By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
Preschoolers have never had it so good. Programming for the 2 to 5 demo is proliferating, and broadcasters and cablecasters are vying this fall for this market with innovative new production techniques, extended hours of access on-air, free VOD and availability on new digital platforms. Parents are also in the loop, with activities, expert advice and even helpful on-screen messages about how to best interact with their child during the program.
Why the burst of energy in preschool programming? “It’s part of the proliferation of television media in general,” said Nancy Kanter, senior VP of original programming at Disney Channel. “There are many more opportunities. It’s not part of the day-to-day lineup on the big networks, and it’s also big business in terms of ancillary revenue.”
Two launches this TV season are digital channel PBS Kids Sprout, a partnership of PBS, Sesame Workshop, HIT Entertainment and Comcast, and Cartoon Network’s Tickle U preschool programming block.
Existing preschool channels will attempt to distinguish themselves this fall season with programming that complements as well as competes with core curricula ranging from literacy to persistence, from science concepts to optimism. More than one network has taken a fresh look at humor and music, turning them into the focus of core curricula.
The September launch of PBS Kids Sprout as a 24/7 Comcast digital cable channel will make available programming produced by the channel’s partners-including “Barney” and “Bob the Builder”-to communities via the local cable operator or satellite, in association with PBS stations across the country. First offered as a 24/7 on-demand service in April, PBS Kids Sprout became Comcast’s top destination in the category of kids and teens, according to Sprout’s VP of Programming Susan Carden. She added that a Web site (sproutletsgrow.com) launch is planned for Sept. 22.
Tickle U is Cartoon Network’s two-hour (9-11 a.m.) weekday programming block for preschoolers, which launches today with a lineup of shows focusing on music and humor.
“Music and humor are the two workhorses that carry any information we try to teach,” said former PBS and Sesame Street executive Alice Cahn, who is now VP of development and programming at Cartoon Network.
Though the value of teaching a music curriculum has been known for some time, Ms. Cahn said, she wondered if humor had more value than just as a carrier of information.
“Research proved that, indeed, humor is a learned skill-and that children who acquire those skills deal better socially,” she said. “What we’re doing with humor and children complements the other preschool services and is also a good fit for who Cartoon Network is as a brand.”
Also unique to Tickle U is the “Mommy Bar”-an ever-present graphic that encourages parents to engage in “productive co-viewing” and offers information on the humor curriculum. The seven original animated shows on Tickle U are “Firehouse Tales,” “Gerald McBoing Boing,” “Gordon the Garden Gnome,” “Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs,” “Little Robots, “Peppa Pig” and “Yoko! Jakamoko! Toto!”
Nickelodeon-which offers 112 hours per week of preschool programming-also is exploring music in its preschool lineups this fall.
Noggin, which Nickelodeon started in 1999 as a joint venture with Sesame Workshop and now owns wholly, is part of Nickelodeon’s digital channel offerings. Noggin’s 12 hours of preschool programming, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. (teenage block The N runs 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.), shares some programming with Nick Jr., a 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekday block on the flagship Nickelodeon network and a weekend block on CBS.
“Noggin is more overtly preschool,” said Brown Johnson, executive creative director of Nickelodeon Preschool Television, “whereas on Nick Jr., our position is ‘play to learn.'”
Ms. Johnson said her network’s goals for the upcoming TV season are to explore the world of music and “to pop a hit.” She thinks Nick will do both with “Jack’s Big Music Show,” which debuts Sept. 12 at 11:30 a.m. on both Noggin and Nick Jr. Produced by Spiffy Pictures for Noggin, the 13-episode live-action series is hosted by a puppet, Jack, and his music-loving buddies. The show features videos and live-in-studio performances by children’s recording artist Laurie Berkner, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Buddy Guy and other performers.
On Nick Jr., the animated action-adventure “Go, Diego, Go!” will debut Sept. 6 at 8 p.m. and will join Nick Jr.’s regular weekday lineup beginning the next day at 11 a.m. A spinoff of the popular “Dora the Explorer,” the new show features the adventures of 8-year-old Diego, a bilingual animal rescuer, exploring the environments and animals of Latin America, with the goal of teaching basic scientific thinking and investigative strategies.
During the upcoming season on Nick Jr., viewers can also expect new episodes of the Nelvana computer-animated, music-centric “Backyardigans” and the Iceland-produced “Lazytown” promoting healthy lifestyles. Noggin will offer “Connie the Cow.”
The Playhouse Disney block on Disney Channel focuses on music as well as life skills with its “learning-based” programming for preschoolers. It airs weekdays from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and weekends from 6-10:30 a.m.
“What we’ve been hearing from parents over the last few years is that it’s not just the academic ABC’s they’re looking for,” Ms. Kanter said. “Television has an opportunity to teach [children] life skills before they head off to school.”
Debuting on Disney in January, “Handy Manny”-a multicultural half-hour 3D computer-animated series featuring a theme song by Los Lobos-is “emotional learning,” Ms. Kanter said.
She described “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” set to debut in March 2006, in similar terms. That show adds interactivity and a “whole child” curriculum to the pantheon of Disney animated characters, she said.
The emphasis on music at Disney Channel also is evident with the October launch of “Little Einsteins,” a strip of 26 half-hours in which 2D-animated characters are set against stock footage of real locales and nature spots, including notable works of art licensed for the series, and an emphasis on classical music.
In addition, Broadway actor/singer/puppeteer and songwriter John Tartaglia is working on a live-action short-form series for 2006, “Johnny and the Sprites,” which will include participation by contemporary Broadway composers.
Finally, the Nov. 14 season two premiere of “Higglytown Heroes” serves up song and humor in 26 half-hour computer-animated episodes.
At PBS Kids, the first volley of the upcoming season is a Labor Day two-hour special promoting National Grandparents Day. “A Giggly Piggley Party on PBS Kids” is a programming block Sept. 5 focusing on the grandparent-grandchild theme. Following this special, “Jakers!” will run daily.
Associate director of PBS Children’s Programming Paul Siefken said the daily “Jakers!” show will feature two new elements: “Meet the Grandparents,” vignettes featuring real grandparents and grandchildren from around the world; and “Storyteller Playhouse,” bits focusing on professional storytellers, with a live audience of children.
Labor Day sees Bob and his crew take on the big task of building a town from scratch on “Bob the Builder: Project Build It.” PBS Kids will also air this fall new episodes of “Boohbah,” “Thomas & Friends,” “Make Way for Noddy” and episodes from “Sesame Street’s” 36th season.
Debuting in January 2006, PBS Kids’ “It’s a Big World” will focus on science and geography concepts with a unique production technique: Shadowmation, a patented process combining puppetry, animatronics and computer-generated animation, the brainchild of TV veteran Mitchell Kriegman.
“This will really be a groundbreaking show for us,” Mr. Siefken said. “It embodies all the things we want PBS shows to be: innovative in production techniques, extremely entertaining, with lots
of songs, wonderful main characters and a strong science curriculum.”
PBS Kids Go!, a two-hour programming block in the afternoon aimed at elementary school children ages 6 to 8, attracts some preschoolers who aspire upward in their viewing habits. In particular, “Arthur” is an all-age favorite, Mr. Siefken said, adding that the show features back-to-school-themed episodes the week of Sept. 5-9.
Debuting Oct. 3 on the 24-hour digital Discovery Kids Channel as part of the Ready Set Learn! preschool block is the live-action “Balamory,” produced by the BBC and filmed in a picturesque village on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. “Balamory,” which runs repeats on sister Discovery Networks channel TLC at 6 a.m., mixes storytelling with songs, activities, puzzles and dances.
“Our underlying philosophy in our programming is to do things that are, creatively, a little different,” said Discovery Kids Executive VP and General Manager Marjorie Kaplan.
The Ready Set Learn! block-which airs from 6 a.m.-noon weekly on Discovery Kids (only one feed, repeated for ET and PT) and is a three-hour block on TLC from 6-9 a.m.-does just that with the music emphasis of “Hi-5,” an Australian live-action storytelling skit and musical show, the Emmy Award-winning animated series “Peep and the Big Wide World,” which teaches science literacy, and “Wilbur,” launching in spring 2006, which will focus on literacy.
The fall TV season proves once again that preschool programming may be big business, but it’s also driven by a desire among members of the industry to do good work.
“Because a lot of interesting, innovative programming has been done for preschoolers, it tends to attract a lot of delightful, creative people,” Ms. Kaplan said. “To the degree that the programming is good, it’s really good for little kids, and good for the rest of us. And the good news is that it seems like the enthusiasm and energy for preschool is around quality programming opportunities.”