Big Business in Tiny Tots

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After about a year of research, planning, implementation and marketing, Cartoon Network this week rolls out its newly branded preschool programming block, “Tickle U.”

The weekday 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. block features a collection of original animated shows designed to encourage kids to laugh and develop an optimistic view about life. Executives at the network are also trying to maintain a hopeful outlook as they enter an increasingly competitive preschool playground.

Not since PBS launched with Sesame Street 36 years ago has there been so much big noise about making programs for television’s littlest viewers. With a proliferation of children’s cable networks looking to broaden beyond adolescents, tweens and teens, the preschool landscape is beginning to feel as cramped as Oscar’s trashcan.

NEW SHOWS EVERYWHERE

Besides Nickelodeon and Disney Channel — the two big kids on the block — Cartoon’s Tickle U will have to contend with a spirited new slate of preschool morning shows on Discovery Kids and TLC. And in late September, the 24-hour linear preschool channel PBS Kids Sprout, a collaboration of Comcast Corp. and children’s program companies PBS, HIT Entertainment and Sesame Workshop, will join the class.

“If you’re in this business,” says Alice Cahn, vice president of programming and development for Cartoon Network, “the only children that are home between the hours of 9 in the morning and 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon are under the age of six. Everybody else is at school. That’s why they call it pre-school. Just from a logic perspective, you look at who your audience is and you want to put something on the air that meets their needs and their interests.

“In terms of the amount of distributors that are in this business,” Cahn adds, “my answer is as a parent. I can turn on the television set and, even with basic cable, I have 80 different places where I can go that speak to the sort of different things I may or may not want to watch or play with at any given time. Why shouldn’t my preschooler have the same choice?”

Of course, there are less altruistic reasons for this interest in preschoolers, according to media analysts. For one, positioning products to preschoolers and their parents has become of enormous interest to advertisers.

Moreover, networks see great economic value with licensing consumer products that are associated with their shows. Finally, children’s cable networks are looking to fortify their identities and build brand awareness and loyalty among children and their parents.

“Jon Stewart said that one day there’s going to be the sonogram network so you can watch Viacom [Inc.]-owned networks while you’re a fetus,” laughs Horizon Media’s Brad Adgate recalling a quip from the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show at this year’s MTV: Music Television’s upfront presentation.

All kidding aside, Adgate believes “that’s eventually what these cable networks want to do is have you from cradle to grave, and certainly there’s something to be said about that. More than getting ad dollars and advertising support, it’s about building some sort of loyalty.”

FOLLOWING THE LEADER

When it comes to TV for tots, Nickelodeon has been the most dominant brand in past decade among 2- to 5-year-olds, offering over 112 hours a week of original preschool programming on its toddler programming blocks Nick Jr. and Noggin and the “Nick on CBS” Saturday morning lineup. That’s more than double the 49 programming hours on Disney’s preschool block, “Playhouse Disney,” or PBS’s 38 hours of preschool programming.

With an aggressive multiplatform initiative launched this summer, Nick continues to resonate with kids and their caregivers with popular shows such as Lazytown and perennial favorites Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer.

In September, Nick Jr. will introduce Go, Diego, Go!, an action adventure spin-off of Dora, and new on Noggin this fall is the 13-epsiode live-action series Jack’s Big Music Show, hosted by a music loving puppet and his melodious cast of clubhouse friends.

“We had a long-range plan in place for a long time, so we’re not doing anything differently in response to the new competitors,” says Cyma Zarghami, who heads the 89-million-subscriber Nickelodeon and the 44-million-subscriber Noggin.

“I think it’s about to become a crowded preschool space,” she says. “Certainly, it’s not an underserved audience, that’s for sure. But one of the good things about preschool television is that there is a lot of quality out there. People who want to get into the preschool space they do it well.”

Bolstering the brand, says Zarghami, is Nick’s “Play to Learn” philosophy.

“Play to Learn evolved from a curriculum that used to be about the three P’s which were partnering, planning and problem solving,” Zarghami says. “It was all about mastery, and if you watch Blue’s Clues, it’s all about mastering the game. With Dora it’s about getting coordinated quickly and celebrating. The whole idea is about kids in control and having them participate and engage and feel a sense of accomplishment when they’re done. Play is the work of preschoolers and so figuring out ways for them in which to problem solve in a playful way is really at the heart of the Play to Learn philosophy.”

IN THE PLAYHOUSE

At Playhouse Disney, the “Imagine and Learn” ideology reinforces its preschool programming lineup, which includes popular original series like Rolie Polie Olie, The Book of Pooh, Stanley and Bear in the Big Blue House.

“We’re all cognizant of things that you need to do for kids and for preschoolers,” says Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel Worldwide. “So I don’t think there are wildly divergent roots. The difference probably for us is that we are the oldest brand, by far, of all of our competitors. When we talk about 'imagine,’ this is a brand that’s created some of the greatest characters and greatest stories ever told.

“What we have added over time is a lot of social learning,” Ross adds. “Which is what we really hear parents loud and clear saying they could use help on, and then things that seem not normally in the forefront like JoJo’s Circus which is a movement based show, and god knows kids need time to be able to move around. We’re not trying to create 3-year-old zombies, we’re actually trying to unspool these creative imaginative opportunities for little kids so that they react with the television and react with the caregiver and parents.”

The Playhouse Disney block, currently available in 85 million homes on Disney Channel, saw significant growth in its overall ratings during the second quarter of 2005, compared to the same period last season. Meanwhile, Nick and Cartoon Network performed slightly below their overall averages during the same period according to Nielsen Media Research.

Later this year, the network will launch Disney’s Little Einstein, building on the Baby Einstein brand. In early 2006, the network will unveil Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club House, the first preschool series to star Mickey Mouse and his pals.

ENGAGING IN DISCOVERY

The Discovery Kids “Ready Set Learn” five-day block — running from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. on TLC and expanded from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. on the Discovery Kids Channel — has positioned itself as the destination where kids can explore the world online, on-air and through video on demand.

The early morning showcase features the Emmy-nominated series Peep and the Big Wide World; Scholastic’s The Magic School Bus, Hi-5, Save Ums! and ToddWorld, based on the best-selling books by Todd Parr. Later this season, the quirky Scottish series Balamory will join the schedule.

“Of course everyone wants children to become lifelong learners,” says Marjorie Kaplan, executive vice president and general manager for Discovery Kids. “But the real goal is to enable children to engage in the word and engage in the world with joy and enthusiasm.”

She adds, “To do shows for children for whom every new experience is a delight. It just doesn’t get any better than that. So it doesn’t matter how competitive it gets or how challenging it is, the opportunity to do television shows for that audience, it’s delicious.”

Cartoon’s Tickle U boasts something different in the preschool-TV curriculum: a focus on humor and optimism.

“There was a real sense that we [wouldn’t be] in preschool [programming] just to be in preschool [programming] like everybody else,” says Cartoon’s Alice Cahn, vice president of programming and development. “If we walk through Nick’s schedule or Disney’s schedule or Discovery’s schedule, or even PBS’s schedule, you can pretty much outline what the producers and the broadcasters are hoping emerge from that series.

“One of the things that brought me to dig into this curriculum was that I was watching a new generation of preschoolers spend more time with screens but seem to be enjoying it less,” Cahn says. It was still educational, she says, but there was a lack of joy in children’s media.

Making a simultaneous launch with its online and on-air programming, Tickle U will be available to Cartoon’s 88 million subscribers with shows such as the Warner Bros. eight-minute series Firehouse Tales, Yoko! Jakamoko! Toto!, Peppa Pig and Gerald McBoing Boing, based on the character by Dr. Seuss.

WATCH THE 'MOMMY BAR’

Throughout the block, parents and caregivers can find information regarding the programming and childcare on the scrolling “Mommy Bar.”

“We saw it as an opportunity to encourage co-viewing between parents and kids,” Cahn says. “More selfishly we were looking at ways of getting the message out about our curriculum and the importance of humor and optimism, so most of the messaging will be about the research that drove our curriculum.”

Building on the success of its VOD service, PBS Kids Sprout will launch as the premiere 24-hour preschool digital cable network with programming designed to follow the day-in-the-life of a preschooler using a library of popular titles including Sesame Street, Barney & Friends, Dragon Tales, Angelina Ballerina and Bob the Builder.

Emphasizing the co-viewing experience with the tagline, “Let’s Grow,” the channel’s morning block will feature energetic and upbeat shows designed to get little ones active for the day ahead. Afternoons are focused on learning themes involving shapes colors and emotions. Nighttime is more relaxed downtime programming that is geared to help children wind down.

“We have the opportunity as a 24/7 channel — with the anytime, anywhere concept — to give parents an opportunity to sample our programming on demand or linear platform, says Susan Carden, vice president of programming at PBS Kids Sprout, which debuted its VOD service in April with 50 hours of content each month. According to Carden, more than 14 million Comcast subscribers have viewed PBS Kids Sprout On Demand programs.

“Our VOD numbers show that viewers want this kind of programming,” says Carden, “and this is a consistently replenishing audience. As long as people continue to have children, there’s plenty of product for them, especially the kinds of series that we’re launching with. There’s plenty out there for parents and kids.”

PARENTS NEED CHOICES

“It’s really important that parents have a choice of programming for kids,” says Daniel Anderson, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has been involved in the development of several TV programs for children, including Blue’s Clues, Bear in the Big Blue House, and Dora the Explorer. He has also served as an adviser on Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street.

Conversely, Anderson cautions that this sudden glut in the preschool market “is splitting an inherently small audience into even smaller parts.” He adds: “I imagine there’s going to be some shake-ups along the line and some of these people will get out of the preschool business.” Many major broadcasters have abandoned kids TV already.

But Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television Media Group contends, “It’s like the phrase they use with the lottery. You gotta be in it to win it, and if you’re not in it, it’s going to be pretty hard at a stage when others are established to then try and get in the game. If you’re gonna get in the game, now is the time.”

Still there is plenty of childlike optimism among programmers that there is enough of an audience out there to support all five brands. In fact, as far as Disney’s Ross is concerned the more the merrier.

“There always seem to be so many players that enter the market because they have the economic desire to be there. So I’m not surprised people are showing up,” he says. “The bottom line is not coming just to play, but being here for the long term. We may know in six months that we’re in the golden age of preschool television. It’s possible.”

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