Children’s and youth media was on the top of the agenda when more than 50 film and media scholars from all around the world convened at the University of Copenhagen 9-10 November for the conference ‘Reaching Young Audiences: Investigating media content for children and young people in a multi-platform era’. The conference marked the culmination of the titular Reaching Young Audiences collaborative research project (2019-2024) run by PI Eva Novrup Redvall and a core group of scholars from the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University as well as several international and industry partners. Since 2019, the research project has investigated audio-visual media for children and youth from policy/commissioning, screenwriting/production, and distribution/audience perspectives.  Similarly, the conference presented a variety of perspectives on children’s and youth media across film, television, YouTube, TikTok, cross-media, ‘edutainment’, animation, and much more.
Keynote speaker Noel Brown, Associate Professor at Liverpool Hope University, opened the conference by highlighting the struggles of definitions when it comes to the children’s film. He zoomed in on one significant attribute of children’s cinema, the happy ending, unpacking the historical complexity of the term, the issues of definition, and how connotations change over time.  Opening the conference with a keynote on the importance and difficulties of definition seemed like an ideal springboard for further discussion in a field of study where definitions of e.g., children’s film are often the topic of intense scholarly debate.
The first day of the conference continued with a distinct focus on the children’s and youth film in one of the two following parallel tracks. Anders Lysne presented an analysis of the digital youth aesthetics of the Danish youth film Team Hurricane (Berg, 2017), Anders Åberg shared research on historical and contemporary representations of immigrants in Swedish children’s film, and Becky Parry zoomed in on the films of the Swedish director Sanna Lenken, in particular Comedy Queen (Lenken, 2022), and how they represent gender.  The textual analyses were supplemented by an industrial perspective in Jakob Freudendal’s paper which focused on how changed institutional and industrial definitions of films for children and youth in Denmark have led to films for adults now being produced with the earmarked public funds allocated for children’s and youth films. 
Another focus of the conference’s first day was on television and new media with several presentations providing insights into fascinating case studies from around the world, such as Thitinan B. Common’s presentation on the reality Dhamma TV series True Little Monk from Thailand – presented on the series’ website as “a wisdom training programme for novices” – and Juan Francisco Gutiérrez Lozano’s presentation on new Andalusian regional television formats linked to social media.
Many important questions and few clear answers
Throughout the conference, the interplay between policy and industry practices and their impact on the content produced was continuously debated, whether focusing on film, television, or new media in small vs. big nations.
The second keynote speaker at the conference, Anna Potter, Associate Professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast, clearly directed everyone’s attention to the links between policy and production when presenting the recent industrial transformations in Australian children’s television. In the wake of digitization, digital multi-channelling and internationalisation, public service broadcasters in small and medium markets are facing a multitude of challenges in transitioning to the global media landscape. Production companies owned by global conglomerates dominate production in Australia and there has been an increase in generic audiovisual media with a decreased cultural specificity and sense of place to better attract global audiences, according to Potter. For the global platforms, children and youth have become a commercially attractive audience, as national niches can be aggregated globally, thus providing streaming platforms significant economies of scale. In response to this intensified competition in the children and youth area, Potter argued  that national public broadcasters in Australia are turning their back on young audiences, serving them less while also watering down the existing quotas that were in place to ensure national content for this audience group.
Eloquently summing up these developments under the headline ‘Culture at a Crossroads’, Potter sent the audience off with important questions for future rumination: ‘What kind of communities do young audiences feel part of in the drama they consume on streamers that have nothing to do with national borders? What is the role and importance of Public Service Media in young people’s lives? Where does television’s increasing internationalisation leave place-based stories and drama’s perceived function as an instrument of social cohesion and socialisation especially for young audiences? What kind of cultural value can be created and delivered to niche audiences in fragmented media ecologies? How do we measure and assess that value? How do we separate out cultural and economic policy in screen production when cultural and economic policy objectives have become completely conflated?’
As illustrated by Potter’s keynote, there are many important questions to research further, and many presentations ended on cliffhangers pointing to the need for following current developments closely rather than offering any final answers or recipes for how to reach young audiences.
Similar challenges in very different national settings
In an academic roundtable format, the state of children’s and youth film was discussed from different national perspectives all facing challenges prompted by digitization and globalization. Anna Potter got the opportunity to discuss possible answers to some of the many questions raised in the keynote when engaging with Noel Brown, Jeanette Steemers and David Kleeman who presented their analyses of current trends and challenges from UK and US perspectives. Putting everything into a somewhat mind-blowing perspective, Professor Ruchi Kher Jaggi from India presented the state of affairs for children’s content in a market with more than 400 million children, confronting many issues that scholars focusing on the US and Europe take for granted. For instance, she pointed out how widely used terms such as ‘digital natives’ need to be nuanced when addressing a huge country with just around 50% internet penetration. As illustrated by Jaggi’s conference paper and a presentation by Yuval Gonzansky, building on the recent edited collection Histories of Children’s Television Around the World, as well as the important previous work done by Jeanette Steemers and Naomi Sakr on screen media in Arab countries, it is crucial to get non-Western voices into the research and industry debates if we are to truly think about film and television on a global scale. 
Throughout the conference, the importance of comparing research across media formats and national borders proved fruitful. A session on television for young audiences around the world showed the marked contrasts, but also similarities, between the small Danish market, the medium Italian market, and the enormous Indian market. For instance, Christa Lykke Christensen presented how the Danish public broadcaster DR’s new platform Minisjang for audiences aged 1-3 intends to present children with a sense of calm, e.g., by using real sound rather than synchronized sound effects set to the on-screen motions.  In contrast, Paolo Russo’s case study of the screenwriting process behind the Italian series Topo Gigio (2020-) showed how action-packed plotlines and synchronized sound is used as a strategy for capturing audience attention, particularly as the series targets a broader audience than the highly segmented Minisjang platform.
Forging new relationships – in academia and with audiences
The conference also highlighted the value of industry-academia-collaborations as an important tool for knowledge building in both camps. At an industry panel, Jonas Kryger Hansen, head of strategy in the children’s and youth department at Danish public broadcaster DR, discussed DR’s approach to serving the target group with new formats and on relevant platforms. Producer Thomas Borch Nielsen showed a sneak-peek of an upcoming DR series targeting teenage boys that features elaborate virtual production. He discussed how technological innovations are creating new possibilities for creating fantasy universes on limited small nation budgets. From the educational perspective, Rebecca Bach Lauritsen, head of studies at the Cross Media School of Children’s Fiction, presented the school’s approach to teaching practitioners how to write for the special audience that children and young people form, and how to engage both the writer’s inner child and the children of today.
From an audience perspective, several sessions presented insights on children and youth’s changed patterns of consumption from many different national contexts. Jeanette Steemers presented findings from the research project Screen Encounters with Britain, focusing on how Danish and German youth audiences engage with and find films and series. Across both nations, the study found that young audiences’ consumption is dominated by Anglo-American shows, while also investigating some of the motivational drivers for seeking out British content. Merris Griffiths and Dafydd Sills-Jones zoomed in on social media use of pre-teens in the minority language contexts of Cymru (Wales) and Aotearoa (New Zealand). From a Danish perspective, Pia Majbritt Jensen and Petar Mitric highlighted the individualised media habits of young audiences aged 8-17 as well as their highly developed media literacy when it comes to analysing shows and evaluating their production value. The study also backed up the general notion that from the age of 12, children start to watch films and series made for (young) adults.
Another prevalent focus at the conference was on the wide variety of strategies used for reaching young audiences, including analyses of cross-media strategies, advertising on YouTube, and TikTok fan communities. Helle Strandgaard Jensen presented findings from her recent book on Sesame Street (1969-), investigating how merchandising strategies were deployed, and questioning whether merchandising can be educational, as argued by the creators of Sesame Street. Fredrika Thelandersson, Carolina Martínez and Helena Sandberg looked at how children appropriate sponsored content and merch on YouTube and how it affects the para-social relation between child and YouTuber. Helle Kannik Haastrup presented findings on fandom in relation to the Netflix series Stranger Things (2016-) and Wednesday (2022-) both of which spawned numerous trending fan videos on platforms such as TikTok, creating a new ‘online cultural forum’. Johan Nilsson discussed the transmedia campaign launched to promote the 50th anniversary of the classic Swedish children’s figure Bamse, seemingly targeting both children and adults through various texts and paratexts. Clára Sanchez-Rebato Valiente looked at how subjectivity is a core feature of booktubers’ communication with their followers. Contributions such as these all underlined the strategies for content creators to forge relations to their young audience in news ways and on different platforms.
Reaching young scholars in engaging ways
While sometimes considered a small field, the conference showed that a lot of inspiring research is currently being undertaken in the field of children’s media. Several recent publications illustrate the range of interesting research across film, television, and online media, such as The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Film (edited by Noel Brown), Anders Åberg’s book on Swedish children’s film (in Swedish), Blågula barn i bild, Helle Strandgaard Jensen’s Sesame Street: A Transnational History, Yuval Gozansky’s edited collection Histories of Children’s Television Around the World, and the new open access Nordicom anthology Audiovisual Content for Children and Adolescents in the Nordics.
The conference also illustrated the value of bringing together international scholars working across different media and disciplines – even though this can lead to the sense that the coffee breaks are way too short to talk about everything that needs to be debated. Afterall, one can only engage with so many people over a packed two-day programme and a conference dinner. The Reaching Young Audiences project team is thankful to all participants for making the trip to Copenhagen in the dreary Scandinavian month of November to share their research. And even though the Reaching Young Audiences project will end in the spring of 2024, the conference pointed to how there are still many important issues to study and explore.
To begin with, the many BA and MA students from film and media studies at the University of Copenhagen, who had the opportunity to participate in the conference, will write up exam papers and theses, drawing on everything they learned from the conference. While many of them had already read a lot of work by people at the conference, it is a quite different experience to meet the actual scholars and get the sense that research is an ongoing endeavour based on continuous critical debates and inspiring international collaborations. And who knows, maybe the next generation of scholars have inspiring new ideas for the field of children’s film and media that were prompted during two rainy days in Copenhagen…
Jakob Freudendal is PhD Fellow at Aarhus University and former research assistant in the collaborative research project Reaching Young Audiences at the University of Copenhagen. His PhD project is a production study of the new audience turn in Scandinavian film production and its effects on the creative practice of screen workers as well as the commissioning and distribution of films. He has published research on European screen cultures in transition, audience research in screen production and new institutional and productional strategies for reaching audiences.
 For more on this, see Noel Brown’s chapter ‘Children’s Film and the Problematic “Happy Ending”’ in The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Film (Oxford University Press, 2022).
 For more on this, see Anders Lysne’s chapter on the Scandinavian youth film ‘Growing up on Scandinavian Screens’ in The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Film (Oxford University Press, 2022), Anders Åberg’s book on Swedish children’s film (in Swedish), Blågula barn i bild, and Becky Parry’s forthcoming article ‘Beyond Subjugation and Stereotype: The Representation of Girls in the film Comedy Queen by Sanna Lenken’ in Malena J (ed.) Swedish Childrens Cinema: History, Ideology, Aesthetics. (Palgrave, forthcoming).
 For more on this, see Jakob Freudendal’s forthcoming article ‘Towards audience-centric film funding: New strategies for commissioning youth films in Denmark’ in Journal of Scandinavian Cinema (2024) and his article (in Danish) ‘Dansk børne- og ungdomsfilm i det nye årtusinde: Fra verdensmestre til krisestemning’ at kosmorama.org (2023).
 For more on the work of Sakr and Steemers, see their book Screen Media for Arab and European Children: Policy and Production Encounters in the Multiplatform Era (Springer, 2019).
 For more on this, see Christa Lykke Christensen’s forthcoming article ‘Reaching the youngest audience on the Danish broadcaster DR’s Minisjang platform’ in the special issue of Comunicazioni Sociali – Journal of Media, Perfoming Arts and Cultural Studies entitled The Children Are Watching Us. Exploring Audiovisual Content for Children (2023).