The Kids Are Alright:
Children’s Entertainment and Transmedia Storytelling

John Kreicbergs
Nov 12, 2014 · 9 min read

You hear it all the time. It usually starts with an exasperated sigh and ends with that classic, half-muttered phrase that is equal parts resignation and dismissive bewilderment.

“Kids these days.”

A number of years ago, I stumbled upon a quote that seems to provide the unspoken remainder of this well-worn line.

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

The best part? It’s attributed to Socrates and he’s talking about the kids in his own time, circa 425 BC. The more we think things change, the more they stay the same.

Yes. Kids are different these days, but not for the reason you think. The landscape has changed. YouTube consistently competes with (and beats) television for their attention. Gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry. Books, and especially comics, are thriving with this audience despite so many who are quick to declare that “print is dead” elsewhere.

However, some truisms defy time and trendiness. Kids want to be captivated. They want to be entertained. They want to laugh. And, much to the dismay of adults everywhere, they’re never afraid to tell you exactly what they think.

By the Numbers

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First, let’s do a little number crunching. The demographics of kids these days are certainly shifting. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at the height of America’s baby boom in 1965, children 17 and under represented 36 percent of the nation’s population. Today, that population segment is now 23.3 percent with an expected drop to 21.5 percent by 2050. However, the natural growth of the overall population from 1965 to today means that same segment has grown from 69.7 million to 74.3 million kids with an estimated growth to 85.9 million by 2050.

The most remarkable shifts, however, have occurred in the purchase influence and sheer spending power of kids in the United States. In the 1960s, the influence of kids on overall household spending translated to roughly $5 billion dollars annually. Today, the most conservative numbers place that influence at $700 billion dollars annually. The high end? $1.12 trillion dollars. When it comes to direct spending — kids putting their own money down in front of the cash register—children from 4 to 19 spend more than $195 billion annually.

No matter how you slice it, those numbers are staggering.

In 2012, the global toy market’s revenue was estimated at $84 billion, with the United States domestic market accounting for just over $22 billion of that total. A closer examination of traditional toy categories and their year over year growth in 2013 reveals a market that has remained flat. The biggest gains in that time? Youth electronics. Yet, even with a 32% increase from 2012 to 2013, electronics only represented $565 million of the industry overall.

So it comes down to this: there are more kids in America today than ever before. They wield more influence when it comes to household spending and have more purchasing power than ever before. And yet, traditional toy industry revenue is flat?

Is it time for Barbie to move into something a little more practical than that big dream house of hers? Does G.I. Joe might need to hold a bake sale for his next big military campaign against Cobra?

Actually, the answer to this conundrum is quite simple. The culprit?

Technology. And yes, sigh, “kids these days.”

Welcome to the Disruption

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In September 2013, The Economist aptly described this trend as “a reorientation” for the toy industry, “one that starts with demography and ends with technology.”

“One aspect of this realignment is that women are having fewer children at a later age when they have more money: between 2005 and 2010 the average age of a first-time mother in Britain, Germany, Switzerland and Japan rose by almost half a year. Spending per toy and per child is consequently on the up, even though unit sales are down — a significant shift, but not yet a profit-boosting one.

What is more, the journey from womb to web is getting shorter. Most children experience a character in digital form before physical play [emphasis added].”

So is that it? Is this the end of classic toys and the industry as a whole? Of course not. It will, however, require a massive mental reset for the entire industry.

“The future, as Adrienne Appell of America’s Toy Industry Association says, is in ‘transmedia storytelling’. …

Manufacturers must become cleverer at creating high-value, multimedia properties. Toy brands will prosper as entertainment brands. Fostering links with mobile platforms is the first step; commanding attention with compelling content and characters is the next. For the collectors of the future, it will not so much be the toys themselves but the stories they tell that captivate [emphasis added].”

It all begins with rediscovering a classic form of storytelling but adopting a startup model mentality: ideate, validate, launch, learn, adjust and scale.

What’s Now?

The darlings of this new model have already begun to reveal themselves.

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Mattel’s Monster High (also cited by The Economist in the aforementioned article) is a great example. Knowing that Barbie starts to lose her appeal when it comes to tween girls (8 to 12 year olds), Mattel began development on a new doll line in 2007 that would not only capture their attention but also allow for the company to wholly own the franchise. Over the course of a year, a team of 20 individuals led by the nascent franchise’s creator Garrett Sander — then a member of Mattel’s packaging department — developed the initial cast of Monster High characters. Not only did production of the dolls begin in earnest in late 2008, so did work on a cartoon, two series of books, a website, plush toys, costumes and a host of other branded merchandise.

In May of 2010, the franchise launched and was an immediate hit. In July of that year, it made an unexpected debut at the the male-dominated stomping grounds of San Diego’s Comic-Con International, rather than at the toy industry’s traditional venue, the American International Toy Fair in New York. The message Mattel was sending was loud and clear: Monster High wasn’t just about a new line of toys; this was about a new story that has toys…and a lot more.

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Other examples include Activision’s Skylanders video game and toy line, which has generated more than $2 billion in sales since its launch in 2011. The basis of the property came from a 1998 game for the Playstation that starred the first Skylander, Spyro the Dragon. Similar in concept to Skylanders, Disney Infinity launched in 2013 and more than doubled the revenue for Disney Interactive to $396 million.

One more case study, freshly torn from the tech trades’ headlines: Minecraft. Upon hearing the news of the sale of Mojang, the creator of the enormously successful open world sandbox game, I enlisted the opinion of an expert on the matter.

“It was two-point-FIVE billion dollars, dad, not just two billion,” said my 10 year-old son, correcting my gaff in a non-too-pleased tone of voice. “I really hope Microsoft doesn’t mess it up.”

Indeed. Such is the hope of over 100 million other Minecraft players around the world, players that have been collaborating, building and investing their own time and toil into creating a grassroots ecosystem of experiences. You may have seen a few 8-bit diamond swords and torches come to your door this past Halloween. LEGOS sets are already appearing on store shelves. Even my own “resident expert” watches more videos about Minecraft on YouTube than he does playing the actual game. This is a transmedia story that is quickly unfolding at the speed of the internet. While Microsoft has purchased a sizable and highly engaged user base, it now solely owns the merchandising and licensing rights for the entire property.

By the way, it won’t take long for Minecraft to truly hit the mainstream: Warner Bros., who enjoyed a great deal of success with The LEGO Movie, purchased the movie rights for the film back in February of 2014.

What’s Next?

While the concept of transmedia storytelling seems to be romantically new and shiny — as a moniker, it’s ready-built for the digital age — the concept itself is simple. It’s all about great stories with engaging characters that surprise, delight, and launch imaginations. It’s all about the story the franchise wants to tell while providing an opportunity for the stories that kids want to ascribe to it as well, a participatory and open universe of discovery and self-identity. That may be a tall order for the established giants in the toy industry, but it’s not an impossible task. In fact, it’s an incredible opportunity.

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Technology has also become a great democratizing force for independent artists and storytellers. The time has never been better for a small startup or indie studio to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the toy titans of the past as they all race toward the future of children’s entertainment. As a startup kid’s entertainment development company located in Kansas City, the place where Walt Disney famously failed before he propelled himself to success in Southern California, we’ve already witnessed this phenomenon firsthand.

Our own flagship property, Kung Fu Robot, an interactive comic book/game app for the iPad, has in 18 months reached a global audience of nearly 250,000 readers. We’re hoping to channel this initial success into a new slew of assets that will further enable us to develop a transmedia story, including 2D animation tests for cartoons and digital shorts, 3D models that can translate to toys and perhaps printable figures, and a host of other ideas that continue to percolate.

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Interestingly enough, the foundational elements of Kung Fu Robot were born 11 years ago. Its creator, author/illustrator Jason Bays, pursued traditional publishing avenues for many years and nearly achieved that goal before the clacking of profit/loss calculations led to cold feet on the part of his potential partners. Today, our unconventional approach and initial success appears to be cut from the same cloth as those who are also finding new and exciting ways to navigate this brave new world of children’s entertainment.

So, while the industry has taken a turn towards a chaotic transition, thanks to a long-overdue tussle with technology, there are clear paths toward a natural and sustainable outcome.

And kids these days? They’re going to be just fine.

John Kreicbergs leads the business and property development efforts at Kid Rocket Studios, located in Kansas City, Missouri. Their flagship property, Kung Fu Robot, was named by Parents Magazine in 2013 as one of the best apps for kids.

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