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 Observer Magazine - - Contents -

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

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