BLOG published on 22 Nov 2018 • Department / Unit Digital Media Media

VRT: Experimenting as a moral duty

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In our latest blog on Digital Transformation within our Members, Maarten Janssen from VRT tells us how, because children and young audiences have changed the way they consume content, the Flemish Belgian broadcaster has changed too:

"You can take the test through introspection: we all have rather powerful memories of our childhood. And among those memories you will most certainly find some of the TV shows you used to watch as a child. Just thinking of them can make you smile with sweet nostalgia.

At PSM children’s tv station Ketnet, we have a strong influence on all kinds of content-related recollections that kids of today will have when they grow older. That is, among other things, why this is the single most enjoyable and humbling job in the world. Though it is a job that hasn't got any easier with the passing years.

20 years ago, the maths was simple. You made sure your programmes and their scheduling were sound, and that guaranteed you a steady part of the audience cake. Of course, storytelling and the craftsmanship of choosing the right format are still important factors, but today that is only about half of your duties. In our age, you have to earn and convince every pair of eyes and ears, every day all over again. That is the true challenge of every modern content creator for children.

What would you do, if you were 10 or 14 in this world of wonder? Would you check your school friends’ Instastories or binge-watch that new cool series on Netflix? Co-operate live with gamers from all over the world to level up, or check what happened in the lives of your favourite YouTube stars? Tinker with augmented reality on your smartphone? Close your eyes and listen to an endless stream of your favourite tunes, for free? If all of that would have been around back in the 80s, I would have been hooked for sure.

Does ‘watching a tv channel’ belong in that list? There is a saying in Dutch that has no direct cousin in English: no is what you already have, yes is what you can get. No, if you have to dig up your Mum’s TV guide to know when the show you crave for is finally on. No, if that TV channel never ever pops up in other places in your life. But there definitely is a Yes too.

Public broadcasters for children have to re-invent themselves as all-round brands, that keep distinguishing themselves by offering locally embedded services that are driven by values and not by profit. Kids’ quality labels that have a larger impact off  TV than on it, through live events; real collaborations with schools and a plethora of organizations; interactive experiments; short form storytelling on new platforms etc.

With Ketnet, we’ve been making that move for a couple of years now. And not without success, I am proud to say. The total count of hours that children are watching on our different outlets – TV, website, our own apps and Youtube combined – is rising steadily year after year, as is the number of spectators at events.

A fragile success story that is possible only thanks to the eagerness and openness of our makers: they are happy to experiment with interactive drama, augmented reality tools, co-creation in live shows and so on.

That is why, a few months ago, we dissolved the digital content team at Ketnet: the digital editors and the TV editors have become one big bunch that first thinks of fascinating stories, and only then chooses what is the best platform for each story. We usually opt for a mix of platforms: our anti-bullying campaign ‘move against bullies’ was a story that started digitally, then rolled out on TV and eventually resulted in a live event via an interactive stream in our app. The result? A critically acclaimed campaign that reached no less than 91% of all children.

This way of working makes up a solid base for the future of our channel, but we cannot even afford to blink once. It is not enough to react to evolutions. We aim to detect evolutions before they occur and anticipate. And our boards and managements have a moral duty to support that approach. Because if children’s brands can freely experiment with all kinds of innovative ways to connect to their users, our findings will be ready to harvest when (not if) the exact same shifts and trends enter the realm of grown-up media."

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Written by

Maarten Janssen
Head of Kids and Channel Manager - Ketnet at VRT