News

Growth Spurt for Two-Year-Old Sprout

9/09/2007 8:00 PM Eastern

The PBS Kids Sprout cable channel turns two years old on Sept. 26, sporting a new, live morning program and a freshly signed distribution agreement with Time Warner Cable.

“We’re all about birthdays,” Sandy Wax, the cable channel’s president, said of the timing for programming additions anchored by The Sunny Side Up Show, the 9 a.m. to noon (ET) block with live hosted segments wrapped around episodes of Dragon Tales, Bob the Builder, Barney & Friends and other kids’ mainstays.

Wax also enthused about the distribution contract signed late last month with Time Warner Cable, the second-biggest U.S. cable distributor with 14.7 million subscribers.

ON VOD ALREADY

Wax said Time Warner and its close affiliate, Advance/Newhouse Communications-owned Bright House Networks (which has 2.4 million subscribers), already have added Sprout’s popular video-on-demand programming in 9 million homes.

Sprout now claims total distribution of 34 million homes, including just on-demand households. Current key affiliates for the 24-hour channel include Comcast (a Sprout co-owner), DirecTV and Cox Communications.

“This is really a huge step for us,” Wax said of the Time Warner deal during a telephone interview.

Time Warner Cable isn’t carrying Sprout anywhere except on VOD, while the corporate deal was being negotiated. Now, Wax said last week, “we have a couple [of systems] in the very strong category that I’m going to swing by.”

Time Warner Cable corporate communications director Maureen Huff said last week that there were no specific launch plans for the channel yet. “But we like the programming and there will likely be some launches in the near future.”

Since launch, Sprout had been using a boilerplate figure of about 20 million homes that had committed to add the channel.

At launch, however, the channel actually was in about 13 million homes. Today, the 24-hour channel is in at least 22 million cable and satellite households, a 70% distribution rise in two years, Sprout says.

That’s before Wax and Comcast Programming Group’s affiliate-sales team sign up any Time Warner or Bright House systems.

Wax and programming vice president Andrew Beechum were in a Haddon Heights, N.J., production house where Sunny Side Up’s cast and crew rehearsed and recorded some background material, a few weeks ahead of launch.

Another VIP on the set that day: Big Bird. Sesame Street producer Sesame Workshop is one of Sprout’s owners, along with Comcast, HIT Entertainment and PBS. Synergy comes naturally to that group.

Other new Sprout programming as of Sept. 26 that Wax and Beechum outlined includes:

  • Play With Me Sesame, a show that had been on Noggin, the preschool network that MTV Networks is readying for a 24-hour breakout from a partnership with older-skewing The N. A play-along show featuring Sesame Street’s Ernie, Bert, Grover and Prairie Dawn, Play With Me Sesame will be divided into two segments shown during Sunny Side Up. The “Sproutified” hosted segment in between will feature viewer-submitted art uploaded to SproutOnline.com.

  • Musical Mornings, from 6 to 9 a.m., ahead of Sunny Side Up. Sprout’s shows are separated by music videos (from acquired shows) and by an animated host called Coo, a cuckoo who lives in a Sprout clock. Coo was built as a puppet, by the Jim Henson Co., that’s translated into an animated avatar.

  • “Bounce,” a segment within Musical Mornings hosted by music therapist Elizabeth Balzano. Music videos are shown in her “classroom,” with children, and integrated into live-action sequences of those children in their everyday world.

The Good Night Show, an existing PBS Kids Sprout hosted show, will relaunch, as well, with more hosted segments, activities like “Sprout stretches” and sign-language segments. It will also feature children on the set for the first time, Beechum said.

Sprout targets preschoolers and their parents or caregivers, with a format designed to follow them throughout the day.

Sunny Side Up’s role in that scheme is to get those 2-to-5-year-olds up and active and ready for the day.

The hosts are:

  • Kevin Yamada, a Hawaiian-bred actor who’d hosted Sprout’s The Birthday Show, a segment where birthday cards are read to young viewers.

  • Kelly Vrooman, 25, a Philadelphia-based actress who performs in an improvisational comedy troupe, Comedy Sportz.

  • Chica, a chicken puppet who communicates with kazoo-like sounds only Kevin and Kelly can understand.

Sunny Side Up will be Sprout’s first live show, but a trial run of sorts came about on Mother’s Day, with a live programming stunt over that weekend. Messages sent in over the Internet were flashed on the screen, and more than 7,000 were received. “We were incredibly happy with the response,” Wax said.

Sprout officials say Sunny Side Up will feature a lot of interaction with kids and caregivers who are directed to Web site SproutOnline.com and can, because of the live format, get more of an immediate response over the TV.

Yamada said he was pleased that he’ll still be reading e-mailed birthday cards from young viewers — except instead of maybe a two-month delay for cards that are mailed in, “now, we’ll be doing it live.”

Sprout claims impressive usage statistics for its video-on-demand content — since April 2005, parents and caregivers with digital cable have ordered more than 250 million free viewings of Sprout-acquired shows, which also include partner-supplied mainstays Thomas & Friends, Angelina Ballerina and Teletubbies.

A RECORD JULY

Sprout’s VOD affiliates get 50 hours of programming to serve up, plus 15 hours of Spanish-language kids’ fare.

Wax said the network racked up 15.8 million on-demand views in July, a record for the on-demand offering.

Sprout accepts advertising, aimed at adults and limited to three minutes per hour. Wax said growth on that front has been “well ahead of expectations,” too, including a renewed, cross-platform commitment at the upfront auctions from Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies and Pull-Ups brands.

Other growing categories include travel advertisers — destinations such as Sea World — and Honda Odyssey, an important sale in the automotive category.

As for distribution, the Time Warner Cable deal gives Wax and other Sprout backers reason to feel sunny about more than just a new morning show.