Disney Diginet to Target Toddlers

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The Walt Disney Co. — looking to capitalize in a demographic it feels is underserved — will launch a preschooler-targeted digital network in 2002.

The service, called Playhouse Disney, is a spin-off of the eponymous Disney Channel morning programming block. It will focus on educational fare, network executives said.

For the most part, operators reacted positively to the news, although some fretted that Disney could ultimately include Playhouse Disney in any outstanding retransmission-consent deals.

The commercial-free, 24-hour channel will run programming from the Disney Channel's 6-hour pre-kindergarten block, which the network branded as Playhouse Disney in 1999, said a Disney Channel spokeswoman. Shows will include The Book of Pooh,Rolie Polie Olie, Bear In The Big Blue Houseand Mouse House Jr.

In addition, the network will acquire other educational-based programming to fill out the schedule, although no details were available at press time.

Disney executives also would not disclose Playhouse Disney's proposed rate card. It was unclear if the programmer would be willing to offer launch fees to operators in return for substantial distribution on digital-cable platforms.

Disney executives claim the industry is in need of a 24-hour service dedicated exclusively to preschoolers. But some MSO executives said there is already an adequate amount of preschool educational programming on a number of broadcast and cable outlets, including Nickelodeon, Fox Family Channel, Noggin, Disney Channel and PBS-member broadcast outlets.

Noggin general manager Tom Ascheim said there's a greater void for quality educational programming for older children.

"There's an enormous amount of quality programming going toward preschoolers," Ascheim said. "But given some of the statistics about older kids in school, our belief is that in terms of educational programming. there's a much bigger need for the older students."

Disney said the network has yet to reach any distribution deals for the service, although ABC Cable Networks Group and Disney Channel Worldwide president Anne Sweeney told The Wall Street Journal
that she has talked with several major MSOs concerning carriage. Sweeney could not be reached for subsequent comment.

A number of operators looking to diversify their digital lineups said the network's general concept sounds appealing.

"We think that it's an interesting idea and we have plans to meet with them," said Time Warner vice president of communications Michael Luftman.

Millenium Digital Media senior vice president of marketing and programming Peter Smith said viewer surveys have called for more family programming, and a service like Disney Playhouse could help fill the bill.

"There's certainly an opportunity for more family programming targeted for digital," Smith said.

But one operator who wished to remain anonymous expressed concern that Disney will make carriage of the new service a requirement for retransmission consent of ABC television network owned-and-operated stations. Disney, however, has already reached such deals with most MSOs.

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