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PERSPECTIVE

Sorensen goes Apple picking

By Nico Franks 23-01-2018

Many in the children’s content business would have clocked off for the festive period when it emerged that Amazon’s head of kids’ programming Tara Sorensen had become the latest exec to join Apple’s ripening video content division towards the end of December.

Sorensen has joined fellow former Amazon execs Morgan Wandell, Carina Walker and Tara Pietri in moving to Apple, where the push into scripted and unscripted programming is being driven by former Sony Pictures Television presidents Jamie Erlicht and Zach Van Amburg.

According to US reports, Sorensen will work under Erlicht and Van Amburg, who have US$1bn to play with and have already lined up projects with the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Ronald D Moore, Drake and Steven Spielberg at Apple.

After just under six years at Amazon, Sorensen left during a period of major upheaval at the studio arm of the e-retail giant.

A new regime had been put in place after content boss Roy Price resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct in October. This sparked a management shake-up that saw head of comedy, drama and virtual reality Joe Lewis and unscripted boss Conrad Riggs both leave the company.

Tara Sorensen

This left former Nat Geo Kids and Sony Pictures exec Sorensen as the longest serving exec at Amazon Studios, having been the second television hire at the company when she joined as VP of series development in 2012. Since then, the firm has appointed development execs such as Michele Hennessy, Melissa Wolfe and Christina Reynolds to its children’s content department.

However, in October last year The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon was “cutting back children’s programming,” including a stop to new live-action shows for children, as part of its search for more mainstream programming to rival Game of Thrones and Stranger Things.

Amazon’s strategy to refocus its efforts on less niche programming is highlighted by its acquisition of rights to The Lord of the Rings in November, at a reported cost of US$250m, which may have been shelled out at the expense of a significant chunk of the studio’s budget for children’s content.

Live-action children’s programming was arguably the genre Sorensen had most success commissioning during her time at Amazon Studios, with shows such as Annedroids, Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, Just Add Magic and the American Girl specials making an impact both in the US and internationally.

The Apple job, therefore, has come at an opportune moment for Sorensen to have a second shot at spearheading the original children’s content plans for a hugely wealthy tech firm looking to disrupt the market.

Danger & Eggs was praised for its LGBTQ characters

When Sorensen made one of her first public appearances as an Amazon exec alongside Price at Kidscreen in 2013, the company’s plans for young audiences appeared muddled and incomplete. IP creators were suspicious of a retail giant claiming it wanted to target kids directly, while broadcasters scoffed at the notion of allowing members of the public to comment on pilots and directly influence what would get picked up to series.

However, over the years Sorensen won over many in the industry by commissioning a slate of distinctive shows more aligned to public service broadcasters than commercially driven kids’ networks.

This included Danger & Eggs, the first children’s animated series to be co-created by an openly transgender person, Shadi Petosky, which has been praised for both its portrayal of LGBTQ characters as well as its use of LGBTQ voice actors.

During her time at Amazon, Sorensen was not only a regular face at major European markets such as MipTV and MipJunior, but also popped up at more intimate events such as Annecy, Cartoon Forum and Animation Dingle.

Sorensen greenlit Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street

The kids’ TV industry will be crossing its fingers that Sorensen’s willingness to rack up the air miles in search of programming from small to medium-sized producers continues during her time at Apple.

Given Sorensen has only just got her feet under the desk at Apple’s new Hollywood HQ in Culver City, very little is known about her remit, besides her hire marking Apple’s first move in the children’s content space. It’s still unknown where Apple’s original programming will end up, be it via iTunes, Apple TV or even a new, dedicated streaming platform. Of course, Apple could still end up buying Netflix.

For now, Sorensen’s departure from Amazon to Apple leaves huge question marks over both companies’ plans for children’s content. In the case of Amazon, it’s a worrying one, but for Apple, it’s one that justifies using perhaps the most overused phrase in entertainment: exciting.

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today's correspondent

Nico Franks Senior reporter & editor of C21Kids C21Media

Nico Franks is a senior reporter at C21Media, covering the global content business for C21Media.net, contributing to C21 International and overseeing C21Kids magazine as editor. Nico joined the company in 2012 having previously freelanced for titles such as Clash and BBC Online.

Follow Nico on Twitter, @NicoFranks

Email Nico Franks here