Nelvana Enterprises Inc. president Pam Westman has been developing children’s television programming for 28 years – but has never seen her industry change as fast as it did in 2020.
When the pandemic hit and schools and daycares closed, many parents handed over control of iPads and TV remotes to kids while scrambling to work from home. And with many children filling long hours looking at screens, Nelvana realized kids content was being gobbled up faster than Canadian production houses could make it.
The result was an opportunity to cash in on unprecedented demand – as long as Nelvana moved quickly enough to capitalize on it.
Nelvana, a Canadian animation studio owned by Corus Entertainment, produces and distributes some of the biggest names in children’s content, including Franklin the turtle, Max and Ruby and Agent Binky, as well as merchandise licensing for Peppa Pig and Thomas & Friends in Canada.
Like many of its competitors, Nelvana has experienced a wave of new viewers churning through TV series and movies these past 18 months, particularly children, who Ms. Westman says are now more than ever in the driver’s seat to shape the company’s success. This has led to a series of changes.
“People were looking for content everywhere and kids were no different,” she said in an interview with The Globe. “Kids have quickly become proficient in the hardware as well as the various platforms on where they can find shows and how to access them.”
In the first three months of the pandemic, Nelvana saw a 44-per-cent increase in hours of programming watched across more than 40 YouTube channels related to its shows. People were also willing to pay for multiple platforms – in addition to their basic cable subscription – and even toddlers began selecting their own shows by using touch devices, a big shift from when parents selected a TV station for a specific time during the day.
The pandemic also altered the production length of some animated shows, as children under the age of six now wield control and have a much shorter attention span.
“That brought a huge challenge in the industry,” Ms. Westman says. “If you don’t grab their attention now, one swipe of their tiny finger and your show is gone in seconds.”
Traditionally, shows were set for 22 minutes, a linear half hour with advertising. But now they are split into 11-minute segments, playing two back to back, or five-minute segments with four in a row.
“Stories have to catch their attention, then move fast and move on to the next,” Ms. Westman said.
Amid all the changes, Nelvana marked a major milestone: In June, the company celebrated 50 years as a producer, developer and a licenser of children’s animated and live-action content. Since 1971, it has produced more than 4,800 episodes of programming, airing in more than 180 countries.
While the television set remains the centre of media consumption for households around the world, online streaming is growing in usage. About 28 per cent of overall television viewing is done through various streaming platforms such as Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and Disney+, according to a recent report by the Nielsen Company.
Keeping up with the demand for content is challenging for an animation studio, as producing a new cartoon series typically takes about 18 to 24 months. Fortunately for Ms. Westman’s team, they had just dug into the company’s catalogue of nearly 4,000 titles of children’s entertainment prior to the pandemic to look for something they could make into a live-action series, which has a shorter production timeframe.
The result was the resurgence of a 1995 live-action show The Hardy Boys.
“There has been a revival of a lot of these retro shows and we had the rights to The Hardy Boys just hanging around,” Ms. Westman said. “We were very lucky as shooting only got delayed by three weeks, and very quickly we had a high-quality drama series ready to go for young teens who clearly needed something to fill their time because they were not going to school.”
Hulu signed as a partner in the United States, and Corus’s own YTV network broadcast the series in Canada. By the time the finale aired in May, viewership numbers and ratings pushed the series into a second season.
Another decision that had to be made within the first six months of the pandemic was whether any new production would include the use of masks on characters.
Ultimately, Ms. Westman decided not to include the conversation of COVID-19 into any animated or live-action series. “People were scared and kids were nervous and we wanted to provide them an escape from what was happening outside,” she said. But some of her characters were licensed to be used on children’s masks while others – such as Miss Persona – made public service announcement segments about COVID-19 for kids.
Another recent topic of discussion at Nelvana is how to increase the diversity of characters. It’s a conversation Ms. Westman has regularly with her team.
A desire to put female characters of colour into lead roles led to the production of Esme & Roy, an animated series launched in 2018 about a Black girl and her monster friend.
“We were told that show wouldn’t sell in some countries and that a little Black girl as a lead would mean that half our territories would not buy – and that was only a few years ago but we went ahead with the show anyways and proved them wrong,” Ms. Westman said.
Last month, the studio launched an incubator program for new, inexperienced Black writers to submit their work to either Nelvana or its sister publishing company – Kids Can Press – and made commitments to increase representation both behind and in front of the camera.
“For example, we challenge our agent for voice talent and we will not voice characters of colour with white people,” she says.
“There is no pool of creative talented Black people just sitting around waiting for you to give them a job for the last 20 years. They have not been encouraged to come into the industry – so we have to dig deeper and reach into communities and encourage writers, animators and talent to join the industry.”
In terms of gender representation, children’s entertainment, unlike many industries in corporate Canada, is one that provides a lot of equal opportunity for women in senior management – and Ms. Westman is a prime example.
Her career began to take off with the introduction of Barney, that famous purple dinosaur. The oversized stuffed tyrannosaurus rex was the first character Ms. Westman began selling when she worked for Astral Media Inc. in 1993, which was later bought by HITT Entertainment.
“Very few men wanted to work on Barney and that gave a ton of women the opportunity to step in and learn within a culture that was very female focused because for every man, there were five females.”
In 2001, she was promoted to senior vice-president of HITT for Canada and Latin America, and later became executive vice-president, taking over all the Americas. She spent 15 years between offices in Toronto and New York before taking a three-year departure to head up a team with Staples Canada.
“If a man has the opportunity to work on a James Bond movie versus Peppa Pig – they choose Hollywood, which is still very male-oriented,” she says. The result, she adds, is a number of female-run animation studios.
Like many female executives, she spent her early days juggling work and taking care of two young children; she also completed a postgraduate degree at Concordia in the evenings. She attributes her success to a strong support network – both at home and with her male and female mentors at the office.
“I want to spend the last chunk of my career helping women become senior executives – how to find their voice, how to ask for more money, how to ask for the job they want, find a mentor and help guide them – because we do not teach women how to do that very well.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly said Nelvana produced and distributed Peppa Pig and Thomas the tank in Canada. The company is the official Canadian licensing agency for both properties.
Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.