Sensical Takes An Algorithm-Free Approach To Kids’ Streaming

"The Sell Sider" is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Common Sense Networks, the for-profit arm of news media watchdog group Common Sense Media, launched its free ad-supported streaming service Sensical for children less than a month ago, touting higher standards around child safety and learning compared to algorithm-driven platforms, such as YouTube Kids.

The new service is algorithm-free and includes 15,000 hand-picked videos organized into 50 channels. Sensical is being distributed via iOSAndroidRokuAmazon Fire TV and Apple TV. A distribution deal with Vizio and unnamed other platforms are in the works.

The debate over whether the media industry has done enough to address child safety in streaming has been ongoing over the past few years.

In 2019, the FTC slapped YouTube with a $170 million fine for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) after it allegedly gathered the personal information of children under the age of 13 without parental consent. InMobi and Oath have also been hit with COPPA fines.

Sensical’s curated approach to both video content and ads sets the COPPA-compliant platform apart when it comes to making screen time “safe and valuable” for kids, Common Sense Networks CEO Eric Berger said.

Sensical is geared toward three distinct age groups – preschoolers ages 2 to 4, “little kids” ages 5 to 7 and big kids ages 8 to 10. Sensical uses a proprietary curation process based on child development research, which it says both delivers quality programming and filters out inappropriate content and ads.

“Whereas most services are built for adults and back into kids, Sensical is rooted in science and built for kids from the ground up,” he said.

AdExchanger spoke to Berger.

AdExchanger: What are some of the challenges around advertising on children’s streaming services?

ERIC BERGER: The concerns are that the advertising doesn't line up with proper child development milestones for kids. Some of it is not age-appropriate. The other concern is that there's too much cognitive load – they can't process the way that the advertising is coming at them, like if there’s too much advertising or overlays on top of content in display advertising.

But the biggest one is the integration of the content and the advertising.

A 4-year-old can't distinguish between whether the hosts on a lot of these shows are pushing a product, or there's a product integration – the kid can't tell the difference between what’s an ad and not an ad.

That could lead to materialistic behavior of wanting to buy a product, or just thinking that it's their right to have the product, and it becomes a little bit of a confusing line.

We make sure the content and ads are age-appropriate. And the separation of advertising and content is important. And this can be as simple as saying we'll be right back after these messages, or we're moving into an ad break now. You've seen it for years in television, but you don’t see it in digital.

We're doing that on our service. You have to take [kids] into a clear advertising experience so that they understand that it's different from the content itself.

What is Sensical’s approach to advertising and what sets it apart from other children’s streaming services?

We hand-pick, review and rate all of the content that is on our service.

A person looks at every frame of every video and evaluates it across learning metrics or social emotional metrics, or even the topics of interest, and it all gets tagged and presented in an age-appropriate way.

We approve the content and present it through this interest-based learning lens, which we've programmed by topics of interest. Those topics could be anything from “How To” videos about sports, drawing, dance or cooking. It also could be preschool fundamental learning, games, math, music. When the kids get a little bit older, there's science and history as well.

Why is the algorithm-free component important here?

The problem with AI and some of these algorithms is you may start off in a good place, but you may end up in a bad place – and there's bad actors out there that trick the algorithms that say it's a kid-friendly show … but it has violence or sexual content. Unless it's hand-curated, hand-selected and algorithm-free, you can’t guarantee what’s going to happen.

How big is the team that’s vetting all of this?

We’ve got dozens of people who are looking at all of this content and are trained in looking at it through our child development lens. We have about 15,000 videos that we've licensed, and that means that we've looked at a lot more content that did not make it in.

How do you make sure inappropriate advertising doesn’t appear? When it comes to meeting COPPA rules, how are you screening ads and content for age appropriateness?

Not anyone can just put an ad into Sensical – we vet it. We also look at the frequency and we space them out appropriately.

When we're choosing content, we look at the actual nature of the creative, but we're also eliminating categories right off the bat. Categories like sugary foods or anything that's violent in nature are eliminated. We focus on things like consumer products, such as baby care or healthy food and beverage, or it could be leisure like pets and animals.

There are a lot of brands out there that don't want to be associated with inappropriate content – brand-safe advertising in digital is a really hot topic. And in kids’ advertising, you can't target kids – this is a privacy issue.

Common Sense Media … [is synonymous with] quality and safety and has been very involved in writing COPPA regulations and monitoring these types of issues for years. It’s an important seal that brands buy into and parents buy into.

What’s your strategy when it comes to meeting privacy regulations similar to the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) or the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that some states are adopting?

The larger organization stays on top of all the specific privacy issues, and they do privacy ratings with a lot of different services. This is an important issue for them to track, and we're up to speed and in line with them on what's required.

In terms of the advertising, is that happening through direct-buys or programmatic?

Right now, it’s direct.

Any plans to make inventory available programmatically?

Not at this time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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