Zaz’s Tween Gamble

WBD announced on Friday that it would not renew Gordita Chronicles. Photo: Laura Magruder/HBO Max
Julia Alexander
July 31, 2022

Some eighteen months ago, the company once known as WarnerMedia announced that it was going to increase its investment in kids and family content tenfold. At the time, then-C.E.O. Jason Kilar, under the auspices of AT&T and John Stankey, was planning to order more than 3,000 episodes and films for the family division of HBO Max and the Cartoon Network, which was set to become a cornerstone brand for the streaming service. This was part of a broader directional recognition that streaming services needed to provide bundled value to all members of a family unit. In 2019, after all, with Disney+’s launch on the horizon, Netflix doubled down on its own family and children’s programming, which was being watched by about 60 percent of the platform’s global audience. Kilar was determined to fight for market share. 

Ever since WarnerMedia and Discovery combined to create Warner Bros. Discovery, however, C.E.O. David Zaslav has treated many of Kilar’s decisions as mere suggestions or simply irritants as he seeks to manage Wall Street’s expectations by finding $3 billion in synergies across the company, simultaneously growing its streaming ambitions while paying down its staggering debt. CNN+ was an early casualty. As my partner Matt Belloni has noted, even J.J. Abrams is susceptible to Zaz’s cost-cutting. 

This Friday, WBD announced that it wasn’t going to renew Gordita Chronicles, its live-action kids series. And, beyond that, the company is backing away from investment in live-action kids and family programming for HBO Max. Cartoons are still safe—animated series actually make up a meaningful percentage of HBO Max’s most in-demand series, according to Parrot Analytics research, where I work—but the kid-friendly, live-action fare once at the heart of Kilar’s programming strategy, particularly for HBO Max, is now kaput. “Live-action kids and family programming will not be part of our programming focus in the immediate future, and as a result, we’ve had to make the very difficult decision to end Gordita Chronicles at HBO Max,” the network said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter on Friday, putting a finer point on things. 

It’s worth noting that HBO Max never quite delivered on its commitment to produce all that kids programming. Part of the problem, I assumed, stems from the exigencies of a large and complex merger, which all sides knew would result in changes in direction and budgeting. But another issue, I also imagine, is the difficulty inherent in creating content for kids these days. In 2022, with the proliferation of TikTok and the preponderance of YouTube programs, it’s hard to make the sort of engaging live-action family series that made Nickelodeon and Disney Channel cultural landmarks in the ‘90s and ‘00s. So on the one hand, this is a story about new owners coming aboard a fast-moving ship and trying to determine what ropes to cut to pick up even more speed, and where to invest even more to support what’s working. And on another level, it’s a more existential question about how large media companies can attract a new generation of users, making their overall value more enticing to a family figuring out what to pay for.

As Zaslav continues his debt-paring journey, some of that will come in the form of typical and unfortunate M&A cuts (redundant departments and staffing, for example) while the rest will largely come from programming. The company has already cut down on scripted series at linear networks like TBS and TNT. But the bigger issue facing many live-action, scripted kids series is that the format can feel antiquated when kids are getting the vast majority of their favorite live-action content from YouTube. It’s not an issue with Gordita Chronicles per se, as much as overall concern with the live-action kids space. 

There’s a reason that Paramount Global, neé ViacomCBS, ordered a series based on Ryan’s Toy Reviews, one of the most popular YouTube channels of all time. The channel stars Ryan Kaji and, as of June, has more than 32.8 million subscribers. It’s also the reason that Disney tried to make a kids series about a group of children who work on a YouTube channel starring Jake Paul

Preschool audiences are fixated on the new animation style that’s infamous in series like Cocomelon and Masha and the Bear. Cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants, Steven Universe, Paw Patrol, and The Owl House are some of the most in-demand kids series in the United States, as seen in the chart below, but they’re obviously not live-action. The few live-action kids and family series that do show outstanding demand over the last 30 days in the United States, including iCarly and Henry Danger, are on Nickelodeon (and therefore, Paramount+ or Netflix, at least for now). In the case of iCarly, it’s also a reboot of a beloved kids show from Nickelodeon’s heyday in the early aughts. 

Over the last decade, some of the most recognized kids networks started losing large chunks of their linear audience. Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and others saw more than 50 percent drops, according to Nielsen data. The pivot to streaming was one way to meet the audience on their own turf, but just because the distribution model changed didn’t mean the audience was all that interested in what they originally walked away from. YouTube satiated the needs of preschoolers and kids, with strongly-developed cartoons and animated series becoming the type of programming that families love to watch together. The most in-demand kids and family programming on HBO Max aren’t live-action by any stretch, but some of HBO Max’s most in-demand series are animated family programming. 

So if you’re a Warner Bros. Discovery executive staring down a massive debt load and trying to strategize where to cut while focusing on what’s working, live-action kids programming makes sense. As competitors like Apple (through a partnership with Skydance), Netflix, Disney, Paramount, Amazon and YouTube continue to invest heavily in the space, the question becomes whether to compete or focus attention elsewhere. Kids content is important because sticky programming is key. Disney’s audience demands more live-action family storytelling, Nickelodeon’s a brand is built around live-action storytelling for tweens, Apple is betting on a family friendly service, and Amazon is trying to reach global audiences. The HBO Max team is betting on better gains by not competing in an oversaturated programming space, and focusing that attention elsewhere, like on more animated fare across its HBO Max and Cartoon Network divisions. 

Zaz presumably knows something else, too: Not all sticky kids content, of course, needs to be live action—especially when animated series are more in-demand, reach a wider audience, and often cost much less to produce. And HBO Max has a competitive edge in the space. Plus, it’s less risky: Kids’ content takes time to find audiences, and when there’s so much programming competing for people’s attention, it takes a ton of commitment, calculated faith, and investment to hope that a show is discoverable and builds an audience. Zaz needs results now. 

As someone who was a kid when Nickelodeon and Disney Channel were at their highest peaks (I distinctly remember High School Musical becoming a phenomenon), I know that stellar, curated, live-action kids programming is foundational in a way that YouTube often misses. There’s a reason that shows like Hannah Montana, iCarly, and All That still carry weight today. Warner Bros. Discovery’s decision to back away from live-action kids programming almost carries with it a heavier weight—an acknowledgement that, much like every other aspect of the disruptive revolution tearing through Hollywood right now, technology has perhaps forever changed a quintessential part of television programming.