Raised by YouTube
The way children watch TV is changing fast – and the online shows that grab their attention are a lot weirder and wilder than you’d expect. Alexis C Madrigal reports on ChuChu TV’s vision
The programmemakers grabbing our toddlers’ attention
ChuChu TV, the company responsible for some of the most widely viewed toddler content on YouTube, has a suitably cute origin story. Vinoth Chandar, the CEO, had always played around on YouTube, making Hindu devotionals and little videos of his father, a well-known Indian music producer. But after he and his wife had a baby daughter, whom they nicknamed “Chu Chu”, he realised he had a new audience – of one. He drew a Chu Chu-like character in Flash, the animation program, and then created a short video of the girl dancing to the popular and decidedly unwoke Indian nursery rhyme Chubby Cheeks. (“Curly hair, very fair / Eyes are blue, lovely too / Teacher’s pet, is that you?”)
Chu Chu loved it. “She wanted me to repeat it again and again,” Chandar recalls, which gave him an idea: “If she is going to like it, the kids around the world should like it.” He created a YouTube channel and uploaded the video. In a few weeks, it had 300,000 views. He made and uploaded another video, based on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and it took off, too. After posting just two videos, he had 5,000 subscribers to his channel. Someone from YouTube reached out and, as Chandar remembers it, said: “You guys are doing some magic with your content.” So Chandar and several of his friends formed a company in Chennai, in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, from the bones of an IT business they’d run. They hired a few animators and started putting out a video a month.
Five years on, ChuChu TV is a fast-growing threat to traditional competitors, from Sesame Street to Disney to Nickelodeon. Sesame Street has more than 5bn views on YouTube. ChuChu has more than 19bn. Sesame Street’s main feed has 4m subscribers; the original ChuChu TV channel has 19m – placing it among the top 25 most watched YouTube channels in the world, according to the social-media-tracking site Social Blade – and its subsidiary channels (primarily ChuChu TV Surprise Eggs Toys and ChuChu TV Español) have another 10m.
According to ChuChu, its two largest markets are the United States and India, which together generate about a third of its views. But each month tens of millions of views also pour in from the UK, Canada, Mexico, Australia and all over Asia and Africa. Roughly 20m times a day, a child carer somewhere on Earth fires up YouTube and plays a ChuChu video. What began as a lark has grown into something very, very big, inflating the company’s ambitions. “We want to be the next Disney,” Chandar tells me.
But whereas Disney has long mined cultures around the world for legends and myths – dropping them into consumerist, family-friendly American formats – ChuChu’s videos are a different kind of hybrid: the company ingests Anglo-American nursery rhymes and holidays, and produces new versions with subcontinental flair. The characters’ most prominent animal friend is a unicorn-elephant. Nursery rhymes become music videos, complete with Indian dances and iconography. Kids of all skin tones and hair types speak with an Indian accent.
ChuChu does not employ the weird keyword-stuffed titles used by lower-rent YouTube channels. The company’s titles are simple, sunny, consistent. Its theory of media is that good stuff wins, which is why its videos
have won. “We know what our subscribers want, and we give it to them,” Chandar says. ChuChu says it adds roughly 40,000 subscribers a day.
That kind of growth suggests something unpredictable and wild is happening: America’s grip on children’s entertainment is coming to an end. ChuChu is but the largest of a new constellation of children’s media brands on YouTube that is spreading out across the world: Little Baby Bum in London, Animaccord in Moscow, VideoGyan in Bangalore, Billion Surprise Toys in Dubai, TuTiTu TV in Tel Aviv and LooLoo Kids in Iasi, a Romanian town near the country’s border with Moldova. The new children’s media look nothing like what adults would have expected. They are exuberant, cheap, weird and multicultural. YouTube’s content for young kids – what I think of as Toddler YouTube – is a mishmash, a bricolage, a trash fire, an explosion of creativity. It’s a largely unregulated, data-driven grab for toddlers’ attention and, as we’ve seen with the rest of social media, its ramifications may be deeper and wider than you’d think.
With two small kids in my own house, I haven’t been navigating this new world as a theoretical challenge. My youngest, who is two, can rarely sustain her attention to watch the Netflix shows we put on for my five-yearold son. But when I showed her a ChuChu video, just to see how she’d react, I practically had to wrestle my phone away from her. What was this stuff? Why did it have the effect it did?
To find out, I had to go to Chennai.
Uber in Chennai is essentially the same as Uber in Oakland, California, where I live. In the airport I hit a button on my phone, and soon a white sedan pulled up outside. My driver was a student who had come to Chennai to break into Tollywood. Yes, Tollywood:
T for Telugu, the language spoken by 75m people, mostly in South India.
ChuChu’s headquarters, overlooking Srinivasapuram, a fishing village in the Bay of Bengal, take up the entire first floor of a blue-glass building with brightyellow stripes. Rows of animators flank a centre aisle that houses big, colourful flourishes – weird chairs, structural columns with graffiti on them – signifying “fun tech office!” The work floor is ringed by maybe 10 offices that house the higher-ups. ChuChu says it employs about 200 people.
In addition to being the CEO, Chandar composes music for ChuChu. He’s the public face of the company and, at 39, a few years younger than the other four founders, who each hold an equal stake. His friend BM Krishnan, a former accountant and a ChuChu co-founder, is now the company’s chief creative officer.
It was after Krishnan joined the creative team, Chandar tells me, that ChuChu really began to achieve global popularity. What made the difference, in part, was that Krishnan decided to rewrite nursery rhymes that he felt didn’t end well or teach good morals. What if Jack and Jill, after falling down while fetching the pail of water, get back up, learn from the resilience of birds
‘We want to be the next Disney’: (from left) ChuChu TV characters; and the head office in Chennai, which employs about 200 people
and ants, actually get the pail of water, and give it to their mum? “It was Jack and Jill 2.0,” Chandar says. “I thought, ‘This is how a nursery rhyme should be.’”
The ChuChu guys didn’t set out to make educational programming. They were just making videos for fun. How were they to know they’d become a global force in children’s entertainment? As time went on and the staff expanded, the company created a teaching series, called Learning English Is Fun, and worked with a preschool company to develop an app, ChuChu School, that has an explicitly didactic purpose.
Krishnan had no experience other than his own parenting. But if whatever he did as a parent worked for his kids, he felt, why wouldn’t it work for everyone? For example, when he taught his kids left from right, he liked to do it in the car, when they were in the back seat. That way, if he pointed left, it was left for them, too. So when ChuChu made a video teaching the left-right concept, it made sure to always show the characters from behind, not mirrored, so that when a character pointed left, the kids watching would understand.
As it became clear that ChuChu videos were being watched by millions of people on six continents, Krishnan and Chandar started branching out into original songs and nursery rhymes, which Krishnan has been writing for the past couple of years. Their content runs the gamut, from an adaptation of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, dedicated to tree planting as a way to fight global warming, to Banana Song (“Na na na banana / long and curved banana”).
But their most popular video, by far, is a compilation that opens with Johny Johny Yes Papa, a take on a nursery rhyme popular in India. With 1.5bn views, it’s one of the most watched videos of any kind, ever.
In it, a small boy wakes up in the middle of the night and sneaks to the kitchen. He grabs a jar of sugar. Just as he’s spooning some into his mouth, the light switches on and his father walks in. The son denies eating sugar, the father makes him open his mouth, then laughs. So does the son.
When Krishnan watches Johny Johny, he sees a universal father-child interaction. The kid tries to get one over on the dad, and when the dad catches him, the parent isn’t actually annoyed. Instead, he’s almost delighted by the sly wilfulness. “Inside, the father will be a little happy,” Krishnan said. “This child is having some brains.”
As YouTube became the world’s babysitter – an electronic pacifier during trips, or when adults are having dinner – parents began to seek out videos that soaked up more time. So what’s most popular on Toddler YouTube are not three-minute songs, but compilations that last 30 to 45 minutes or even longer. As for the content, it reflects its time, as it has always done. Fifty years ago, the most influential children’s-television studio of the 20th ‹
Krishnan decided to rewrite nursery rhymes that he felt didn’t end well or teach good morals
‹ century, Children’s Television Workshop, came into being, thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the United States government. It created an unprecedented thing – Sesame Street – with help from a bevy of education experts and Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets. The cast was integrated. The setting was urban. The show was ultimately broadcast on public television across America, defining a multicultural ideal at a time of racial strife.
The 1990s and 2000s saw the growth of cable TV channels targeted at children: the Disney Chanel, the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon. But kids watch less and less television; as of last spring, ratings in 2018 were down a full 20% from just last year. As analysts like to put it, the industry is in free fall. The cause is obvious: more and more kids are watching videos online, with the most recent data showing Americans’ viewing habits edging under eight hours a day for the first time since George W Bush’s presidency.
Considered purely as a medium, television seems to have little to recommend it over YouTube. But that would ignore the history of children’s television, which is one of those 20th-century triumphs that people take for granted. The institutions of the 20th century shaped television into a tool for learning. Researchers, regulators and creators poured tremendous resources into producing a version of children’s TV that, at the very least, is not harmful to kids and that has even been shown to be good for them under the right conditions.
At first, however, as pretty much everybody agrees, television for kids was bad – dumb cartoons, cowboy shows, locally produced slop. There also wasn’t much of it in the 1950s, so kids often watched whatever adult programming was on TV. Government pledges to raise standards did not materialise. Then, in the late 1960s, a group calling itself Action for Children’s Television began advocating for specific changes to programming for young kids. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was formed in 1968 with government dollars. At the same time, Children’s Television Workshop began producing Sesame Street and the forerunner to PBS, National Educational Television, began distributing Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood . These shows were tremendously successful in creating genuinely educational television. By the time children’s programming got swept up into the growing cable industry, the big channels had learned a lot from the public model, which they incorporated into shows such as Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues.
Through the sustained efforts of children’s TV reformers, something good happened. In the 1980s, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst team installed video cameras in more than 100 homes and had those families and hundreds of others keep a written log of their media diet. Following up more than a decade later, researchers found that “viewing educational programmes as preschoolers was associated with higher grades, reading more books, placing more value on achievement, greater creativity and less aggression”.
On the flip side, violent programming led to lower grades among girls in particular. The team was unequivocal about the meaning of these results: what kids watched was much more important than how much of it they watched. Or, as the researchers’ refutation of Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism went: “The medium is not the message: the message is.”
So what message are very young kids receiving from the most popular YouTube videos today? And how are those children being shaped by the videos?
To explore this question, I sought out Colleen Russo Johnson, a co-director of UCLA’s Center for Scholars and Storytellers. Johnson did her doctoral work on kids’ media and serves as a consultant to studios that produce children’s programming. For kids to have the best chance of learning from a video, Johnson told me, it must unfold slowly, the way a book does when it is read to a child. “Calmer, slower-paced videos with less distracting features are more effective for younger children,” she said. “This also allows the video to focus attention on the relevant visuals for the song, thus aiding in comprehension.”
To be clear, it’s hard to make videos that very young children can learn from. Children under two struggle to translate the world of the screen to the one they see around them, with all its complexity and threedimensionality. That’s why things like Baby Einstein have been debunked as educational tools. Most important for kids under two is rich interaction with humans and their actual environments. Older toddlers are the ones who can get something truly educational from videos, as opposed to just entertainment and the killing of time.
But even in relatively limited doses, these videos can affect young toddlers’ development. “If kids get used to all the crazy, distracting, superfluous visual movement, then they may start requiring that to hold their attention,” Johnson says.
ChuChu has changed over time – it has slowed the pacing of its videos, focused on the key elements of scenes and made more explicitly educational videos. But in the wilds of YouTube, the videos with the most views, not the most educational value, are the ones that rise to the top. ChuChu’s newer videos, which have more of the features Johnson looks for, have not had the time to hoover up as much attention, so the old ones keep appearing in YouTube searches and suggestions.
The world of YouTube is vastly different from the world of broadcast television. While broadcasters in
The videos with the most views are rarely those with the most educational value
‹ the United States and abroad are bound by rules and the threat of punishment for breaking those rules, far fewer such regulations apply to the creators of YouTube content, or to YouTube itself. YouTube’s default position is that no one under 13 is watching videos on its site – because that’s the minimum age allowed under its terms of service.
In addition to its main site, however, the company has developed an app called YouTube Kids. Like normal YouTube, it plays videos, but the design and content are specifically made for parents and children. It’s very good. It draws on the expertise of well-established children’s media companies. Parents can restrict their children’s viewing in many ways, such as allowing access only to content handpicked by PBS Kids. But here’s the problem: just a small fraction of YouTube’s 1.9bn monthly viewers use it. (YouTube Kids is not available in as many countries as normal YouTube is.)
Little kids are responsible for billions of views on YouTube – pretending otherwise is irresponsible. In a small study, a team of paediatricians at Einstein Medical Center, in Philadelphia, found that YouTube was popular among device-using children under the age of two. Oh, and 97% of the kids in the study had used a mobile device. By age four, 75% of the children in the study had their own tablet, smartphone or iPod. And that was in 2015. The sea change in children’s content that ChuChu and other new video makers have effected is, above all, profitable.
To date, YouTube has hidden behind a terms-ofservice defence that its own data must tell it is toothless. There don’t seem to be any imminent regulatory solutions to this; by and large, YouTube regulates itself. The company can declare its efforts for children sufficient at any point.
But there is something the company could do immediately to improve the situation. YouTube knows that I – and tens of millions of other people – have watched lots of videos made for toddlers, but it has never once recommended that I switch to YouTube Kids. Think how hard Facebook works to push users from Instagram on to Facebook and vice versa. Why not try to get more families on to the YouTube Kids app? (Malik Ducard, YouTube’s global head of family and learning, said in a statement that YouTube has “worked hard to raise awareness of the YouTube Kids app through heavy promotion”.)
If streaming video followed the broadcast model, YouTube – in partnership with governments around the world – could also subsidise research into creating educational content specifically for YouTube, and into how best to deliver it to children. The company could invest in research to develop the best quantitative signals for educational programming, so it could recommend that programming to viewers its algorithm believes to be children. It could fund new educational programming, just as broadcasters have been required to do for decades. (“We are always looking for ways to build the educational content offering in the app in a way that’s really fun and engaging for kids,” Ducard said.)
Other, more intense measures could help, too. For example, how about restricting toddler videos to the YouTube Kids app? Toddler content could, in effect, be forbidden on the main platform. If video makers wanted their work on the YouTube Kids app, they’d have to agree to have it only on the Kids app. This might hurt their view counts initially, but it would keep kids in a safer environment, and in the long-term would protect the brand from the inevitable kid-related scandals. The issue of inappropriate videos popping up in YouTube Kids has received a good deal of national press – but society can live with a tiny sliver of bad things slipping through the company’s filters. It’s a small issue compared with kids watching billions of videos on regular YouTube. Why worry about the ways a kid could hurt himself in a padded room, when huge numbers of kids are tromping around the virtual city’s empty lots? (Ducard said that YouTube knows families watch videos together: “That’s why this content is available on our main YouTube site and also on our YouTube Kids app.”)
If the history of children’s television teaches us anything, it’s that the market alone will not generate the best outcomes for kids. Nor is the government likely to demand change, at least not without prompting. Heroes will have to emerge to push for change in the new YouTube’d world, just as they did in the early days of broadcast children’s TV. And not all of those heroes will come from the western world. They’ll come from all over the globe, maybe even Chennai.
On my last day in the ChuChu offices, Krishnan relates a parable to me from the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic. A prince wants to be known as generous, so the god Krishna decides to put him to the test: he creates two mountains of gold and tells the prince to give it all away in 24 hours. The prince begins to do so, parcelling it out to people he thinks need it. But as the day ends he’s hardly made a dent in the mountains. So Krishna calls another prince and tells him he has just five minutes to give away the gold. This prince sees two people walking along, goes right over to them, and gives each a mountain. Just like that, the job is done. The moral is unsettling, but simple: don’t impose limits on your generosity.
Krishnan loves this parable. “This is a story which I can do for ChuChu,” he told me. “But with pizza.” ■
Kids create billions of YouTube views. Pretending that they don’t is irresponsible
‘We know what our viewers want’: ChuChu TV CEO Vinoth Chandar (right) with BM Krishnan, co-founder and creative head
‘YouTube Kids is always looking for ways to build the educational content in the app’: technicians at ChuChu TV HQ, Chennai