LONDON — Sitting on a sofa in a glass-walled room, a 2-year-old in a blue T-shirt is riveted by an episode of “CoComelon,” an animated cartoon series full of vivid colors, cherubic children and earworm songs like “Miss Polly Had a Dolly” and “Ten Little Duckies.” Three adults stand outside a closed door, watching the toddler watch the television. One studies a computer screen that shows a live feed from a camera pointed at the tyke.
It’s audience research day at Moonbug Entertainment, the London company that produces 29 of the most popular online kids’ shows in the world, found on more than 150 platforms in 32 languages — and with 7.8 billion views on YouTube in March alone. Once a month, children are brought here, one at a time, and shown a handful of episodes to figure out exactly which parts of the shows are engaging and which are tuned out.
For anyone older than 2 years old, the team deploys a whimsically named tool: the Distractatron.
It’s a small TV screen, placed a few feet from the larger one, that plays a continuous loop of banal, real-world scenes — a guy pouring a cup of coffee, someone getting a haircut — each lasting about 20 seconds. Whenever a youngster looks away from the Moonbug show to glimpse the Distractatron, a note is jotted down.
“It’s not mega-interesting, what’s on the Distractatron,” said Maurice Wheeler, who runs the research group. “But if they aren’t fully focused, they might go, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ and kind of drift over. We can see what they’re looking at and the exact moment when they got distracted.”
Mesmerizing infants is both art and science at Moonbug, a child entertainment powerhouse founded in 2018 that makes and markets shows for audiences up to 6 years old. “CoComelon,” the gaudiest diamond in this jewel case, has 134 million YouTube subscribers — the second largest channel on the site — and was watched for a total of 33 billion minutes last year, Nielsen reported, more than “Squid Game” and “ Bridgerton” combined. Netflix says that “CoComelon” has appeared on its top 10 list of series for 450 consecutive days, and counting.
If you don’t have children, you’ve probably never heard of “CoComelon” or “Lellobee City Farm,” “Little Baby Bum” or any other Moonbug offerings. If you have kids, these shows may already have driven you to the brink of madness, in much the same way that Barney and the Teletubbies in their day drove adults berserk.
The difference is that they ran in the era of appointment television, whereas today any squirt with an iPad can gape at “Blippi,” another Moonbug mega-franchise, all day, every day. On social media across the internet, parents vent under headings like “I banned CoComelon for my own sanity” or describe themselves as “‘CoComelon’ survivors.” A Twitter user named Baylie Scott recently posted, “I imagine going crazy feels a little bit like standing where you can hear two episodes of #cocomelon playing in different rooms.”
Such cries of anguish tantalize media moguls, more than a few of whom spent the past year wooing Moonbug’s top executives. The courting ended in November when Moonbug was acquired for a reported $3 billion by a venture, now called Candle Media, created by two former Disney executives, Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs.
“It ruined my holiday,” said Moonbug’s chief executive, René Rechtman, a bald and bearded 51-year-old from Denmark, as he sat in his office one recent morning. He was talking about the initial call from Mayer, which came while Rechtman was vacationing with family on a Greek island. “Suddenly I was on all these calls from 4 to 10 every day, when everybody else was going for dinner.”
Outside this office, some 270 employees are working on Moonbug shows in the company’s headquarters, a sleek, open-plan space on one floor of a four-story building beside a canal in Camden Town, a district in northwest London. Pre- and postproduction are handled here and in the United States, where the company has another 120 staffers, mostly in Los Angeles. The company works with animators around the world.
Moonbug was born not long after Rechtman, who was then a Disney executive himself, took a deep dive into viewership data about YouTube’s most popular children’s shows. He was amazed to discover that many of them were pet projects by newcomers, often couples creating content for their own children. The internet had allowed them to end-run the traditional path to kid’s television success, which has long involved huge start-up costs and gatekeeper executives.
“The top 100 shows that our kids were spending two or three hours a day watching were no-names, not traditional entertainment studios,” Rechtman said. “These were people who would write a narrative, get some folks in Canada to make the animation and some people in East London to handle the music. Five years later, they had a phenomenon that kids around the world were watching.”
Rechtman and Moonbug’s co-founder, John Robson, wanted to buy a bunch of these homemade breakout productions, then upgrade the scripts, launch live touring acts and sell more and better merchandise. Some creators rebuffed the company; others wanted to talk. The second group included Derek and Cannis Holder, a British couple who had dreamed up “Little Baby Bum” in 2011, soon after the birth of their daughter.
“When Mia was 1 year old, I went looking for nursery rhymes on YouTube and I just couldn’t believe how bad they were,” Derek Holder said in a phone interview. “But they had 20 million views.”
The Holders wrote content and outsourced the animation. By 2018, “Little Baby Bum” was a major success, on both YouTube and Netflix, but the job of cranking out shows made the seven years the couple worked on the program feel like 20. It didn’t help that YouTube kept changing the algorithm to make it harder to target kids with advertising, so profits became more elusive. The Holders sold to Moonbug for an undisclosed sum and have no regrets.
“René explained his vision,” Holder said. “We had to make sure the show was going into hands that would nurture it.”
Those hands are nothing if not data driven. Rechtman has a background in private equity and is more of an algorithm guy than an artist. Shows at Moonbug are honed in ways that leave little to chance, and audience research commences long before any episode gets near the Distractatron.
A data and analytics team sifts constantly through YouTube numbers to determine exactly what resonates. Should a girl wear black jeans or blue jeans? Should the music be louder or softer? Should the bus be yellow or red?
Yellow, is the answer.
“Kids love yellow buses around the world,” said David Levine, the chief content officer at Moonbug. “In some countries, yellow buses are actually used to transport prisoners. But still, kids around the world love to see yellow buses and kids on yellow buses.”
Infants are also enamored with objects covered in a little dirt, like they’ve been rolling around on the ground. And they’re fascinated by minor injuries. Not broken legs or gruesome wounds. More like short cuts that require Band-Aids.
“The trifecta for a kid would be a dirty yellow bus that has a boo-boo,” Levine said. “Broken fender, broken wheel, little grimace on its face.”
These and other revelations were part of a weekly Moonbug story pitch session on one recent Friday, held in a conference room with about 20 people. The mood was upbeat and collaborative. Colleagues from Los Angeles joined by video as writers explored plot ideas for three different shows.
One is “Lellobee City Farm,” a series for 2-to-5-year-olds set on an “urban micro farm,” a place where kids and animals experience joy and physical injuries. At least that’s what happens in a proposed episode called “The Boo Boo Boogie.” It’s about a dance in a barn where the main characters, which include a child named Ella, keep slamming into stuff.
The two-minute tale culminates with Ella landing headfirst in a bucket after attempting a cartwheel, then tottering around “like a zombie,” until her animal friends come to her aid. The episode ends with the whole gang laughing on the floor in a heap.
The first to weigh in on the story was the analytics team.
“Yeah, boo-boos always do really well inside of our content, inside ‘Lellobee,'” said Max Smith, sitting behind his laptop.
A pause, then Levine piped up.
“Seeing a kid actually do, like, a header into a bucket and then walk around like a zombie,” he said, “I think that might be a little bit much.”
“She could step into a bucket,” said Dan Balaam, a senior writer, “and stomp around with a bucket on her foot.”
“I like where you’re going,” Levine replied.
Spend a few hours at Moonbug and you realize that parents who want to separate their kids from the company’s shows are doomed to fail. Of course, it’s moms and dads who generally hit “play” on these videos, suggesting that many either like them or have surrendered to them.
Is that so terrible? Jordy Kaufman, who runs the Babylab research facility at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, said the impact of screen time on malleable young minds is “a big question without clear answers.” There’s a tendency, Dr. Kaufman said, to assume that screens are bad for infants because humans didn’t evolve with them. And the way that shows are tweaked for maximum addictiveness can make them seem like the audiovisual answer to junk food.
That said, it’s better for a child to experience something rather than nothing, he added, and given that youngsters will mature in a world where screens are ubiquitous, watching videos might help prepare them to navigate life.
For his part, Rechtman seems acutely aware that he stands astride a video goliath that might double as the planet’s fallback babysitter. Everything in moderation, he suggests, and kids should never skimp on face-to-face activity or exercise.
“Whether the perfect amount of screen time is two hours, four hours, or half an hour, I haven’t seen any studies showing what’s better or worse,” he said. “It just should not replace the time you’re outside bicycling or outside playing with your friends. That’s for sure.”
Many Moonbug shows urge viewers to get outdoors, and all come with unsubtle lessons about compassion, empathy, altruism and resilience. Whether these messages sink in, there’s no doubting the power of the shows to all but instantly tranquilize even the most discombobulated kid.
Like that 2-year-old in the blue T-shirt at the Moonbug office one recent afternoon. He’d shown up in the midst of a tantrum, which ended the second he heard the “CoComelon” theme song on that television.
It was no surprise to Wheeler, the head of research. “Ninety-nine percent of kids,” he said, “if they’re having issues when they get here, once that ‘CoComelon’ song comes on, they’re like, ‘Ah, life is OK. All is good with the world.'”