The Television Toddler Boom

Cable networks are showing big interest in attracting the littlest viewers these days. Last summer, Cartoon Network announced that it is teaming with Warner Bros. to create a morning block for preschoolers set to launch April 1, 2005. And just last month, Comcast Corp., HIT Entertainment plc, PBS and Sesame Workshop revealed plans to launch a 24-hour preschool channel with a companion video-on-demand service.

They will be competing with a handful of established services targeting toddlers. Among them is Playhouse Disney, a block of programming on Disney Channel. Also in the mix is Nickelodeon’s Noggin, which devotes 12 hours of commercial-free programming for two- to five-year-olds, including preschool learning programs like Miffy and Friends and Play With Me Sesame. Another member of the Nickelodeon TV group, Nick Jr., now airs five hours of daily educational kid shows, such as Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues, and entertainment fare like Little Bill, which was developed by Bill Cosby. And Discovery Kids’ has recently added a new series, ToddWorld, to its six-hour “Ready Set Learn” weekday block.

The expanded interest in reaching preschoolers stems from the notion that there are new opportunities to be mined as little kids, and their parents, are increasingly drawn to the educational and entertainment content that can be found on digital media.

“It’s a reflection of the varied lifestyles and schedules that parents have,” says Nancy Kanter, senior vice president of original programming for Playhouse Disney, which includes the stop-motion animation series Jojo’s Circus. “Programming was usually relegated to a couple hours in the morning and when your preschooler came home from daycare or preschool. At three o’clock, they could watch General Hospital or One Life to Live, and that was about it.

“Clearly there are kids home at all hours of the day and night, and they’re up and watching TV,” Kanter says. She allows that 4 a.m. isn’t a normal time for tikes to watch TV, “but if you’re up with a kid with an earache, it’s prime programming time.”

Which is why, a few years ago, Playhouse Disney launched its subscription VOD service. Not only does it provide programs on demand but, according to a Disney Channel spokesperson, the service has also helped MSO affiliates grow new-business objectives. So far, the initial results have been “encouraging.”

At Cartoon, Alice Cahn, vice president of development and programming, is equally encouraged by the direction of the channel’s new preschool franchise. Series like Krypto, the adventures of Superman’s faithful pooch, are aimed at emphasizing development, nurturing and values through humor.

“I see humor as another curriculum,” says Cahn. She says there are similarities in the programming for preschoolers offered by Cartoon’s competitors in the areas of literacy, innumeracy, geography and social skills. “What’s not being addressed is the idea that we need to help our children get along with people, to make friends. What I wasn’t finding on television is that core curriculum area of humor and optimism — and the importance of letting our children be children.”

What is really encouraging about this boom in preschool programming, says Christy Glaubke, principle associate of media watchdog Children Now, is that “there can be some good that comes from it — if it’s educational.”

She says, “There have been several studies that have found that young children — even socio-economically-disadvantaged children who traditionally don’t perform as well in school — get a leg up by watching educational television.”

At the same time, she says, there is a potential downside to the programming barrage. “A concern that we have is the amount of commercialism that children are exposed to on these channels,” says Glaubke, citing recent fines levied by the Federal Communications Commission against ABC Family and Nickelodeon for running excessive commercials during its children’s programming blocks.

“We realize that these networks need to make money, but we also know that children under the age of eight are much more vulnerable to commercial messages and unable to make a distinction between commercial and program content. They’re more susceptible to being swayed,” Glaubke says.

Overall, children’s programmers contend that they feel a responsibility to refrain from carrying anything that is developmentally inappropriate in either use or content. In order to gauge their programming direction, extensive research and annual audience testing is used to develop programs.

“I think the thing that’s always challenging for anybody making television is that you are not your audience, and you really need to be in touch with them,” says Tom Ascheim, vice president and general manager of Nickelodeon Digital Television. “You really need to use research as a tool to help you understand who your audience is and what they can comprehend and how to get across an educational goal.”

Adds Disney’s Kanter: “We can’t lose sight of the learning part, and sometimes it’s really hard to find a creative way to keep stories lively, to keep characters interesting at a level that’s appropriate and suitable for a preschooler — and on top of that, get a little piece of learning in. But that’s the challenge that we love.”

As digital media continues to fragment that audience, the next challenge will be in reaching kids on dual screens: television and computer.

“Children and parents are as comfortable online as they are on television,” Cahn says. “[They] make no distinction between the screens. I’ve noticed other distribution colleagues introducing new programs and brands online, and young children are finding them online and then going to television. And with the introduction of easier-to-use, more preschool-friendly hand-held screen devices, I think we’re going to see even more of a blending between platforms.”