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Special Report Family-Friendly TV: Kids Sprout Takes Root as Leader in Genre

Cable Net Maintains a Preschool Focus, but Gives Caregivers Something to Like Too

Although only a little more than a year and a half old, PBS Kids Sprout has emerged as one of the leaders in the field of preschool programming. It's already a top on-demand service for kids, generating more than 100 million orders since its April 2005 debut, and its digital channel is currently in nearly 20 million homes.

Kids Sprout is the first and only 24/7 preschool destination available on TV, on-demand and online for kids and their parents and caregivers. It boasts a wide assortment of family-friendly TV, with a lineup of high-quality, curriculum-based children's shows including "Sesame Street," "Bob the Builder," "Barney & Friends," "Jay Jay the Jet Plane," "Teletubbies," "Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat," "Dragon Tales," "Angelina Ballerina," "Make Way For Noddy," "Jakers!" and more.

"There are a number of kids packages out there, but right now there's really no one dedicated to 2- to 5-year-olds like we are," said Sandy Wax, president and general manager of Kids Sprout. "At six o'clock at night, [the other packages] switch over to teen programming, and even throughout their preschool block, they're promoting shows that skew older, which many parents find unacceptable.

"PBS Kids Sprout came together when four innovators in their field, four companies that were real leaders, got together-Sesame Workshop, PBS, HIT Entertainment and Comcast-and saw there was a real demand out there for quality preschool programming, 24/7," said Ms. Wax. "Those four companies decided that they would launch a 24-hour digital cable channel along with a rich library of content on-demand as well as a Web site. I really think each company benefits greatly from this. It gives broader exposure and reach to these great characters and programs."

The convenience of Kids Sprout's video-on-demand platform makes it unique. "The idea behind Sprout is that little kids and their parents and caregivers want to spend time together, and they enjoy being able to do a simple craft, or cuddle up on the sofa together, but their lives are crazy," said Ms. Wax. "If you miss your child's favorite show at nine o'clock, you're doomed. So, instead, let's make it 24/7, let's provide multiple opportunities to watch, let's make it easy for parents to be able to share that time with their kids. We obviously believe they should be going outside and playing, and they should be doing other things as well, but when it's time to watch TV, Sprout is there for them."

In a relatively short time, Kids Sprout has really taken off, especially in the on-demand format. "Video-on-demand has been a really big driver for Sprout," said Ms. Wax. "It's often the first way people hear about Sprout, like in the playground, one mom will tell another mom about the service and all the great programming there whenever you want it. It's also very simple; it's one or two clicks away and it's the programming you're looking for. What Comcast and other cable operators have found is that Sprout introduces the VOD platform to many consumers."

Kids Sprout obviously targets children, but with the realization that they are not watching alone. "From a viewing standpoint, we really focus on kids 2 to 5 and their parents and caregivers. That often coincides with women 18 to 49, but we do have the dads watching, babysitters who watch along, and grandparents, too, are a growing segment of the audience," Ms. Wax said. Even though the shows are for children, there are always elements to appeal to parents. "`Sesame Street' was always created for children, to help them to develop mentally and to entertain them, but there was always a hook for parents. It was fun for them to watch along with the kids. We've extended that idea in some of the short-form programming we're making, like `Sprout Diner."'

"Sprout Diner" presents a series of two-minute animated shorts featuring the Sprout family-dad Brussel Sprout, daughter Alfalfa and her daughter Bean. "We recognize that parents are concerned about what kids are eating these days, so instead of doing a heavy-handed thing-`You must eat your broccoli'-the way we approach it is having them whip up fun little recipes," Ms. Wax said.

Kids Sprout's programming philosophy is to follow the day of the child, from an active morning and midday to a quiet time in the evening. "In the morning, we're get-up-and-go, but at night we've created a three-hour block of programming to really help wind their kids down after a busy day," said Ms. Wax. "It's called `The Goodnight Show,' and the host introduces a theme and guides children along, whether they're doing a craft or watching a short episode of something, coming back and singing a song, watching a short story from `Dragon Tales'-throughout this three-hour block you have lots of interaction between the host and the children," Ms. Wax said.

"Most children don't have 30-minute attention spans, so all the segments are short to appeal to their attention spans. It gives the parents the opportunity to say, `OK, one more story, one more game,' knowing they're only five or 10 minutes each. It's a little devious, but it's really been designed to help parents."

Another special program on Kids Sprout is "The Birthday Show." "We celebrate birthdays every day on Sprout. When a child's birthday is coming up, someone in the family-an older brother, sister or parents-sends in a birthday card and Kevin, the birthday guy, shows those cards on-air, reads them and sings a birthday song," Ms. Wax said. "That kind of user-generated content is really beneficial."

In addition to the digital channel and the on-demand service, Kids Sprout has a third platform: online. "Sproutonline.com is there to extend and play along with the characters in our shows. You can go there and download forms for the birthday show, for example, and get ideas for crafts and recipes from `Sprout Diner,"' Ms. Wax said. As for downloading shows or starting an iTunes outlet, Ms. Wax is skeptical. "When it comes to portable devices, we're kind of looking to see what will be right for small children. Many people don't want to hand over their $400 phone to kid and get it back covered in peanut butter. But we're ready for the day when there's an Apple/Etch-A-Sketch iPod for kids."

Ms. Wax is optimistic about Kids Sprout's future: "The sky's the limit. We've had an overwhelming consumer response and interest among distributors. What we're really focused on is creating a great, safe, warm environment with strong educational underpinnings. We really want to fulfill the needs of those parents and caregivers."