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Long Hard Climb

Big Bird is about to go to work.

The 37-year-old fluffy fowl, stepping out from the Sesame Street flock, is acting on behalf of a fledgling preschool network, PBS Kids Sprout. The yellow, eight-foot-tall character’s task: to encourage youngsters and their parents to construct leaves that bear “happy spring” wishes for the environment, family and friends. It’s part of “Sprout’s Spring Surprise,” a three-hour celebration of trees on Arbor Day, April 28.

“We’re going to build a tree of wishes,” said Sprout president Sandy Wax. The project is “a good way for our characters to connect with kids and their parents.”

Big Bird and such other well-known characters as Thomas the Tank Engine, Bob the Builder and Barney are being called upon by Wax to help Sprout climb to the top of its own “tree of wishes”: that its unusual strategies — including programming 24 hours a day to an audience that is often asleep by 8 p.m. — will help it surpass networks that today reach far more preschoolers.

“It’s certainly a crowded market with Nick, Disney Channel, PBS and Cartoon Network getting in the game a bit,” said Tim Brooks, TV historian and executive vice president of research at Lifetime Television. “But you can’t succeed if you don’t try. There have been instances where new entries have thrived and even surpassed the more established brand, like Fox News Channel did to CNN.”

Six months into its existence, Sprout, a joint venture of Comcast Corp., PBS, and programmers HIT Entertainment and Sesame Workshop, reaches 18 million viewers, through Comcast Corp., Insight Communications Co., DirecTV Inc., RCN Corp. and other distributors. But its chief rival, 89 million-home Nickelodeon, dominates the commercial preschool market through its Nick Jr. block, while its educational spin-off service, Noggin, counts 46 million subscribers.

In fact, Nick Jr.’s top-rated program for preschoolers — Go, Diego, Go! — is seen by nearly 1 million kids between the ages of 2 and 5, each weekday.

To take away viewers and help Comcast — and other distributors — pick up subscribers, Sprout is trying some different tacks. Where Nick Jr. and Disney Channel’s “Playhouse Disney” block sign off at 2 p.m. each day, Sprout stays up all night. Where the others largely broadcast 30-minute shows, Sprout mixes different characters in an unscheduled fashion. It also counts on live hosts and short segments between the episodes to guide kids and their parents.

PRESCHOOL GOLD

Right now, Sprout’s on-demand service, which debuted five months before the network itself, is getting the most traction. In January, Sprout, which offers 50 hours of programming per month, was ordered 7.5 million times on Comcast systems, compared to 6 million for a combination of 32 Nick (10 hours), Nick Jr. (five) and Noggin/The N (15) hours.

Yet Sprout has a long way to go if it is to reach Wax’s goal of becoming the preschool “gold standard, the place that empowers kids on multiple platforms and can help parents whenever, wherever 24 hours, seven days per week.” 

Sprout is growing. Last year, Cox Communications Inc. signed a carriage pact and has now launched the Sprout channel and the on-demand service in six markets. But neither the linear cable network nor the Web site are rated yet.

And Sprout has a lot to look up at. Consider:

  • Market leader Nickelodeon and its Nick Jr. block, which counts the top 9 shows in commercial TV among kids 2 to 5 in the first quarter (through Feb. 12), has found an even-stronger program than erstwhile leader Dora The Explorer. It’s Go, Diego, Go!, a show driven by the young Latina’s cousin.
  • Noggin, which shares a channel with teen and tween-aimed The N, airs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., registering a 12% rise in ratings among kids 2-5 in 2005. Its big hit : Jack’s New Music Show. On April 10, it will premiere Pinky Dinky Doo, its first original series dedicated to enhancing early literacy.
  • Disney’s “Playhouse Disney” block, which has scored well in merchandising and Nielsen arenas with Little Einsteins, in May will roll out Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, a computer-animated series that teaches learning skills. Come fall, a new multicultural animated series centering on tool expert Handy Manny will debut.
  • Cartoon Network, emboldened by success with “tween” boys, aged 9 to 14, via its “Toonami” anime block and males 18-34 via late-night Adult Swim, ventured into preschool waters with its Tickle U weekday morning block last August. The network revamped the format in mid-January to include some more traditional, older-skewing cartoons, reaping viewership gains.
  • PBS Kids is also upping the ante, gearing up for the fall debut of dedicated preschool block that will feature a new look, a live host, new series and a complementary Web site.

THE 24-HOUR QUESTION

PBS Sprout Kids is bucking conventions with several strategies, notably its 24-hour, seven-day-a-week programming; its free-flowing, European-style scheduling; and an emphasis on short shows and even shorter narratives between shows to keep interest up, rather than original-series development.

In particular, critics and competitors question the need for its 24/7 model.

“When older kids get home from school, they take control of the set,” said Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon and MTVN Kids and Family Group. “Until 6 p.m., there is plenty of audience. Beyond that, it’s tough: kids have to go to bed, or at least be encouraged to go to bed. There has to be some diminishment of available audience.”

Make that 2 p.m., says Gary Marsh, entertainment president of Disney Channel Worldwide. For preschoolers, “I think we’re good with Playhouse Disney from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. There are other ways — VOD, SVOD, online, books and DVDs — to reach them the rest of the day.”

'ALL ABOUT ROUTINE’

PBS Sprout Network senior vice president of programming Andrew Beecham, who helped introduce and create Playhouse Disney blocks and 24/7 networks in 15 countries, begs to differ.

“Preschoolers are all about routine. If they go to school in the morning and come home in the afternoon, they’re missing out,” said Beecham. “We also want to be there any time someone is sick and wakes up in the middle of the night with a temperature. We need to be at the beck and call of parents and kids, not the other way around.”

Beecham noted that on-demand order rates, plus the research, e-mail and letters PBS Sprout receives in response to its Good Night Show, which runs from 6 to 9 p.m., indicates that preschool audience is available into the early evening hours.

Sprout also operates on its own time frame. Whereas U.S. preschool networks string together a number of character episodes to build half-hour or hour shows, the network aims to drive destination, rather than show, tune-in.

“We’re going to blow away the half-hour format, which suits the broadcasters and the advertisers but not the audience,” said Beecham. “Preschoolers have an attention span of seven minutes, so in each hour we’ll have six or seven characters.”

In focus groups, parents say they want something different, to have an element of surprise, to teach their kids the value of waiting for something good, Wax added.

Zarghami’s not so sure. “The shorter clips with multiple characters is something that has worked in the U.K. We’ve mixed things up on Nicktoons, running 11-minute shows. That’s not something that has worked here,” she said. “Kids like predictability in scheduling; most parents do, too.”

SHORTING SHOWS

Parents, perhaps even more than kids, also want to see new original series. “A little more than one-third of our audience comes from co-viewing with parents and caregivers,” said Tom Ascheim, executive vice president of Nickelodeon Television. “Parents have a great need for variety.”

While few question the resonance of its partners’ characters, PBS Sprout is years away from commissioning or developing its own shows.

“Clearly, there is an upside to having original characters. But the way our business model is structured, to be successful, we really don’t need to do that for a while,” said Wax, noting that Sprout will continue to bring HIT and Sesame’s characters like Barney and Big Bird to life with newly filmed opens, closed and other segments.

Instead, PBS Sprout is focusing on short shows. Beecham said the network is developing two interstitial series of 10, two-minute segments: one focused on nutrition and healthy lifestyles, the other geared to geography and math.

The network has also introduced a pair of live hosts. Kevin, an Hawaiian, heads the service’s daily “birthday bits,” in which he shares viewer-submitted birthday greetings and cards. PBS Sprout has also commissioned a second season of its Good Night Show, in which Melanie, a Latina, leads kids through episodes, storytelling and activities aimed at preparing for sleep. She’ll use a “sproutoscope” to discover shapes and ask kids what they see. Their views get shared on air.

Wax said the interactive roles they play is helping to forge an identity for Sprout in the minds of viewers

“We’re looking at other roles for our hosts,” she said, noting that Kevin will lead the net’s programming stunts for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Beecham says the hosts, interstitials and videos on demand provide PBS Sprout with a testing ground to see if “anything pops and we should expand them.”

Like its young audience, Sprout is just getting on its feet. As a result, says Bill Carroll, director of programming at Katz Television Media Group, it will have to learn to crawl before it figures out how to walk or, someday, run.

“If you think back, the preschool market once was Captain Kangaroo and then PBS,” he said. “Who’s to say Sprout’s format won’t work? There are opportunities there. With preschool, you get a new generation of viewers every two or three years.”