How Nelvana worked to create more TV and online content for children as viewer demand skyrocketed during the pandemic

Pam Westman, CEO of Nelvana, the animation studio division of multimedia company Corus Entertainment, stands outside a virtually empty head office on Queens Quay in Toronto on September 23.

Glenn Lowson / The Globe and Mail

Nelvana Enterprises Inc. president Pam Westman has been developing children’s television shows for 28 years, but has never seen her industry evolve so quickly as in 2020.

When the pandemic struck and schools and daycares closed, many parents handed over control of iPads and TV remotes to children while rushing to work from home. And with many kids spending long hours in front of screens, Nelvana found that children’s content was being swallowed up faster than Canadian production houses could.

The result has been an opportunity to take advantage of unprecedented demand, provided Nelvana acts quickly enough to capitalize on it.

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Nelvana, a Canadian animation studio owned by Corus Entertainment, produces and distributes some of the biggest names in children’s content, including Peppa Pig, Thomas the Tank Engine, Franklin the Turtle, and Max and Ruby.

Like many of her competitors, Nelvana has seen a surge of new viewers through TV series and movies over the past 18 months, especially children, who Ms. Westman says are now more in charge of shaping the business success. This led to a series of changes.

“People were looking for content everywhere and kids were no different,” she said in an interview with The Globe. “Kids quickly became proficient in the material as well as the different platforms they can find shows on and how to access them.”

In the first three months of the pandemic, Nelvana saw a 44% increase in programming hours watched on more than 40 YouTube channels linked to her shows. People were also willing to pay for multiple platforms – in addition to their basic cable subscription – and even toddlers started selecting their own shows using touch devices, a big change from when parents would select a television channel at a specific time of day.

The pandemic has also changed the production time of some animated shows, as children under six are now in control and have a much shorter attention span.

“This has posed a huge challenge in the industry,” Ms. Westman said. “If you don’t get their attention now, just one swipe of their pinky and your show is gone in seconds.”

Traditionally, shows were 22 minutes long, half an hour linear with advertising. But now they’re broken up into 11-minute segments, playing two back-to-back segments, or five-minute segments with four in a row.

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“Stories have to grab their attention and then move quickly and move on to the next one,” Ms. Westman said.

Amid all the changes, Nelvana marked a milestone: in June, the company celebrated 50 years as a producer, developer and licensor of animated and live-action content for children. Since 1971, it has produced more than 4,800 episodes of programming, broadcast in more than 180 countries.

While the television remains the center of household multimedia consumption around the world, online streaming is increasingly used. According to a recent report by the Nielsen Company, around 28% of overall television viewing is through various streaming platforms such as Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and Disney +.

Meeting the demand for content is a challenge for an animation studio, as it typically takes 18-24 months to produce a new cartoon series. Luckily for Ms Westman’s team, they had just rummaged through the company’s catalog of nearly 4,000 children’s entertainment titles before the pandemic to look for something they could turn into a live-action series. , which has a shorter production lead time.

The result was the resurgence of a 1995 live action show. The sturdy boys.

“There was a cover of a lot of those retro shows and we had the rights to The sturdy boys just hang out, ”Ms. Westman said. “We were very lucky because filming was only delayed for three weeks, and very quickly we had a high quality drama series ready to go for young teenagers who clearly needed something to do. occupy their time because they weren’t going to school. “

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Hulu signed on as a partner in the United States, and Corus’ own YTV network aired the series in Canada. By the time the finale aired in May, viewership and ratings pushed the series into a second season.

Another decision that had to be made in the first six months of the pandemic was whether a new production would include the use of masks on the characters.

Ultimately, Ms Westman decided not to include the conversation about COVID-19 in an animated or live-action series. “People were scared and the kids were nervous and we wanted to give them an escape from what was going on outside,” she said. But some of her characters have been allowed to be used on children’s masks while others – like Miss Persona – have made segments of public service announcements on COVID-19 for children.

Another recent topic of discussion at Nelvana is how to increase character diversity. It’s a conversation Ms. Westman has regularly with her team.

A desire to put female characters of color in lead roles led to the production of Esme & Roy, an animated series launched in 2018 about a black girl and her monster friend.

“We were told the show wouldn’t sell in some countries and a little black girl in the lead would mean half of our territories wouldn’t buy – and that was only a few years ago, but we have still continued the show and proved them wrong, ”Ms. Westman said.

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Last month, the studio launched an incubator program for inexperienced new black writers to submit their work to Nelvana or her sister publishing company – Kids Can Press – and pledged to increase representation for both. behind and in front of the camera.

“For example, we challenge our agent for vocal talent and we won’t be voicing characters of color with whites,” she says.

“There isn’t a pool of talented, creative blacks waiting for you to give them a job over the past 20 years. They haven’t been encouraged to enter the industry – so we need to dig deeper and reach out to communities and encourage writers, animators, and talent to join the industry.

In terms of gender representation, children’s entertainment, unlike many industries in Canadian businesses, offers many equal opportunities for women in senior management – and Ms. Westman is a prime example.

His career started to take off with the introduction of Barney, this famous purple dinosaur. The oversized plush tyrannosaurus rex was the first character Ms. Westman started selling while working for Astral Media Inc. in 1993, which was later purchased by HITT Entertainment.

“Very few men wanted to work on Barney and it gave a ton of women the opportunity to step in and learn in a very women-centric culture because for every man there were five women. . “

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In 2001, she was promoted to Senior Vice President of HITT for Canada and Latin America, then became Executive Vice President, supporting all of the Americas. She spent 15 years between the Toronto and New York offices before taking a three-year departure to lead a team with Staples Canada.

“If a man has the opportunity to work on a James Bond film against Peppa Pig – they choose Hollywood, which is still very masculine, ”she says. The result, she adds, is a number of animation studios run by women.

Like many female executives, she spent her early days juggling work and caring for two young children; she also completed a postgraduate degree at Concordia in the evening. She credits her success to a strong network of support, both at home and with her male and female mentors in the office.

“I want to spend the latter part of my career helping women become executives – how to find their voice, how to ask for more money, how to apply for the job they want, find a mentor and guide them – because we are doing it. not teach women how to do that very well.

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