Comcast Eyes Toddler Network

News that Comcast Corp. is preparing to bow an around-the-clock preschool network through a joint venture with PBS, Sesame Workshop and HIT Entertainment plc raises a number of questions within the programming and distribution communities.

The commercial-free network, which could get off the ground as early as next year, would compete for the attention of preschoolers and their parents in an already crowded arena occupied by PBS; Nickelodeon’s “Nick Jr.” block and Noggin channel; and “Playhouse Disney” fare on Disney Channel.

Comcast and Sesame Workshop executives declined to comment. HIT executives could not be reached for comment by press time.

At its essence, some doubt there is a need for a round-the-clock network aimed at preschoolers. “These are little kids and they go to bed early. I can see maybe something that runs 12 to 14 hours,” said one programmer. “Viewing among young kids definitely goes down later in the day.”

Indeed, two years back, Disney Channel was mulling turning Playhouse Disney into its own service. ABC Cable Networks Group instead opted to package the block as part of its “Disney on Demand “subscription offering to Cablevision Systems Corp.’s digital customers.

Whatever shape the linear network takes, it figures to benefit from a promotional push via a video-on-demand iteration by Comcast.

“There are a lot of agreements to work through, but VOD rights are a big component in the discussions about the 24/7 linear channel,” a source familiar with the negotiations said. VOD iterations seem likely to serve as a precursor to a linear launch.

While the network presumably would have rights to Sesame Street, as well as such HIT fare as Barney and Friends, Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, that might not be enough at the negotiating table, according to one MSO executive.

“What, are Sesame Street and Barney not going to be available on PBS anymore?” he asked. “Even if you’re going to ask for pennies [per month] for a digital service, the expectation is that there has to be original programming. Let’s see what they come up with.”

Others want to know how HIT would square its relationships with PBS and Nickelodeon. “Barney’s been on PBS forever and Bob The Builder has been a staple on Nick,” said the programming executive. “Are they going to limit their access to outlets that have greater reach by being part of this network?”

Noggin — originally half-owned by Sesame Workshop — still airs some of the programmer’s shows: 123 Sesame delves into the Sesame Street archives, while Play With Me Sesame is a co-production between the parties.

Tom Ascheim, executive vice president of Nickelodeon Digital Television, described Noggin’s relationship with Sesame Workshop as “deep, complicated and meaningful. They are a very good partner. I’m just wondering out loud if Comcast knows the nature of the relationship.”

He said provisions for library fare extend into the fall of 2005, while the production relationship runs longer, as evidenced by Play With Me Sesame rights through 2009. “We’re considering a third season of the series and various other projects,” he said.

News of the 24-hour preschool network was first reported June 9 by The Wall Street Journal.