Kids: Paying Attention?

Children are growing more demanding in what they expect from the media they consume. How are the media owners adapting their offer, Lucy Aitken asks.

When Emap decided to close down Smash Hits in February, there were countless column inches, mostly written by thirty- or fortysomething journalists, tearfully reminiscing about Black Type and Stephen "Tea Towel" Duffy. But for the contemporary 11- to 14-year-old Smash Hits audience, the brand is far from finished: Smash Hits is alive and kicking and addressing pop-obsessed girls on TV, online and mobile platforms.

Smash Hits' closure, though, cannot help but raise the $64 billion question: can traditional media forms such as magazines, cinema, radio and TV channels continue to appeal to children in an increasingly fragmented media landscape?

Children's attention is pulled in different directions, from mobile phones to MSN Messenger, DVDs to digital TV. And any child in a Sky+ household will be highly skilled at whizzing through TV breaks.

David Liddiard, Carat's associate director, communications planning, believes publishers face an "uphill battle because children's magazine circulations are on the slide". He adds: "TV viewing for children is slowly, marginally decreasing as well."

Perhaps surprisingly, TGI's youth media trends survey suggests magazine reading and weekday TV viewing have held up well over the past three years.

It is radio that has suffered the most. Seven- to 14-year-olds are listening for 30 per cent less time than they used to.

As for cinema, it seems that its appeal is as strong as ever. Although the proportion of children who went to the cinema in the last year slipped a bit between 2004 and 2005 - from 95 per cent to 94 per cent - only 88 per cent of seven- to 19-year-olds were cinema-goers ten years ago.

The animation whizzes at Pixar, film industry commentators say, have kept children coming back to cinemas almost single-handedly. Releases such as The Incredibles and Ice Age 2: The Meltdown - which appeal as much to adults as to children - sustain the silver screen as a popular family outing.

Adam Mills, the sales director at Carlton Screen, says: "Cinema used to be a drag for parents, but now they are heading the queue rather than lurking reluctantly at the back of it."

He adds: "Cinema can target the family unit effectively because there is a massive over-supply of TV channels with quite small ratings."

Talk to the TV channels, however, and a different story emerges. Andy Goodhand, the Nickelodeon vice-president, planning and presentation, believes the explosion of children's channels buoys interest in the medium. Nickelodeon, along with rival TV brands, adopts a multiplatform approach to delivering content.

Dominic Gardiner, The Cartoon Network's channel manager, says his channel is developing video-on-demand services, including ones that are accessible via mobile platforms, which are particularly well-suited to the short cartoon format.

Jean-Paul Weavers, the Jetix Europe sales director, adds: "Children do not really have a preference for a particular platform; it's all about content. There's still a market for 'lean-back' entertainment, but as children's consumption of media goes into mobile and the internet, we have to ensure communications can run across those platforms."

Magazine brands are also extending into mobile and online, but ink on paper remains a compelling medium. The Periodical Publishers Association's Children Publications Group commissioned the independent research company Stimulating World to canvass children's opinions for a recent report, Children and Media: The Benefits of Magazines. The research positions the medium as "a positive alternative" to TV, gaming and online, all of which need, to some extent, to be policed by parents.

Media buyers also recognise the strength of magazines: they are an active purchase and popular with both parents and children. This is particularly true of the pre-school market, where magazines have built up brand equity through TV shows such as Thomas the Tank Engine.

Research by BMRB for BBC Magazines, published in autumn 2005, shows just how powerful pre-school magazines are: 4.5 million adults read a BBC pre-school magazine every month with their child. The report compares pre-school titles with parenting and women's weekly titles as a strong media buy.

Magazines that target an older age group use more covermounts to entice readers. But many media buyers prefer those titles that sell their brand on the quality of the editorial; there is a definite wariness about magazines that join the "me-too" fray of cover-mounts to provide a boost to their short-term sales. Brand loyalty in this increasingly fickle audience is seen as the Holy Grail.

Nick Langworthy, the press manager at MediaCom, says: "It's all about staying in touch with teens; it's notoriously hard to pin down a teen and bracket by age. For instance, a 15-year- old in London is probably quite different from a 15-year-old in the regions."

Some media buyers also think that teen magazines are showing the strain, owing to the plethora of information on pop stars and celebrities that is immediately available to them through digital media. Teen magazines suffered a decline of nearly 23 per cent in 2005. Only More, COSMOgirl! and Shout bucked the trend in the February Audit Bureau of Circulations results.

Despite the BBC's teen titles Top of the Pops and It's Hot suffering year-on-year circulation declines of 51.9 per cent and 36.7 per cent respectively in the latest ABCs, Duncan Gray, the associate publisher of teen magazines, is full of fighting talk and promises an improved performance from the titles.

He quotes an Office of National Statistics finding that indicates 92.8 per cent of ten- to 14-year-old girls read magazines or comics, and says magazines adapted to the internet when many were sounding the death knell. As a result, he is confident magazines will survive. However, he still concedes that the teen audience is "a considerably smaller universe than in the past".

Vanessa Clifford, a managing partner at MindShare, has a theory about why this audience has shrunk: "Children aged 15 and under have been brought up on a diet of celebrity culture, instant news and gossip. Any publication that is monthly - or even weekly - needs to radically change to reflect that."

Media owners worth their salt have already recognised the need to tweak their offering. Goodhand says: "Children now have much higher expectations and they expect 360-degree brands. They do not just want a television programme; they want the website, the red-button game and mobile downloads."

But what about that other major medium that is a lot harder to avoid than its rivals ... outdoor?

According to Mintel, the number of people driving their children to school has doubled since 1986. Like it or not, the car has become "the new lounge" where children sit back, relax and gaze at the posters they pass by on their way to school.

According to Nigel Clarkson, the sales and marketing director of Primesight, outdoor "is uniquely positioned to be consumed by both parents and children together on the school run, but also by children who walk in and see posters with their mates on the journey to school away from their parents. Once they are within the school gates and away from commercial messages, children are free to talk about the brands they have seen advertised on posters on the way to school. Outdoor's strength is that posters are non-selective and can't be switched off."

Clarkson adds that Primesight's school-run offering, which allows sites to be bought within 500 metres of schools, is one of the company's most demanded by advertisers, partly because children of different ages can be separately targeted.

"You can differentiate between primary schools and secondary schools in a way that most other media cannot," he says.

It is hardly surprising, then, that advertisers want to to be able to "pick and mix" the media they use to target the younger generation. Media buyers increasingly look for cross-platform creative solutions, and want appealing media brands that can work in different environments at different times of the day.

James Ledger, a managing partner at MindShare, says: "Gone are the days when you just relied on one channel as an entry point; now, you expect a media brand to work across several platforms."

To achieve this flexibility, some media brands will need to reconfigure themselves to satisfy the demands of both children and advertisers.

Those who mourned the "death" of Smash Hits might just find themselves eating humble pie.



Key titles: Barbie, Toxic, Thomas & Friends, Daisy, Go Girl, Power Rangers

In a nutshell: Egmont's success lies in its magazine licences for brands that are already hits with young children, such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Barbie. Media buyers agree it is not the most imaginative publisher, relying chiefly on display advertising rather than helping advertisers to devise more creative solutions.

Media buyers' rating: 6


Key titles: Toybox, Roly Mo, Learning is Fun, Magic Key, Toybox, Teach Me, It's Hot, Top Of The Pops Magazine, Bob the Builder, Tweenies, Balamory, CBeebies

In a nutshell: BBC Magazines' sales team develops creative cross-platform solutions. It has just launched the first pre-school weekly, CBeebies, which media agencies have applauded, and Amy, a pre-teen magazine for girls. Some media buyers question Top Of The Pops Magazine's and It's Hot's long-term prospects for success.

Media buyers' rating: 7


Key titles: Match!, Sneak, Bliss

In a nutshell: Media agencies are delighted with the new-look Match!, its redeveloped website and fantasy football league. One media buyer believes constant innovation keeps readers coming back week after week - no mean feat in such a fickle market. The Bliss "Face Academy" with Nivea is singled out by another media buyer as an example of Emap's innovation with an advertiser.

Media buyers' rating: 8


Key title: Sugar

In a nutshell: Hachette was publishing ELLEgirl, a "little sister" to Elle, until October 2005, but now its teen stable just has Sugar. Special mention goes to Hachette's proactive and creative sales team, and Sugar's ability to harness reader interest through online and mobile platforms. Yet one media buyer describes Sugar as being more for parents than for their children and an aspirational title for ten-year-olds rather than a credible teen read.

Media buyers' rating: 7


Key titles: Beano, Dandy, Art Attack, Loony Tunes

In a nutshell: Both DC Thomson and Panini are served by one sales house, Orange 20, and are regarded by media agencies as the most traditional of the children's magazine publishers. Some media agencies criticise Orange 20 for not having the imagination of other publishers, but at the same time they accept the titles do not offer the scope for particularly imaginative solutions.

Media buyers' rating: 6



Children's channels: Nickelodeon, Nick Junior, Noggin

Top shows: SpongeBob SquarePants, Jimmy Neutron, Unfabulous, Avatar

In a nutshell: Media buyers agree Nickelodeon has a strong appeal to children and has maintained its relevance through both animated- and studio-based content. A specialist unit under the Viacom Brand Solutions umbrella is dedicated to coming up with ideas that go beyond the 30-second ad.

Media buyers' rating: 8


Children's channels: Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Toonami, Cartoon Network TOO, Boomerang +1

Top shows: Robotboy, Camp Lazlo, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, Scooby Doo

In a nutshell: Media buyers rate Turner's grasp of issues such as the government White Paper on obesity. They also praise it for understanding clients' business cycles and for its development of ideas that use Turner characters. One media buyer calls it "the market leader" in innovation.

Media buyers' rating: 8


Children's channel: CITV

Top shows: Engie Benjy, Dora the Explorer, Bratz, Art Attack, My Parents are Aliens

In a nutshell: CITV launched on 11 March on the Freeview platform. While media buyers like the programmes, they are less impressed by ITV's creative ideas for clients; one describes ITV's attitude to innovation as "prehistoric". Others feel CITV should have launched before rivals stole a march in multichannel homes.

Media buyers' rating: 6


Children's channel: The Disney Channel

Top shows: Recess, That's So Raven, Kim Possible

In a nutshell: Targeting six- to 12-year-olds with animation, live action and original movies, Disney is particularly popular with young girls. It is available on Sky, ntl and Telewest and has recently been added to the Sky Kids Mix. Disney sells sponsorships rather than advertising, and some media buyers believe that, despite the phenomenal power of the Disney brand, it is commercially naive.

Media buyers' rating: 6


Children's channels: Jetix, Jetix +1

Top shows: Power Rangers Space Patrol Delta, Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force Go!, Sonic X

In a nutshell: Fox Kids rebranded as Jetix in 2005, and many media buyers agree that its brand strength has been diluted as a result. Nevertheless, Jetix's programmes still have a strong appeal to young boys. However, the broadcaster does not market itself as well as either Turner or Nickelodeon, nor does it offer as many bespoke client solutions.

Media buyers' rating: 6

- With thanks to MindShare, PHD, MediaCom and MediaVest Manchester for their help in compiling this box. Media buyer ratings are a mean average from scores given by these media agencies, scored out of ten.