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The Children Are the Future (of Online Streaming Video)

Forget Arrested Development; maybe streaming-video services can become an alternative to regular TV by going after your children.

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Nickelodeon / PRNewsFoto / AP Images

The Backyardigans "Pirate Camp"

A lot of the coverage of streaming video lately (mine included) has been focused on big-ticket, high-profile original productions. If streaming becomes and alternative to the network model of channels and weekly schedules—or replaces it altogether—the thinking has been that it would be led by attention-getting projects like Netflix’s House of Cards and Arrested Development, which would elevate the medium the way HBO’s dramas did pay cable.

But there may be another way that streaming-video services turn themselves into a mainstream alternative to regular TV: by going after your children.

This is the significance of the deal Amazon just announced with Viacom, to begin offering its children’s programming (think Nickelodeon) through Amazon Prime Instant Video, after Netflix gave up the rights to it earlier in the year. If your kids want The Backyardigans streaming on demand, they’ll have to go through Jeff Bezos.

The deal suggests that, where Netflix is betting on big splashy projects to lead TV into the future, Amazon sees the way ahead as more of a bottom-up process: as in the bottom of the age-demographic range. Earlier this spring Amazon debuted a set of series pilots for viewers to rate, and while the adult shows got most of the attention, it also tested a half-dozen kids’ pilots. As I suggested in my post then, “the most distinctive thing Amazon does could be its kids’ shows, one of the first genres to bring streaming video into the home.” (Alyssa Rosenberg also had a good analysis of the same subject at ThinkProgress recently, noting that while there’s less flashy competition in that sector, there may be even greater demand.)

Childrens’ programming is a natural match for streaming video. To paraphrase the old Kix ad, kids like it and moms and dads like it. Kids are receptive to reruns, they’re especially platform-agnostic (born into a world where “TV” is something that comes out of computers and phones), and, if anecdotal experience says anything, they’re especially partial to video on portable devices. They’ve come to think of TV as more like books—something you can carry with you and choose from a library. Parents, meanwhile, like having access to on-demand, pacifying entertainment (think car trips) without commercials and with greater control over episode selection. And their kids will be the video-watching adults of the future.

It’s not as if Amazon and Netflix are totally parting ways in their strategy, though. Netflix now has a deal with Disney, with its own trove of children’s content, and Amazon recently picked up two of its adult sitcom pilots to full series.

All of which, naturally, means that while the future of TV may be more a la carte, on-demand, and option-heavy, it will not necessarily be cheap: for access to both Nick and Disney reruns, you’ll need two subscriptions to two services, at least while the current deal lasts. For frugal parents and their kids, then, the future of streaming media may be in the past. PBS Kids still has some commercial-free episodes online for free.