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SPADA2017: growing an audience

David Kleeman last presented at SPADA in 2011, when he was promoting the Prix Jeunesse, a biennial competition for children’s content, (entries to the next edition of which close on 17 December). This time he did double duty, presenting on content for kids and more specifically on VR.

An American now long-time resident in the UK, Kleeman has been a researcher in children’s television for over 35 years. He began working in the screen industry as a teenager, through a friend who was working on Sesame Street, and immediately he was hooked.

“How Kids Find Their Jam”: Kleeman began by describing what he called the jamjar experiment, in which it was discovered that if people are presented with too many jars of jam to choose from, they end up buying less.

The same applies for children when it comes to media content, Kleeman believes. If there is too much choice, if it is too hard to find what they like, kids become frustrated and overwhelmed.

Kids want limits. When it comes to supplying content, some of Kleeman’s recommendations could be seen as a bit vague and airy-fairy. He suggested using “emotional scheduling” to help kids shape their day, and recommended “owning a moment”.

The rest of his ideas made a lot of sense:

  • Be predictable – accessible, easy to use. For example, schedule your programme at the same time each day.
  • Give choice – but not too much. Interestingly, blocks of children’s programming on general channels outperform channels that are exclusively for children. Curated streams of programming outperform open choice.
  • Know your buyer as well as your user.
  • Be unique, and be indispensable.

Citing a Danish mentor Kleeman insisted that one thing was critically important. When a kid wakes up in the morning and turns on the TV, how do they know where they are – or who they are? Local content, language, accent, places depicted, are all so important.

It sounded an awful lot like the rationale TVNZ’s Amie Mills presented for the soon-to-launch kids platform Heihei.

Kids deserve their dignity, Kleeman noted, adding that kids today have “the best bullshit detectors ever”. He insisted that kids now wanted true, tough, honest, and certainly do not want sanitized content. Make a decision for purely commercial reasons, and they will recognise that and go elsewhere. Ultimately for the future success of the screen production industry, content matters – not just overall exposure to screens.

Kleeman asked content creators to understand their “fanatomy”. Is it niche, or broad? What moment or mood do you own? Where do you want to be? Is it better to be nine people’s favourite thing, or 900 people’s ninth favourite thing?

* * *

Kleeman’s second session focused on technology, and kids’ relationship with it. Before launching into his research into children’s experiences with screens generally and VR (Virtual Reality) in particular, Kleeman emphasised in no uncertain terms that it is presently believed that children under 12 to 13 years old should not be exposed to VR. He repeated this recommendation a number of times through the session.

Kleeman works for Dubit (pronounced “Dub-it”), which was founded in 1999. Besides developing games for kids, Dubit does research into the use of devices by kids and teenagers, from 2-15 years old. Dubit part owns WEARVR (as in “We are VR”), which sells VR devices. Dubit’s research informs both their digital development and their business strategy.

The research objective is to evolve best practices for creation and development, for both makers and users. Regarding health and safety, there is a particular focus on the effects of wearing a VR headset on vision and balance.

Kleeman feels the need to expand the scope of their research – in particular to explore much larger samples of kids than they’ve managed to date.

Public awareness of VR is increasing rapidly in both the UK and the USA but, he suggested, “You have to try it before you can really understand it.” Parents still have lots of questions about VR – and don’t yet recognize all the educational possibilities.

When giving kids a chance to try out VR, he believes it’s essential to prepare them beforehand, before putting on the headset. He strongly advises getting the kids to watch YouTube clips of other children trying it out before they do themselves. Also, have the whole thing properly set up to go before putting the headset on.

Kleeman found that when kids try a VR headset for the first time, they become comfortable with it within 60 to 90 seconds. They’ve generally had enough after about 12 minutes. A few then get a renewed burst of interest, but by 18 minutes every kid has had enough for that occasion, and wants to remove the headset. Kleeman feels this is a good discovery, that it demonstrates that VR is not addictive in the way that, for example, some games are.



Kleeman thinks that the growth in the use of VR will be slow, and there will not be wide home usage for a while yet. He thinks the tipping point will be when there are plenty of places one can go to try it out, such as in cinemas or games arcades.

And what do the kids themselves want in the way of development in VR? They want to go to places that you can’t in reality – for example, inside the human body. They want to see things from a perspective that is different, such as being a bird in Angry Birds!