"Just one more video and that’s it.”
That’s a common empty threat/demand many a modern parent has made, after plying their kids with a diverting iPad or iPhone—only to end up begging them to stop watching YouTube videos. Because before you know it, your toddler’s “last” Cars clip leads to something darker and definitely non-Pixar. Or your 8-year-old finds himself lost in a Minecraft vortex. Or your tween daughter checks out an old Hannah Montana clip—only to stumble onto some of Miley’s, er, newer work.
It’s tough to get children to obey restrictions on tablet usage, or that of traditional media. They, of course, have no respect for time slots, channels or programming blocks—assuming kids are even watching ad-supported television anymore. Instead, kids are flocking to YouTube, as well as to Facebook, Vine, In-stagram and other destinations they’re kind of not supposed to be visiting.
Meanwhile, the power players in kids content continue to approach the Web, and particularly YouTube, with great trepidation. Disney maintains a modest presence on the Google-owned video site, while Nickelodeon and Cartoon keep their distance. (YouTube consumption among the littlest consumers is such a live grenade that all three of those companies declined to comment for this story.)
“Whenever I look at the top 10 kids websites, they are not the top 10 kids websites,” says Jeff Pray, digital vp at Starcom, who works on brands like Mattel and Disney. “Believe me, YouTube is a monster that I can’t ignore. But it’s just a gray area. I’m all about brand safety before anything. And there will always be that question mark on YouTube given that you can’t target anyone under 13.”
Enter Viddiverse. A startup video/social media property aimed at kids 8 to 13, Viddiverse will sport a mix of syndicated children’s shows and kid-produced videos. The site will also blend elements of Facebook, Instagram and Vine. Like other social nets, children will be able to build profiles, amass followings, chat with friends and share content. And all in a safe, kid-friendly fashion. Mom has to approve sign up and the site cannot be used to share names, phone numbers or email addresses. Once signed in, kids will be able to upload videos to Viddiverse, where they can professionally edit clips, apply cool filters, and import other images and music.
The brainchild of CEO Malcolm Bird—a former Nickelodeon U.K. executive who, in the mid-2000s, ran AOL’s now-shuttered kids business KOL—Viddiverse has raised $700,000 and aims for $5 million to $8 million in financing leading up to a launch in Q1. A beta test kicks off in a few weeks.
The question: Why would Viddiverse work, given the skittishness of other kids players and potential security and privacy issues?
“The kids TV business is like the dinosaur looking at the Ice Age: ‘Nothing to look at here,’” as Bird puts it. “They seem so slow to react, and they’ve got their hands tied with cable deals. Meanwhile, there’s no protected, safe environment for tweens—particularly none that are ad supported and Coppa-compliant.”
Coppa is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which governs websites that target kids under 13. Coppa’s complex set of rules complicates matters, likely why Facebook, YouTube, Vine and others restrict their sites to kids 13 and over. For example, aside from requiring parental consent, Viddiverse doesn’t collect any personal information from children, doesn’t allow bad language and won’t link to non-Coppa sites, plus parents can review every video a kid posts.
Bird says he’s working on licensing deals with content companies from the U.S. and Canada, but won’t say which. Viddiverse is talking to YouTube and various record companies about hosting some kid-friendly fare, including music videos. Viddiverse will also feature four hours of live video featuring D.J. Rick Adams, host of a kids radio show for KOL.
But the heart of the site will be its social and creative elements. For example, kids will be encouraged to make their own videos, around which Viddiverse will host daily “studio challenges” (think: “Make the best video lip-synching to this Taylor Swift song”).
Such events are ripe for sponsorship opportunities, contends David Link, co-founder and creative director of design firm The Wonder Factory, which intentionally created Viddiverse to not look like a kiddie site. As Link explains, “We designed this almost like a mobile app rather than a website.”
This kind of thing has been tried before. In 2007, Disney launched Disney Xtreme Digital, also known as Disney XD—its answer to MySpace at the time. It didn’t last, eventually morphing into a linear TV channel.
That same year, Condé Nast rolled out Flip, a social network for teen girls that may have been ahead of its time. The site incorporated Tumblr-esque elements but was swept aside with the explosion of Facebook—not to mention the cost of hosting such a site in the mid-2000s. “If you look at Flip now, it was a good idea that was poorly executed and designed,” notes Sarah Chubb, who oversaw Flip and is now president of daily deals site Gilt City.
Chubb cautions that anyone trying to build a tween or teen site outside one of the big platforms like YouTube or Facebook will have a tough time scaling. But she does offer this bit of hope: “Brands loved Flip.”
Fred Seibert, a veteran children’s media exec who helped make Nickelodeon what it is today, deliberately stayed away from building a kids-targeted channel on YouTube, citing the uphill regulatory environment. Seibert agrees achieving scale is a challenge, but he believes the kids networks’ flat-footing and fear provide an opening. “Viacom's at war with YouTube, so Nick has no official relationship. They do some back door kinds of things. Disney, Cartoon, they take a variety of approaches. I don't know if they consider themselves successful online. I think they’ve all said to themselves, ‘We’ve avoided understanding how this works for our audience—we can’t anymore,” he says. “How can we get our hands around this?’”
“The traditional kids cable networks are sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” adds Todd Juenger, senior analyst, U.S. media at Sanford Bernstein. “They’ve had this great closed system, but they have lost a lot of GRPs. And in my opinion, Viacom has too much to encoruage viewers to move.” … I understand the conundrum. Do you want to encourage kids to migrate off of this highly profitable platform to something that is less profitable?”
YouTube, meanwhile, is looking to cater to kids in different ways—experimenting with Sesame Street on a paid subscription channel, for example. YouTube networks like The Collective have had success selling individual kid-friendly channels like Fred and The Annoying Orange to some brands.
YouTube also has AwesomenessTV, the teen-targeted network that DreamWorks Animation acquired earlier this year for $33 million. But AwesomenessTV primarily makes Web programming for a teen audience.
Bird’s vision is as much about kids creating their own content and becoming stars in their own world. Consider Lillian Powers, a 12-year-old who amassed 130,000 followers on Vine before getting kicked off the service for being too young. “There are thousands of kids out there ages 8 to 9 using Vine and things like this,” says her mom, Bajah Malmquist-Powers, who is all for the idea behind Viddiverse. “I think it’s a fabulous idea,” she says.
Bird will need more endorsements like hers, as he aims to get some 2 million kids using Viddiverse before going after advertisers. He’s confident he will get there. “I’m not in any way trying to take YouTube out,” he says. “But much like they’ve created stars of tomorrow, we want to create Viddiverse stars. If cable hadn’t been invented, this is what kids’ entertainment would be.”