The 2004 census estimated there are a total of 19.8 million preschoolers-defined as children between the ages of 2 and 6-in the U.S. That’s a significant market, and one that Comcast Corp., PBS, HIT Entertainment and Sesame Workshop sought to engage when they joined forces earlier this year to create PBS Kids Sprout, which first appeared as a video-on-demand service in April.
With the Sept. 26 launch of the complementary 24/7 PBS Kids Sprout digital channel and its companion Web site, the Sprout brand became a triple destination for preschoolers and their caregivers/parents: on-demand, online and on-air.
“Launching the video-on-demand channel first was a good way to get the word out and get the brand out,” said PBS Kids Sprout President Sandy Wax. “Now the different channels complement each other, and online is a rich destination. It’s a triangle of programming opportunities and, as such, a very stable shape.”
From the point of view of PBS, the joint venture to create PBS Kids Sprout was a logical way to get its brand out in more venues.
“By partnering with Comcast, HIT and Sesame Workshop to launch PBS Kids Sprout, PBS has expanded the access and reach of our quality preschool series,” said PBS Senior VP Lesli Rotenberg. “We will continue to bring a 360-degree approach to learning by leveraging the full spectrum of media, technology and community to help children reach their potential.”
Ms. Wax will implement the three-pronged strategy to reach a hitherto underserved demographic along with another key hire: Andrew Beecham, who as senior VP of original programming, will lead the new networks’ programming development and acquisition strategies. A former executive at Sprout partner company HIT Entertainment, Mr. Beecham worked closely with Diana Kerekes, VP and general counsel of content development for Comcast Corp., in developing the new network’s programming policies and on-air presentation. Ms. Kerekes also currently serves as acting general manager for PBS Kids Sprout.
As of October Rentrak had recorded nearly 6 million orders a month for the PBS Kids Sprout VOD channel, according to Frank Ciancio, PBS Kids Sprout senior VP of advertising sales.He noted that “is a big number for VOD. That’s why we’re No. 1 in our category of kids and teens and No. 3 overall with VOD.”
The on-demand service offers 50 hours of content every day, with 25 percent of the content updated every two weeks. PBS Kids Sprout On Demand also features Spanish-language programming, including episodes of “Barney & Friends,” “Bob the Builder” and “Angelina Ballerina” as well as “Plaza Sesamo,” the Spanish-language adaptation of “Sesame Street.” VOD programming is free to digital cable subscribers whose cable systems support VOD applications.
The launch of a 24/7 linear channel might seem redundant in the face of the quantity and quality of VOD programming as well as the fundamental flexibility of the on-demand model, but both Ms. Wax and Mr. Beecham noted the strategic differences between the two ventures. “Both platforms provide something a little different, though they’re both intended to meet the needs of families,” Ms. Wax said.
“The on-demand channel is for those people who like instant hits of their favorite characters,” added Mr. Beecham, who previously created and introduced the Playhouse Disney programming format to international markets as director of Playhouse Disney worldwide programming strategy for ABC Cable Networks Group. “For children who are passionate about a particular character, they can go straight to VOD and access that. The linear channel is a huge channel, on all the time, that is always changing with a massive variety of material.”
One of Mr. Beecham’s key contributions to the tenor of the new linear channel relates to the structuring of this “massive variety” of programming. “Traditionally, in the States, what happens is that there are single stories that are glued together with interstitial material,” he said. “What I’m used to outside the States is to just take the narrative episode-say a seven-minute episode of Thomas the Tank-and, where another network might string together enough episodes to make a half-hour or hour show of the same program, with Sprout you get to sample a huge variety of material. You’ll get all these smaller shows that translate into something bigger.”
In addition to mixing up a variety of short episodes of several different TV shows, PBS Kids Sprout also features two hosts, Melanie and Kevin, who are intended not simply to act as navigators but to add value with live-action interstitials involving singing, game playing and storytelling. With a nod to diversity, Melanie is Hispanic and Kevin is Asian.
Unlike the VOD channel, which enables children and caregivers to choose the programming they want when they want it, the linear channel divides the day into parts intended to help parents and caregivers. Morning programming features lively shows designed to get preschoolers out of bed and ready for the day ahead. Lunchtime and afternoon is geared to shows with learning themes such as shapes and colors and social interaction and other values, peppered with activities and games. The evening block, hosted by Melanie, is wind-down time with quieter, soothing programs and storytelling.
Kevin’s role is a throwback to TV’s earliest children’s programming, when hosts encouraged interactivity with home viewers. As the Birthday Host, he invites caregivers to visit the Web site, where they can download a release form and instructions for submitting a birthday card crafted by the child. On the show, Kevin shares viewer-submitted birthday greetings and celebrations; the cards are later posted on the Web site. “He’s creating a personal and interactive connection,” Ms. Wax said. “It’s the best day of the year for a child, and we’re celebrating it and making it part of our brand.”
During the day, Melanie also does very simple, age-appropriate crafts meant to inspire the audience with ideas. Caregivers can find more instructions and tips on the Web site. According to Ms. Wax, audience members are now sending pictures of the crafts they’re doing. “We really want to make PBS Kids Sprout not just for kids but more about the kids and the people who love and care for them,” she said. “They remember watching ‘Sesame Street,’ so they can share it with their kids. Productive dialogue happens when they watch the show together.”
Consistent graphics and other design elements tie the linear channel together with the Web site (sproutletsgrow.com). “We’ve gone for a picture-book feel, with warm colors and integrating all our characters into that look and feel,” Mr. Beecham said. “If a preschooler wants to access Sprout, he or she doesn’t care if it’s VOD or linear or online. What’s nice is how caregivers are using it. Dads like to go online with their kids on their laps, and the site is constructed so that they can play games without a lot of clicking. The games are built taking into consideration the more limited motor skills that preschoolers have.”
The first platform launched, PBS Kids Sprout On-Demand, isn’t yet consistent graphically with the other two platforms; Mr. Beecham reported that they are currently in production to change the look and feel of that channel. The new look, which will debut in January, was designed by Primal Scream, which also designed the linear channel. New York-based Funny Garbage is the Web production company.
Also under further development is the content of the Web site. “What you’re seeing now is very much Stage 1,” Mr. Beecham said. “It’s just getting it out there, with unique games. What we’re trying at the moment is to work out ways to cross-promote between the linear channel and the Web.” A first effort, for Halloween, was to encourage children to go online for Halloween-related activities. For Thanksgiving, promos on the linear channel encouraged children to submit personal messages-about what they were thankful for or naming their favorite Thanksgiving food-online. On Thanksgiving Day,
the linear channel aired the messages as a scrolling line of text.
In addition to the library of evergreen preschool programs, PBS Kids Sprout has announced that it intends to produce more original programming, which currently includes the Melanie-hosted “Good Night” programming. Next up will be the production of short-form and interstitials, between one and two minutes long. Mr. Beecham said that PBS Kids Sprout has outsourced production of this short-form programming to Los Angeles-based production company Johnson & Murphy. The interstitial material, developed by Mr. Beecham with VP of Programming Susan Karden and Manager of Creative Services Meredith Halperin (both of whom came from Sesame Workshop), includes four series: on music, healthy eating, geography and creative storytelling.
How is the latest PBS Kids Sprout network effort stacking up? According to marketing manager Shannon Carmody, the 24/7 channel is going into 16 million homes, which includes the Comcast and Insight systems. “The indications from both over-the-air ratings on PBS stations and the Rentrak video-on-demand numbers are that these shows are very popular,” said Mr. Ciancio, who added that the network will subscribe to Nielsens when the number of households reaches a minimum necessary for accurate measurement. “It’s hard to quantify with a brand-new network, but given the existing numbers, we believe that the linear channel ratings will be strong.”
PBS Kids Sprout has also taken an unusual tack with regard to advertising. “The philosophy is to be very low clutter,” Mr. Ciancio said. That translates to advertising that never interrupts programming: On both the VOD channel and the linear one, spots are confined to the top and bottom of programs. It also translates to a limited amount of advertising: two minutes per hour, which is considerably lower than the Federal Communications Commission-designated limits of no more than 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and no more than 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. “I don’t want to say that we’ll always keep it at two minutes, but for the foreseeable future, we’ll have two minutes,” Mr. Ciancio said. “We’re looking to keep it limited.” Mr. Ciancio also said that advertisers are encouraged to make a package buy to advertise on both the VOD and linear channels.
In an interesting twist, PBS Kids Sprout will only take advertising aimed at caregivers and parents. “The choice was made very early on between all the partners not to directly target children but rather target caregivers,” said Mr. Ciancio, who noted that the other categories they’re working on are family vehicles, family vacations, healthy foods and beverages, retail and educational toys. “PBS has always put a lot behind education and learning, and we want to continue with that philosophy.”
Kimberly-Clark, which is advertising Huggies and Pull-Ups, was the first to come aboard. “They were so close to our objectives as a network that it was a perfect partnership,” he said. “Their mission statement reads: ‘The joys of parenting are in the simple moments and discoveries’. Ours is: ‘We invite parents and their little ones to savor the simple moments of a young child’s everyday world-whenever they like.’ They’re right in sync.”
In addition, PBS Kids Sprout is encouraging advertisers to create helpful advertising. “For example, we’re looking with Kimberly-Clark to create parenting tips or have an automotive company sponsor a safety tip at the end of the show,” Mr. Ciancio said. “Then the ads are informational or educational. Although we’re taking standard ads, in the future some of them might get more creative in helping caregivers or parents.”
Along with being careful in choosing advertisers, Mr. Ciancio said, the network is “very conscious of approving copy.”
“We have a messaging committee in place that approves commercial copy anytime someone signs a deal with us,” he said. “We’re being very pro-social about the whole thing. It’s very much in sync with all our partners, and the response from viewers has been great.”
Though advertisers have yet to flock to PBS Kids Sprout, the strategy is clearly to create a premium destination where advertisers will shine in the reflected light of familiar, trusted preschool programming.
With the success of the VOD channel, it’s not too much of a leap to envision PBS Kids Sprout adding other digital distribution platforms, such as mobile entertainment. Though it’s on the back burner, the idea of making PBS Kids Sprout even more ubiquitous is on the minds of PBS Kids Sprout executives. Mr. Beecham noted that staying abreast of new digital platform developments will be a natural extension of the partnership with Comcast. “We consider Sprout a destination,” Ms. Carmody said. “We hope to expand our platforms to reach preschoolers and caregivers, so we’re interested in all the new technologies. We’re in the exploring stage and looking at what’s available and what’s out there, finding the right set for Sprout.”
As she markets the network, Ms. Carmody hopes to take advantage of the network’s partnership with local PBS affiliates. “It’s a way to do strong grassroots campaigns that other networks can’t,” she said. “There’s a lot of things we can do on a local level, involving the cable operator. We’re looking to take it to the next level with guerilla marketing, celebrations and local events. We know what our mission is. Now’s the time to get creative and make it known.”
With the linear channel launched, Mr. Beecham said, the next step will be to begin research, before Christmas, to find out what’s working and what’s not. “We want to produce another ‘Good Night’ show, and the research will help us do that,” he said. In the end, he hopes, the effort to tailor an entire network to an underserved and often dismissed demographic will pay off not just with strong ratings, solid advertisers and happy kids and parents-but with the sincerest form of flattery. “It’ll take time for people to understand that our programming, with its emphasis on shorter and more diverse segments, is a good thing,” he said. “But I think over time the other networks will copy us.”
In the meantime, PBS Kids Sprout intends to follow its own rallying cry to preschoolers: Let’s Grow!
Sprout Presents …
Among the wide variety of preschool-targeted programming on Sprout: