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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
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