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Netflix is betting big on a world’s worth of children’s stories

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Netflix is placing its money on Roald Dahl

Image: Netflix

Streaming’s reigning king announced one of its biggest title acquisitions to date this week with its purchase of the rights to Roald Dahl’s catalog of work. The deal, following regulatory approval, will give Netflix access to a universe of beloved children’s stories to mine and position the company to better compete with kid-friendly competitors like Disney Plus.

The acquisition of the trove of intellectual property follows a previous partnership between Netflix and the Roald Dahl Story Company announced in 2018 to adapt some of the late author’s iconic titles. With access to the full library of Dahl stories — which include children’s classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and Matilda, among others — Netflix has the opportunity to build an entire world from the catalog, boosting its originals draw and keeping kids and parents hooked on its service.

The deal is arguably one of the most significant acquisitions Netflix has made in its programming in recent memory, and it speaks to the importance of kids’ content for the service’s continued growth. The company announced a huge deal with Nickelodeon for original animated films and series in 2019, a year after the original Dahl partnership was announced, and it recently ordered three seasons of a Cocomelon spinoff, after initially bringing the YouTube-hit kids’ series to its service last year.

Netflix has also pointed toward The Willoughbys, a 2020 animated comedy the service said reached nearly 38 million households in its first four weeks, as “an example of the level of animated feature film we are ramping towards to bolster our offering for kids and families.” With Dahl’s library, Netflix may very well be making its biggest bet yet in furthering that goal. (Netflix didn’t specify how much it paid for the catalog.)

Netflix is competing in a space that’s becoming more crowded by the day. Its obvious primary competitor for children’s streaming, Disney Plus, zoomed past the 100 million subscriptions mark by first quarter of 2021. Meanwhile, HBO Max (which has the DC catalog under its umbrella, among other properties) and Apple TV Plus (which has Peanuts and Sesame Street-adjacent properties) have also focused their sights on children’s programming. That’s to say nothing of the series and films for kids available as free-to-stream titles on other services.

In an announcement about this week’s acquisition, Netflix said its existing partnership with the Dahl organization “opened our eyes to a much more ambitious venture — the creation of a unique universe across animated and live action films and TV, publishing, games, immersive experiences, live theatre, consumer products and more.”

The “more” in Netflix’s statement certainly speaks to the company’s indication that it’s interested in continuing to build out franchises and fan communities, most recently with its big bet on gaming. Unlike other streamers that have primarily focused on acquiring legacy studios for mountains of money as a means of swooping up valuable IP, Netflix has been far more conservative about its investments — underscoring how valuable Netflix sees the Dahl IP as being.

“The industry has consolidated materially over the years […] and we don’t believe this consolidation has affected our growth much, if at all,” the company wrote in a letter to shareholders mere months ago in July. “While we are continually evaluating opportunities, we don’t view any assets as ‘must-have’ and we haven’t yet found any large scale ones to be sufficiently compelling to act upon.”

There’s no doubt that Netflix cut a very sizable check for Dahl’s books, with which Netflix may even be able to expand beyond children’s stories if reimagined for older audiences. But even as Netflix sidesteps the studio bidding wars, it’s proven that it is willing to pay handsomely when the opportunity — in this case, a world’s worth of children’s stories — is right.