Saluting Sprout’s Launch: Wax Knows the Kids Territory

Dec 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

PBS Kids Sprout President Sandy Wax, a 16-year cable industry veteran, joined PBS Kids Sprout Oct. 25 from Disney ABC Cable Networks, where she most recently served as senior VP of SoapNet program planning, scheduling and acquisitions. Previously at Disney ABC Cable Networks, which she joined in 1998, she developed the Playhouse Disney curriculum, which became the brand blueprint for Playhouse Disney. She also has held several senior management positions with Disney ABC Cable Networks and Discovery Networks. She recently talked about her new charge with TelevisionWeek special correspondent Debra Kaufman.

TelevisionWeek: What’s the environment now for children’s programming?

Sandy Wax: I think this is a really vibrant time for children’s programming. People are starting to understand that not all kids watch television the same way, and that not all of them learn the same way. There are many ways to delight, entertain and enrich children’s lives. It’s really a great time to be in the kids business.

TVWeek: Explain the business model behind launching Sprout.

Ms. Wax: Sprout is a joint venture between Comcast, HIT Entertainment, PBS and Sesame Workshop. It brings together some of the world’s best content creators and the most trusted shows in preschool television with Comcast, which is obviously an expert at both launching and managing networks as well as the distribution side of the business.

TVWeek: How do you differentiate between the VOD channel and the new linear channel?

Ms. Wax: I think both of the platforms provide something a little different but they’re both intended to meet the needs of families. The linear channel is there all the time and fits easily within the family’s life. The VOD experience is more active. It taps with what we see in kids. They fall in love with an episode or show and want to see it again and again. You can pause, go back-you can control it so much more-it gives control that is important to kids and moms.

TVWeek: What are the special needs of preschoolers with regard to media, and how does Sprout uniquely respond to those needs?

Ms. Wax: For preschool TV, the pacing is different, music is very important, colors are vibrant. Behind every good preschool program is very strong curriculum, with a fundamental basis in early-childhood development. The shows we’re so lucky to have and will have in the future are all made by people who have strong bases in early-childhood education. Older children’s programming is much more about how we entertain them.

Preschool shows are also structured to take into account their attention span, so you typically see shorter shows. We’re structuring Sprout to recognize that they won’t want to sit through half-hour show after half-hour show. Some networks will string episodes together into a half-hour. We feel kids need stimulation and changing it up is good and pays attention to their attention span.

TVWeek: How does the Sprout Web site tie in to Sprout VOD and the linear Sprout channel?

Ms. Wax: We designed the Web site so it would be, stylistically and from a brand perspective, very consistent with the look and feel of the channels. We’ve tried to expand what we do with original content by adding age-appropriate games online that they can play with a caregiver or older sibling. With both channels and the Web site, we’re trying to create a 360-degree experience.

TVWeek: You had a hand in developing the Playhouse Disney curriculum. What do you bring from your Disney experience to this job?

Ms. Wax: I think I bring an appreciation for the programming. If you watch it and don’t understand the thinking behind it, you might dismiss it as overly simplistic. But it isn’t. Knowing about how to translate curriculum into a good show is something I learned at Playhouse and will come into play when we develop things here.

I was at Playhouse Disney in the early days; it was launched a month after my daughter was born in January 1999. The challenge here is quite different from those we faced at Playhouse Disney. There, we had the Disney brand for storytelling and entertainment, and we had the challenge of figuring out how to create that with a rich, solidly educational environment for children. Here at Sprout, we have such qualified, time-tested, approved educational programming the challenge is how do we enrich that and make it immersive? With Playhouse, we did quite a bit of work with childhood development experts to bring that brand where it needed to be. All the programming I wished I’d had at Playhouse is here at Sprout.

TVWeek: With the VOD and linear channels and the online site, are you not competing with the home entertainment revenue stream for these properties?

Ms. Wax: I don’t think so. Any way we can support the love of these characters adds to the other [outlets]. I don’t think there’s any data to suggest that having programming available via VOD or linear has any impact on other forms of distribution. That was always a vibrant discussion at Disney about this and I think many people have shown that giving more exposure to characters drives other ways to experience them, other forms of distribution, whether it’s a toy or a DVD. When children fall in love with the characters, they become immersed in them, and creating more exposure only helps the overall property, which is why our partners are involved. It’s a little bit like how Starbucks creates a store on every corner. You get hooked on Starbucks coffee. It’s the Starbucks syndrome.

TVWeek: “Thomas the Tank” is 60 years old; “Sesame Street” is 35 years old. Even the best programs don’t last forever. How do you know when it’s time to retire a program?

Ms. Wax: I think this is one of the few forms of programming that doesn’t wear out. The beautiful thing about preschool is that every five years, you have an entirely new audience. There’s the legacy that my 12-year-old son introduced my 6-year-old daughter to his favorite shows. Parents and caregivers are doing the same thing. You can see from “Thomas & Friends” and “Sesame Street” that, so far at least, the good ones do last. You see some that come and go, but they probably don’t have the same market appeal.