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Hooked

Why Netflix and Amazon want your kids

Luke Matheny keeps getting pulled away. We are on a rented soundstage on the outskirts of Los Angeles’s Koreatown, sitting in director’s chairs in front of a television monitor. A woman standing nearby flips through script pages on a clipboard, and a few crew members mill around with practiced nonchalance. On the monitor is a live feed of four middle schoolers sitting at desks on the other side of a big prop wall. From this set, which looks like a museum piece — presidential portraits, American flag, the words MONROE DOCTRINE scrawled on a dusty blackboard — someone is hollering for Matheny, the 38-year-old director of Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street. “To be continued,” Matheny calls over his shoulder as his expansive snarl of dark hair disappears around the corner. I catch a brief glimpse of his pants on the monitor as he strides past the camera.

Gortimer, which debuted last year on Amazon to critical acclaim, is about a 13-year-old boy whose suburban street provides the backdrop for fantastical adventures with his two best friends. Matheny won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film and hasn’t done children’s television before, but he says he fell in love with the show when he first read the pilot. “It felt like The Wonder Years, but with a supernatural element,” he tells me. Today, he’s shooting an episode in which Gortimer discovers a charmed blazer that makes others see and treat him as an adult. While Gortimer characteristically weighs the implications of his newfound power and hesitates to use it for his own gain, his mischievous best friend Ranger goes on a spree of lottery-ticket buying and R-rated-movie watching.

Gortimer feels stylistically and emotionally different from shows kids have come to expect from Nickelodeon or Disney. It’s sweet in an old-fashioned way, with gentle humor and sophisticated writing. And Matheny is shooting single-camera, a time-intensive process that gives the show a more cinematic look than sitcom-y, multicamera kids’ fare but requires a new take for every angle (which is why he’s constantly scurrying between the monitor and the set). I overhear him telling his cinematographer, Eduardo Enrique Mayén, how to position the children for a B-roll, or background, shot. A moment later he returns, easing his lanky frame into his chair. Somebody yells, “Background!” and on the monitor the middle schoolers begin pantomiming an enthusiastic conversation as the camera glides backward.

<p>The set of <em>Gortimer Gibbon&#8217;s Life on Normal&nbsp;Street </em></p>

The set of Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street

Matheny is called away again before long, and in his absence Sloane Morgan Siegel, who plays Gortimer and is zipping around the soundstage waiting for his next scene, takes it upon himself to entertain me. “You don’t know where you are or when you are with this show, so it’s timeless,” he says. “I love that quality.” Siegel, who’s 14, speaks without a trace of slang; dressed in the episode’s magical blazer, with his thick hair parted on the side, he, too, seems timeless.

Gortimer is one of a slate of original children’s shows being produced for Amazon Instant Video, which, along with other streaming services, is dumping money into content for children. Kids watch a lot of TV, which increasingly means watching a smartphone or tablet — in 2013, according to Common Sense Media, 75 percent of U.S. children aged 8 and younger had access to a smart mobile device in their homes. This, combined with young kids’ habit of playing favorite episodes again and again, gives video-on-demand networks such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu Plus a big advantage over traditional broadcast and cable networks. Executives see an opportunity to shape a new generation’s viewing habits, as well as to turn parents, eager to entertain their kids with nonjunk, into subscribers.

In the streaming world, Netflix is the biggest player: It’s in 36 percent of “high-tech” American households, according to a recent Nielsen report, and accounts for more than a third of North American internet traffic during peak periods. For kids’ content, it’s using its massive programming budget — $3.2 billion in 2014 — to license existing movies and TV series from Disney and other companies and to create original content. One of its primary vehicles for that content is a 2013 deal it signed with DreamWorks Animation for hundreds of hours of new shows based on recent franchises like the Madagascar movies and Puss in Boots as well as classic series like Veggie Tales. Amazon Instant Video, the second-widest-reaching streaming service — it’s in 13 percent of Nielsen households, though growing rapidly — is going after young viewers with equal vigor. In 2013, less than two months after the expiration of a Netflix deal with Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, Amazon licensed a lineup of Nickelodeon’s preschool shows. Since Amazon’s content budget is smaller, it has taken a scrappier approach with original programming, crowdsourcing scripts and putting money behind entirely new, high-quality shows that kids can’t watch elsewhere: like Tumble Leaf, a stop-motion animated series for preschoolers that won five Daytime Emmys in April, and Gortimer.

We don’t hear ‘no’ a lot, so we’re really not treating it like a normal kids’ show,” says Matheny, who’s directed most of Gortimer’s 13 released episodes. He cites old Steven Spielberg movies — The Goonies, E.T. — as inspiration. Gortimer is funny and almost folksy, but an undercurrent of gloom keeps viewers on edge. In the pilot, a lazy summer day unfolds into a surreal fairy-tale adventure that is interrupted when Gortimer nearly dies of heatstroke in a crawl space. It’s moments like this, when reality comes crashing through, that give the show its power.

Matheny rounds the corner just as Siegel is summoned elsewhere. He settles into his chair and puts on a pair of headphones. Someone yells, “Action!” and the camera captures about four seconds of footage. “OK!” Matheny says, ripping off his headphones and heading back to the set.

<p>Director Luke Matheny on the <em>Gortimer</em>&nbsp;set</p>

Director Luke Matheny on the Gortimer set

Netflix is headquartered in Silicon Valley, but its content team works out of a glinting glass-and-marble building in Beverly Hills. Ted Sarandos is Netflix’s chief content officer. When we meet in February, Sarandos, who is 51 but seems younger, is dressed in jeans and a neatly pressed button-down. With a square face, thick neck, and bulky shoulders, he looks a bit like a boxer — fitting, given Netflix’s aggressive posture.

“It’s about building early relationships,” he tells me, explaining why children are so valuable to the company. “The way I watch TV today has a lot to do with the way I watched ten years ago. The way kids watch as they get older is going to be grounded in how they used to watch on Netflix.”

In late 2013, a Nickelodeon survey found that children aged 9 and younger watched an average of 35 hours of television per week, a 2.2-hour increase from 2009. That’s in addition to other screen time like gaming and surfing the web. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average 8-year-old spends eight hours a day — 56 hours per week — using electronic media such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones. “Go to the airport and you’ll see a 2-year-old who knows how to operate Netflix on his iPad perfectly,” Sarandos says.

Kids who grow up streaming TV on mobile devices have a lot more choice and more control over what they watch than their parents could have imagined in their channel-surfing youth. Since the big streaming platforms are subscription-based, today’s kids also watch far fewer commercials. “The kids-only section is a safe place to play, and you’re not going to get inundated with advertising for sugar stuff,” Sarandos says. More important, he argues, the ad-free environment allows for more interesting programming.

Many people who work in children’s television point to the 1990s as the medium’s golden age, when the quantity and diversity of kids’ shows soared. If forced to pick a creative zenith, you can’t do better than SpongeBob SquarePants. The smart, absurdist show, which premiered on Nickelodeon in 1999 and continues to reel in revenue for the network today, met with skepticism in development because SpongeBob has no parents and doesn’t go to school, plot points that can unsettle advertisers. But Nickelodeon was growing fast, and it was willing to take risks. The number of children’s networks kept multiplying through the 2000s, and today there are more than 400 networks catering to children worldwide. As a result, they have staked out ever-narrower demographic niches — 6-to-11-year-old boys, 12-to-17-year-old girls — that they can market to advertisers. This narrowing effect, plus attempts by networks to replicate past successes, has led to a lot of formulaic shows. In recent years, Nick’s sitcoms, like How to Rock and Marvin Marvin, have been criticized for relying on pratfalls, stereotyped characters, and potty humor. “I can’t tell if there’s a set of informing ideas that guide [Nickelodeon today], except We’ve got to make money for Viacom,” says Scott Webb, who served as Nick’s first creative director. Without advertisers to worry about, Netflix and Amazon can make ambitious kids’ shows that appeal to a more eclectic viewership, more like movies. And even ambitious children’s programming is cheaper than similar shows for adults, thanks to smaller casts, mostly unknown talent, and a general belief that kids are less discerning when it comes to production values.

In February of 2013, Netflix released its first original series, House of Cards. The show was a huge success. Sarandos hoped to do the same thing in kids’ programming. A couple years earlier, he’d secured access to DreamWorks Animation’s movies, wooing the company away from a prior partnership with HBO. Out of that relationship a new idea emerged, helped along by DreamWorks Animation’s desire to expand into television. In June 2013, Netflix announced first-run rights to more than 300 hours of original DreamWorks shows, the largest single programming order in TV history. “It felt very organic that we could keep their brands alive for multiple generations of kids,” Sarandos says of the deal, financial details of which have not been disclosed. “You can keep refreshing the brand with new seasons of a TV show and really advance the story.”

His long-term goal is to create a supernetwork, one that will make the idea of specialty networks obsolete. “What’s great about Netflix is it’s the only channel where the viewer actually ages without having to change the channel,” he says. “Normally a kid will start out on PBS and go to Nick, go to Disney Channel, then go to ABC Family. On Netflix, we have programming for all the ages, so you just keep aging through the system, and there’s another group of 5-year-olds behind you.”

<p>  	<em>Gortimer</em> is shot single-camera, which gives the show a more cinematic look than sitcom-y, multicamera kids&rsquo;&nbsp;fare.</p>

Gortimer is shot single-camera, which gives the show a more cinematic look than sitcom-y, multicamera kids’ fare.

On a recent Tuesday, Mark Taylor returned to his Glendale office from a business trip to Asia to find an abundance of people wearing short-sleeved pastel polo shirts, a signature of his wardrobe. “It’s Welcome Back Mark Taylor Tuesday,” he says as we pass a group of his chuckling doppelgängers. Taylor is head of production for DreamWorks Animation’s television arm, in charge of creating the shows Netflix ordered. He is 64, with a gently receding hairline, frameless glasses, and a pointy nose, and he is widely considered the nicest guy in the building. In addition to putting on massive barbecues for employees and their families, he’s known for keeping his large corner office stocked with candy. Animators traipse through all day to help themselves.

DreamWorks Animation had been involved in only a few television shows prior to its deal with Netflix, and it had no internal TV division at the time of the order. To build one, CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg looked a few freeway exits over, to the Burbank headquarters of Nickelodeon.

Before Nick became the undisputed king of kids’ TV, it struggled to gain traction. When the network launched in 1977, it aired cheap, thoughtfully produced live-action shows that kids largely ignored. “There was this belief that stuff for kids had to be kind of good for you,” says Scott Webb, who joined the network a few years later. “It was what we always called the green vegetables of television.” But in the 1980s, under the leadership of a new president named Geraldine Laybourne, Nickelodeon began remaking itself with a subversive goal: create TV that kids want to watch. An internal pamphlet called The Nickelodeon Manifesto outlined five sacred rules that seem obvious in retrospect — “we look at the world from a kid’s point of view”; “make it kid-tested, kid-approved” — but that represented a new approach to children’s television. The shows that came out of this overhaul felt radical and new: Doug and Rugrats, both about relatively normal kids exploring uncharted and often scary worlds with the help of their friends; Ren & Stimpy, still a contender for the strangest show ever put before a U.S. children’s audience; Pete & Pete, which one former show writer described to me as Twin Peaks for preteens.

After finalizing the Netflix deal, DreamWorks Animation needed executives who could build a major animation studio in a matter of months. Although he made his name at Disney, Katzenberg turned to three members of the team that led Nick’s ascendance. In 2013, he hired Marjorie Cohn, who led content development at Nick and MTV, as head of TV. He appointed Peter Gal, a Nick alum who’d joined DreamWorks Animation a few years earlier, as head of development, and Taylor, who’d been leading Nick’s animation studio and had overseen the creation of shows like Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob, as head of production. “We were going to deliver the equivalent of six features in ten months, which is insane,” Taylor recalls.

Resources, at least, were not a problem. One of Netflix’s biggest advantages over traditional networks is its ability to order huge amounts of content at one time. Because the company doesn’t need an immediate hit to sell ads, it can invest in more episodes up front, spreading the cost over the life of a series. “If I buy a show and we own it for ten years, it’s no more or less valuable if you watch it ten years from now or the moment it goes live,” Sarandos explains. While large orders can be risky — what if a show flops? — more investment can often mean higher quality. Take House of Cards. “It’s a better show because we ordered 26 hours than it would have been if we ordered three and said, ‘We’ll see how you do,’” Sarandos says. “They wouldn’t have invested in the sets at the level they did and wouldn’t have been able to bring in the best people to create the images around it or the best writers in the world to write those scripts.”

<p>  	Mark Taylor, head of production for DreamWorks Animation&rsquo;s television division</p>

Mark Taylor, head of production for DreamWorks Animation’s television division

<p>The Glendale offices of DreamWorks Animation&#8217;s <span class="caps">TV</span>&nbsp;operation</p>

The Glendale offices of DreamWorks Animation’s TV operation

DreamWorks Animation’s TV division scaled up quickly, from a team of four to more than 400 in a little over a year. Most of Taylor’s animators sit in an enormous, dimly lit space outside his office called the Hub. Pod-like configurations of cubicle walls dot the open floor plan. Strings of ornamental lights droop from the ceiling in circus-tent patterns, giving the impression of a common area in a dorm. Most of the 46 animators look as if they could still be in college. We step into one of the pods; the animators’ work stations are strewn with plastic cups, pens, and action figures, the walls and displays plastered with indecipherable sticky notes. A young woman sits in front of two large screens displaying characters from Dinotrux, a series about dinosaur-truck hybrids based on a popular children’s book. At this stage, they’re no more than colorful composites of clunky 3-D shapes. The animator is applying an internal skeleton to these shapes that will dictate how the characters can move.

There has long been a glaring quality gap between 3-D animation made for television and the animation you find in feature movies produced by major studios. The problem is that each nuance — “when we started, hair and fur was the biggie,” Taylor says — represents thousands of hours of work. During feature production, studios hire hundreds of 3-D animators and give them months to craft individual strands of hair and leaves on trees. With its first shows due in less than a year, DreamWorks Animation didn’t have that option.

One of Taylor’s ideas was to have animators work across multiple shows instead of assigning distinct teams for each series — so the exhaust emitted by the characters in Dinotrux is created by the same animators as the smoke rising from an extinguished candelabra in The Adventures of Puss in Boots, a spinoff of the Puss in Boots movie, itself a spinoff of the Shrek franchise. Then, to maximize efficiency, Taylor decided to keep as many steps of the animation process as possible in-house, outsourcing fewer special effects. This has helped his animators figure out inventive new shortcuts and reduce rendering times, or how long it takes for a computer to combine the various elements of animation into a single file. “We were at an hour and a half or two hours a frame, and now we’re down to 35 or 40 minutes,” Taylor says. “We have some serious secret sauce here.”

He leads me to another pod and another set of screens. Here, side-by-side images of Julien, the party-animal lemur king from the Madagascar movies and the star of a new Netflix series called All Hail King Julien, spin slowly on a gray background. A skinny creature with huge eyes and a pointed snout, Julien stands with his arms splayed, his head up, and his tail back, as though preparing for a swan dive. Taylor asks me to guess which image is from the movie and which is from the TV show. Even on the large monitors, I can’t discern a difference. I venture a guess. Taylor smiles and corrects me.

When he started at Nickelodeon in 1997, Taylor tells me, “that was a peak for the industry.… Now you have the footprint of Netflix and DreamWorks, and you’ve also got Amazon and some other streaming services. It’s almost 20 years later, and we’re hitting the same kind of peak.”

<p>  	A brainstorming board at DreamWorks Animation for the show <em>Dinotrux</em></p>

A brainstorming board at DreamWorks Animation for the show Dinotrux

David Anaxagoras was sitting in his car in the parking lot of the Orange County preschool where he was working when he got the call. It was 2012, and the 43-year-old teacher had been trying to break into Hollywood since he was a kid. Saddled with debt after earning an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA in 2005, he’d moved in with his parents and taken a job teaching. He didn’t have an agent and didn’t understand the spec script market, but he wrote in the evenings, submitting his screenplays to contests and to industry contacts he wheedled out of former classmates. Over ten years he wrote a dozen feature scripts, and he didn’t get even a nibble. “I actually quit writing screenplays. I figured it just wasn’t going to pan out,” Anaxagoras tells me. “Then I saw on Amazon’s website they were taking TV pilot submissions, and just for the hell of it I figured I’d try to write the one TV idea I ever had.”

That idea, inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, an episodic novel that uses touches of fantasy to tell the story of a 13-year-old boy navigating small-town life, was Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street. Anaxagoras wrote the script in a rushed few weeks and submitted it through Amazon’s website, which promised that he’d hear back within 45 days — a refreshingly specific number, Anaxagoras thought. A few weeks later, after he got off work at the preschool, his phone rang. It was Tara Sorensen, head of kids’ programming at Amazon Studios. She told him she wanted to option Gortimer. “It was a beautiful, beautiful script that we had never seen before,” says Sorensen, who’d come to Amazon from National Geographic Kids just a few months earlier. “It was dark and there was something unique in Gortimer’s voice, in the narration, and in his perspective that we thought was really intriguing.”

<p>David Anaxagoras, creator of <em>Gortimer Gibbon&#8217;s Life on Normal&nbsp;Street</em></p>

David Anaxagoras, creator of Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street

Amazon ventured into Hollywood in 2010 with the creation of Amazon Studios, a populist take on a movie production studio. Roy Price, who’d been running Amazon’s nascent streaming service before taking over the new project, described it as the “movie studio of the future.” The idea, which came at a moment when amateurs were finding big audiences on YouTube, was to break down the barriers to the entertainment industry and acquire television and film ideas at a discount. Price and his team invited amateur filmmakers and screenwriters to submit their movie scripts and to offer feedback on other submissions. The studio offered cash prizes and partnered with Warner Bros. to develop promising ideas.

Around this same time, Amazon added 5,000 movies and television shows to its content library and relaunched Video On Demand, its streaming service, as Instant Video, bundling the service with Prime, a loyalty program that offers shipping deals and other perks in exchange for a yearly fee. Amazon doesn’t release data about its Prime sales, but when analysts at RBC Capital Markets surveyed Amazon customers, they found that Prime members outspent non-Prime users by nearly two to one over the course of a year.

Amazon tasked Price with developing original shows for Instant Video. The open-door system had generated a lot of buzz but had so far failed to yield any movie deals, so in addition to monitoring amateur submissions, the studio began reaching out to established talent. One of its first gets was the cartoonist and producer Garry Trudeau, who created the series Alpha House, starring John Goodman. Amazon viewers would be invited to rate and review all of the pilots, information that would factor into the decision to greenlight.

An early priority was children’s content, because of its relatively low cost, and because getting kids to watch would mean parents signing up for Prime. (The company has made other Prime plays for parents, including Amazon Mom, which offers discounts on baby products, and Amazon Elements, a line of baby wipes and diapers available exclusively to Prime subscribers.) Price hired Sorensen to lead children’s programming, and in May 2012 a solicitation went up on the Amazon Studios site for pilot scripts, including a specific call for kids’ shows.

<p>Tara Sorensen, head of kids&#8217; programming at Amazon&nbsp;Studios</p>

Tara Sorensen, head of kids’ programming at Amazon Studios

When he started writing Gortimer, Anaxagoras knew he wanted to make a different kind of kids’ show. As a preschool teacher, he had a profound respect for children’s inner lives. What he saw on TV didn’t feel authentic or sophisticated to him. “It’s important to be brave about portraying emotions, something other than just slapstick and fart jokes,” he says. “I didn’t want a lot of put-down humor or sarcasm. Other shows are filled with it.” Instead, he says, “I wanted to portray friends who stand by each other.”

Anaxagoras kept pacing in the parking lot long after he hung up with Sorensen. Finally, the news sunk in, and he let out a celebratory whoop. A few days later, he came into the Amazon Studios office, in Santa Monica, to talk about Gortimer. Amazon Studios optioned the show under a standard agreement for pilots sourced through the online system: $55,000, plus royalties, if they ended up distributing the series. To his delight, Anaxagoras retained an unusual amount of control over Gortimer throughout the development process. A major studio will typically bring on an experienced television writer to take over for a newcomer, but Sorensen wanted to preserve Anaxagoras’s voice and vision, so she kept him on as lead writer. “For me, it is really a portfolio approach,” she says. “We’re drawing in folks with track records, sort of like your safer bet, and then taking more risk with the up-and-comers.” Once the script was in workable shape, they found a director, Luke Matheny, who told me that he cried when he read it. Then they cast the show. “Seeing it come to life, it was like going to Disneyland every day,” Anaxagoras says. “It was all so improbable.”

Amazon posted the Gortimer pilot in 2014 along with nine others, including the pilot for Transparent, a Jeffrey Tambor–led show that won two Golden Globes and put Amazon on the TV map the way House of Cards did Netflix. Now Amazon is developing pilots with Steven Soderbergh, Woody Allen, and other big-name filmmakers. Of the 15 original series it’s debuted or commissioned thus far, six are for kids.

“We are heavily, heavily weighing all of the customers’ feedback,” Sorensen says. When the Gortimer pilot went live, Anaxagoras kept his phone with him. “I would watch every single customer review that came in,” he says. “Everyone told me not to, but it was all positive.” The show got five stars in its first hundred reviews. Based in part on that reception, Sorensen gave it the green light, and the rest of the first season went live last fall.

A few months before my visit to the Gortimer set, I stop by an L.A. sound studio to watch a voice-recording session for Netflix’s All Hail King Julien. From the back of the control room, crowded with crew members, I can see Danny Jacobs’s lips moving. On the other side of a large glass window, the muscly, lightly scruffed voice actor is gesticulating, contorting his face, and screaming into a giant microphone. At one point in the script, Julien asks one of his subjects for interior-design advice. When the loyal lemur suggests bunk beds for the king and his newly adopted brother, Julien cries out, à la Oprah, “ah-MAZ-ing!” In the next scene, Julien brings his new brother to a dance club and, looking out at the crowd, tells him that he’s “all about the booty.” Then he begins dancing wildly, shaking his butt.

“For the older kids, it used to be that movies were the only place where you had a crossover audience,” Todd Yellin, Netflix’s vice president of product innovation, tells me when I visit the company’s Los Gatos headquarters a few days later. Studios like Pixar and DreamWorks Animation turned animated comedies into a more broadly appealing art form, with jokes that work for both kids and adults and stories that largely avoid an overt bias toward boys or girls, he explains, while “TV was much more segmented.” But shows like Gortimer and Julien are changing this.

Partly because it’s a spinoff of a movie series and partly because of the high quality of the animation coming out of Mark Taylor’s Glendale studio, Julien feels more movie-like than most recent Disney Channel or Cartoon Network shows. The series won three Daytime Emmys this year: for Casting, Outstanding Performer, and Best Animated Series.

Among people who work in kids’ TV, there’s a sense of great potential in this moment. Some people I spoke to compared it to the early 1990s, when Nickelodeon was just beginning to redefine what children’s shows could be. New kinds of series are emerging, and kids are watching and interacting with them in new ways. Yellin is in charge of Netflix’s user interface, the portal through which the company’s 62.3 million subscribers — and their kids — find and stream content. In Los Gatos, he and his colleague Carla Fisher, head of product innovation for kids and family, give me a glimpse of what TV looks like to children who are growing up with it at their fingertips.

Fisher has a doctorate in instructional technology and media; she has strawberry-blond hair and wears slim rectangular glasses. As we talk, she calls up her Netflix account on her iPad. “My daughter is 3,” she says, “and we do a lot of great co-viewing together.” She points to a scrollable row of characters at the top of the screen, part of an interface customized to her daughter. I recognize Curious George and Sid from Jim Henson’s Sid the Science Kid. Fisher tells me that Netflix researchers have learned that when preschoolers watch TV, they think they’re interacting with the characters they see. “So my daughter will be like, ‘I want to play with Curious George,’” she says. The character navigation bar emerged out of those realizations, providing an elegant way for young viewers (most of whom don’t yet read) to navigate their budding preferences.

Netflix is beginning to explore other kinds of interactivity. “Our most popular kids’ device is a touchscreen, a tablet, a place where they’re literally touching their characters,” says Yellin — tall and skinny, with a mostly bald head and a cleft chin. “That kind of begs the question of another stage of interaction with the programming, and it’s not a question of if, but when.” Sorensen hinted to me that Amazon was moving toward something similar. “One thing we’re looking at is embedding games in the narrative that kids can interact with,” she says, declining to sketch the concept out further. If new kids’ shows from Amazon and Netflix are more like movies, some future shows may be more like video games.

To give me a sense of how older kids find shows, Yellin calls up his 8-year-old son’s Netflix interface. On traditional TV, adjacency is key: Networks stack up shows that they think will appeal to similar demographics. But on streaming platforms, discovery is algorithmic, allowing kids to develop unique and eclectic tastes. Yellin’s son has turned off the character-bar feature, but he’s still limited to content that his parents have approved. There are recommendations for shows like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Johnny Test, animated series with boy protagonists, but also for Jessie, a live-action Disney show with a female lead that the Disney Channel markets to 6-to-11-year-old girls. Netflix’s algorithms don’t account for gender or age, the demographic foundation upon which traditional kids’ TV shows have been built. “We program for diversity,” says Yellin. “There are 5-year-olds who like to watch things that are more traditionally for 10-year-olds, and there are girls who watch things for boys, and all these things are smashed apart in the personalized internet TV world.”

For those of us who grew up watching whatever was on, flipping to a particular channel was a way of identifying with a certain aesthetic, a certain set of values; watching Nickelodeon, for example, was a small act of defiance in a parent-run world. One potential side effect of growing up in the streaming era may be a more articulated and individual sense of taste. Today’s kids have more choice, and also more responsibility.

Yellin navigates to his 11-year-old daughter’s interface. “She just graduated to using the grown-up side,” he says with pride, meaning that he had granted her access to Netflix’s full library of content. The bubbly cartoon images that punctuated his son’s display are here replaced by stills from live-action movies for teens and tweens, her viewing preference of late — Soul Surfer, Pitch Perfect. There are also recommendations for cooking shows, like Cupcake Wars and Chopped. Graduating to the adult interface is a new digital rite of passage, Yellin explains. But it doesn’t mean she has outgrown kids’ shows altogether. Mixed in with the more grown-up content are a few cartoons — including Julien.

The original version of this story mischaracterized the second release of new episodes of All Hail King Julien as the show’s second season. The show is in its first season.

Greg Nichols is an author and journalist in Los Angeles. His new book is Striking Gridiron: A Town’s Pride and a Teams Shot at Glory During the Biggest Strike in American History.

Spencer Lowell was born and raised in Los Angeles and graduated from Art Center College of Design in 2007.