How Over-the-Air Broadcasters Ignore Kids (And How It Hurts Their Bottom Line)

Commercial broadcasters are missing an important market — which could have fatal consequences for the industry.

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Ever since the E. W. Scripps Company announce its acquisition of Ion Media, a lot of conflicting theories have been made in the usual corners of the internet about the fate of its over-the-air kids’ channel, Qubo. Since its inception as a block on NBC and Ion Television (then known as I) in 2006, the brand has been a lesser-known player in the business, mostly stuck with lesser-known properties from companies like Nelvana, WildBrain, and Splash Entertainment, as well as a couple of better-known programs from those groups. Despite this, as well as an early controversy over its editing of VeggieTales, it’s at least had one important distinction: it’s the only commercial over-the-air network dedicated to kids’ programming.

Or, was. Earlier today, I watched an investors’ webcast from Scripps, and one of the questions asked concerned what would happen to Ion’s supplemental subchannel networks, Ion Plus and Qubo. Scripps CEO Adam Symson was insultingly dismissive about them, claiming that they’re not “mature” compared to his own Katz networks (which he acquired in 2017), and that he intends to have them shut down and replaced by those networks. I came into that meeting hoping to get a clear answer on Qubo after months of contradictory theories, but I left thinking, in the words of a certain Ren Hoek, “You daft, bloated eediot!”

Now, I’m not going to act like one of those nostalgia-obsessed basement dwellers that turn up on some corners of the internet, but what this tells me is that the over-the-air broadcast industry as a whole doesn’t care about getting the youngest TV viewers on their side, something that, in this age of cord-cutting and a general desire for free alternatives for entertainment, isn’t just dumb, it’s effectively suicidal.

Before I go on, I’m well aware of the existence of PBS Kids, as well as a few Christian broadcasters that provide kids’ shows. But they operate entirely different principles from commercial broadcasters, so for the purposes of this article, they’re irrelevant.

Just to be clear, I’m not alone in noticing the broadcasters’ apathy towards the youth of America. Watchdog groups like the Parents Television Council and Common Sense Media have also pilloried broadcasters and the FCC for not making a bigger effort towards serving kids. Unfortunately, these groups generally take a Helen Lovejoy approach to the argument. For those of you who don’t watch The Simpsons, here’s a refresher:

Basically, they’re not concerned with whether broadcasters provide the kind of content kids want so much as providing the kind of content they want their kids to watch, usually pro-social and educational in nature. I’m going into my arguments mostly from a business standpoint, and honestly, I can’t stand these people. Whether it’s right-wing groups wanting to “protect” kids from queer concepts or left-wing groups wanting to shove those same concepts down their throats (among other talking points), it’s clear that these moral busybodies are doing more harm than good to kids’ programming, as can be evidenced by the paltry offerings on the alphabet networks.

ABC, CBS, NBC, and even The CW air Saturday morning blocks by Litton Entertainment, a producer owned by Hearst Corporation that mainly focuses on unscripted documentary series meant to fulfill the FCC’s requirements for educational and informational programming. On paper, these shows are meant for teenagers, supposedly made to appeal to what they consider a misunderstood demographic. But Litton and its ilk are seriously delusional if they think a demographic known for sleeping in, obsessively using cell phones, and acting in a hostile and uncouth manner is actually going to be interested in programming described as “pro-social” and “inspiring”.

Producers like Litton and Steve Rotfeld Productions (which has a deal with Fox to run the Xploration Station block on its stations) can preach to kids and teens all they want, as can those allied with them, but everyone else, from network owners and industry pundits, know what the real audience is. Data provided by the National Association of Broadcasters indicate that only five percent of the average audience of Litton’s network E/I fare is under 18, and in fact, most of the viewers are over the age of 55, no doubt thanks to the all-important “old people too lazy or apathetic to change the channel after the morning news” demographic. And this demographic is reflected in the advertising shown on these shows, consisting of medicine and law commercials. If nothing else, I can’t argue that these commercials aren’t lucrative; there’s a lot of senior citizens with retirement money to burn, after all.

Compare this to the streamers of the world. Services like Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and HBO Max are bending over backwards to make the kinds of content kids want, funneling millions of dollars and thousands of work hours into making kids and family programs that would get kids interested in subscription services. The main caveat of these services is that one has to pay a monthly fee for them. So how are kids supposed to get entertainment they don’t have to pay for? That’s where free ad-supported streamers come in.

As cord-cutting has mauled cable kids’ channels, YouTube-based creators have found an opportunity. Despite the whole Elsagate thing, producers like CoCoMelon and Little Baby Bum have come to dominate the kids’ streaming landscape. Given the ubiquity of YouTube, it’s hardly surprising that kids are killing their time watching these videos. Whether they’re actually good or not is a matter of debate, but as Michael Bay will tell you, actual quality doesn’t really matter as far as business is concerned.

And while conventional wisdom says that today’s kids don’t want to watch stuff on a schedule, internet-based linear services like Pluto TV and Xumo have successfully given viewers what they want. Pluto in particular has a lot of classic Nickelodeon content, so kids aren’t left in the dust.

Broadcasters, on the other hand have largely ignored kids, focusing on adults almost exclusively. I know that there’s issues like ad restrictions and content regulations that have historically suffocated such programming, but they have gotten over them in the past and managed to supply popular programming, and the rise of digital subchannels just gives them a further incentive; why try and fit kids’ shows in between episodes of Judge Judy and Wheel of Fortune when you can just put them all on a .2 or .3 channel? But no, those networks just target older viewers for the sake of immediate financial gratification.

As you might expect, this emphasis on immediate profit has proven deadly to the few broadcasters daring enough to enter the kids’ market. The last two large-scale attempts at providing over-the-air kids’ programming beside Qubo were Saban Brands’ Vortexx block in 2012 on The CW and Sinclair Broadcasting’s KidsClick in 2017. Both were kicked off the air after about two years; Vortexx was replaced with yet another Litton block in 2014, while KidsClick was taken off the air for what Sinclair later claimed was “business reasons”. Rather than wait and see whether they’d eventually get the audience they wanted, The CW and Sinclair both gave up too soon in my opinion, prioritizing short-term profit over long-term benefits.

However, if there’s one thing history has proven, it’s that not all success happens overnight, and things are no different in the world of children’s entertainment. Take the story of the longtime king of the kidvid world, Nickelodeon. For the first few years of its life, it was known as the “green vegetable network”, a network more concerned with being good for kids than actually entertaining them, a notion pushed by its first executive, the late Cy Schneider. But when Geraldine Laybourne took the helm, she overhauled the network to focus on what kids actually want. This shot the network from dead last to first place among cable networks, a distinction it held for decades.

The same is true of Cartoon Network. Founded as a rerun farm of old Hanna-Barbera shows, it didn’t start making an impact until the debut of original programming. Thanks to shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls, the network became a bastion of top-notch originals, not unlike Nickelodeon.

Since the demise of KidsClick, the only real attempt at getting kids on board the OTA train has been Weigel Broadcasting’s MeTV, which signed a deal with Warner Bros. to air their Golden Age cartoon library on a weekday morning block called Toon In With Me, which debuted earlier this month. Given the presence of cartoons like Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, and Popeye, it’s obviously got some top-of-the-line stuff, but even this effort doesn’t seem like it was really meant for kids. In fact, MeTV itself has stated in press statements that the show is more meant for the nostalgic older viewers that have already made the network so successful, and that if it gets kid viewers, that’s more a happy accident than anything else.

Going back to that Scripps webcast I discussed at the beginning, Adam Symson claimed that the combined Scripps national networks business would go a long way at attracting younger audiences, but when it came to Qubo, he stupidly brushed it off as a non-entity, an unwanted add-on to the prize he was really going for. I’d say the hypocrisy is thick enough to cut with a butter knife, but I think that’d be ineffective; it’s just too thick. You’d need at least a chainsaw. What broadcasters like Scripps, Sinclair, Nexstar and Tegna fail to realize is that if you get them while they’re young, you’ll have faithful viewers for years, possibly decades to come. The OTT companies realized this years ago, and are doing very well because of it. If the broadcasters continue down the path of ignoring the kids for the sake of a quick buck, then I have a hard time believing that over-the-air broadcasting, even with the touted advancements of the ATSC 3.0 format, will be able to survive the changing marketplace.

Cartoonist from Western Massachusetts, currently working on an animated series under the Toonimation brand. Previously made Life in Longfield on Webtoon Canvas.

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