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MBPT Spotlight: McPherson Seeks More Carriage for Kid-TV Net | @jlafayette

For onetime ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson,
TV is mostly kid stuff these days.

McPherson, who unexpectedly
resigned from his network perch
at the Walt Disney Co.-owned
network in 2010 after launching
shows including Dancing With
the Stars
and Modern Family,
had been making wine, selling
spirits and developing health supplements—
all entrepreneurial projects he says
he’s been passionate about.

When he decided to get back into TV,
McPherson’s partner in the wine business, longtime
Disney exec Rich Frank, introduced him to
Guy Oranim and Sharon Rechter, founders of
BabyFirst, a service aimed at very young kids.
“I heard about what they were doing and what
they had built and I was really impressed once
I looked under the hood by the nimbleness of
the operation, the focused nature of it, and the
way they had set it up,” McPherson says.

BabyFirst began in Israel in 2003 and
launched in the U.S. in 2006, targeting kids
from 6 months to 3 years old. It instantly drew
criticism from some parent activists and kids
TV creators, given the American
Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation
that children under
2 not be exposed
to screen content.
The Campaign for
a Commercial-Free
Childhood filed a
Federal Trade Commission
complaint citing
BabyFirst and two similar
brands claiming educational
benefits for pretoddler
viewers. (While
the FTC opted for no sanctions,
BabyFirst voluntarily adjusted
some of its marketing materials.)
Those early headwinds may
have died down slightly, but the
mainstream preschool TV business,
which officially aims at 2-to-
5-year-olds, still travels in different
circles from BabyFirst.

Where some have been flummoxed,
McPherson sees opportunity. With
6- and 8-year-old girls of his own, he’s familiar
with the kids landscape from a parent’s point of
view. “I was really struck that there was a very
limited range of stuff in entertainment/educational
programming,” he says. Before tablets,
the only options he found were on pricey DVDs.

McPherson declines to say how much he
invested in BabyFirst. He remembers researching
the channel by watching DirecTV
when one of his daughters walked in. “She
says, ‘Oh my God, it’s Harry the Bunny.’ And
she was freaking out. She never cared about
anything else I did,” he says.

Making New Models

As a strategic advisor, McPherson
is helping the channel change
its business model from a
premium channel to an
ad-supported one and
increase its distribution.
“We’re in 37
million homes now,”
he says. “We should be
in 50 [million] by the end of
the year. But we see it going far
beyond that. We’re in 80 million
worldwide, and that’s expanding
quite nicely,” he says. BabyFirst also has a number
of apps and is among YouTube’s first premium
broadband channels. In addition, BabyFirst
content will be available on a new kids-oriented
tablet coming from Samsung.

A key part of BabyFirst’s strategy is owning
nearly all its content, which allows it to put
content across multiple platforms. “It also allows
us to do an extensive amount of organic
integrations and sponsorships that [are] the
wave of the future in terms of advertising,” says
McPherson. Before cofounding the network,
Oranim was an exec at ad giant BBDO.

At BabyFirst, McPherson wants to see brands
like Cheerios woven into content, with kids doing
art with Cheerios, or using the little Os to
learn to count. (McPherson says BabyFirst is
working with Cheerios on concepts, but the
channel has not yet signed up any sponsors.)

As to programming, McPherson doesn’t
plan to have much input. “I’ll definitely get
involved as it applies to how we can make
these integrations and partnerships organic
and make them beneficial for both sides,” he
says. “But I’m not pitching shows for Harry
the Bunny
or VocabuLarry. We have people
who do that far better than I could hope to.”

A Little Help From His Friends

For marketing, ex-ABC exec Mike Benson
has been advising the service. More former network
types are interested in working on channels
such as BabyFirst, McPherson says. He
adds that being out of the corporate life means
more time for kids and other business interests.

Three months ago, he started wading back
into the grown-up end of the TV pool, making
development deals with Lionsgate and
Fox Broadcasting. “It’s been amazing, since I
stepped aside, the number of outlets that are
really viable programming development and
production places,” he says. “I’m about to go
into a meeting with Amazon.” —with reporting
by Dade Hayes