where some pitfalls are. Like, I believe the world of the product – of toys and sheets – is an extension of your relationship with a show, and the streamers haven’t figured out how to put those pieces in place. And part of it is toy companies want to get involved, shows really need to last and that’s not the (streaming) model.

I guess I know the answer based on what you’ve said so far, but do you still have a deal with Netflix?

I am not. (Nee’s deal expired in January.)

Is there an advantage to being an independent producer right now?

The reality is I got the best of Netflix and then I was tied to a place that was really confused about what it wanted. And for better or for worse, and it could very well work out for their bottom line, Netflix made the kind of kids’ shows that weren’t the shows I make — that were a little bit cheaper and easier and not necessarily made for watching together. And as they tried to figure out what they were doing, I felt like I was paralyzed from being tied to one place. So it feels good now (to be untethered). I could see getting back into an overall deal with someone, but not until someone knows which way is up. It just seems scary now. On the other hand, it would be wonderful to get a fixed salary now.

Nee expresses her frustration at the unceremonious rejection of her Netflix series Ridley Jones: “That last season really got dumped with nothing.”


Earlier this year, news announced that Ridley Jones had been cancelled. You tweeted at the time, “I’m not surprised that Netflix quietly dumped the first preschool show featuring a non-binary character (Fred).” What were the conversations like prior to the cancellation?

Here’s the thing, I probably didn’t phrase that tweet as well as I could. They didn’t end that show at all because of Fred. We had been done for a year by then. But that last season really got dumped with nothing. And how much it had to do with Fred I don’t know if it was I know we had Cyndi Lauper do that episode because I’m always aware that if you’re going to do an episode with controversy you put it someone they can promote. Certainly at a Disney they would have promoted that episode enormously. And look this is a great example because it’s a wonderful show and I think it works on all levels that other work I’ve done has and it just didn’t find an audience and that was a show where when that first season came out, it disappeared when you looked at it. Ada Turn, also – none of those shows got the numbers someone wanted out. And it could be that all those shows were terrible, but I don’t think that’s the case. They’re really different series, and I could tell one of them had done really well in a different space. So the question becomes, where is the fundamental decoupling?

As you looked around the landscape, are there any heaps left?

I think Blue gives everyone hope. Part of it is that when we get into anxious times, that fear trickles down from executives to creatives. With children’s programming, you’re starting to see people move away from creator-driven work and more specific voices and the bigger thinking that kids benefit from and deserve that artistry. But Blue is just gorgeous, and it deserved a huge audience and it got it. So that gives me hope that the right things can still come through. But I don’t know where we will all end up. What I’m concerned about is, God bless Cocomelonthey came up with something that worked really well for them, but I don’t want to make shows that way.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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