While the TV industry frets about ratings drops and reports emerge on declines in traditional TV viewing, there’s one market that executives are zeroing in on: And it’s one more interested in naptime and snacks than Nielsen ratings.
Turns out, preschoolers are zoning out in front of their favorite TV show more than ever. And to keep up with this lucrative tot market, networks are revamping and rearranging offerings to reel in viewers — and advertisers.
A 2011 report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found that TV-watching by preschoolers climbed to an average of 3.5 hours a day, the highest rate since the Sesame Workshop began systematically tracking the statistic eight years ago. “Even as technology evolves and young children increasingly turn to games and mobile media,” the study noted, “they still love television best.”
That’s good news for executives who dream up and produce kids programming, especially now as two big players launch new initiatives targeting these young viewers. This spring, Disney debuted the Disney Junior network, featuring seven-day, 24-hour programming aimed at kids ages 2 to 5. And NBC, in a partnership with PBS’s Kids Sprout channel, will debut a block of Saturday-morning shows in July for its broadcast stations called “NBC Kids,” aimed exclusively at the preschool set.
Jennifer Kotler, vice president of domestic research for Sesame Workshop, said the reasonTV use is higher than ever is probably because having so many options available simply makes it more probable that kids are going to watch more TV. “If you look at what’s available on all these different channels, it’s just exploded,” Kotler said.
As the preschool-age market continues to grow, child psychology and industry experts are paying close attention to the increased TV-viewing habits of the pint-size audience. More higher-quality options for kids are welcome, but there are growing worries about just how much television preschoolers are watching.
Something ‘very distinct’
Programming for preschoolers has been prominent since the late 1960s, when “Sesame Street” first captivated viewers . But gone are the days of the “one size fits all” philosophy behind kids TV, said Sandy Wax, president of PBS Kids Sprout, a joint venture between NBCUniversal, PBS, Sesame Workshop and HIT Entertainment.
One of the newer players in the children’s TV game (it debuted in 2005), Sprout will take over NBC’s existing Saturday morning kids block July 7, with shows aimed at 2- to 5-year-olds.
“I think what we’re seeing now is really a focus on programming crafted and designed specifically for different age groups,” Wax said. “[Two to 5] is a very specific developmental stage. The way that you craft a narrative, how complicated the character relationships can be — it’s very, very specific to that age group and where their cognitive abilities are.”
Along with helping relatively new-NBC Universal parent company Comcast grow one of its properties, the expansion of Sprout programming to NBC’s broadcast stations will serve a broader audience that can’t access Sprout on cable or satellite, Wax said. And if it seems like there’s already a myriad of kid-themed outlets — Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS Kids, Cartoon Network, the Hub, etc. — Wax countered that the children’s TV market is underserved. She compared the situation to the days when all viewers had only three or four channels to choose from.
Sprout shows for the NBC block will emphasize healthy living, Wax said. “Pajanimals,” from the Jim Henson Co., has adorable puppets who go through daily routines and tackle questions such as “How do I know if it’s morningtime?” with elaborate musical numbers. “Noodle and Doodle” features an enthusiastically friendly host, Sean, who does crafts and cooks with his puppet friend, Noodle. They both get excited about cleaning up any mess they make.
Disney Junior, a spinoff of the Playhouse Disney preschool-age block that also airs on the Disney Channel, launched as a 24-hour endeavor at the end of March.
“Even though it seems like ‘How many 24-7 preschool channels does the world need?,’ the fact is, parents and kids are so used to having a wide variety of choice now,” said Nancy Kanter, senior vice president and general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide. “So that was what sort of jump-started us, talking about evolving our brand into something that is very distinct.”
First up for Disney Junior: Making sure there were enough shows in the pipeline and a healthy number of cable operators to carry the channel, which is available in 40 million homes. (Disney Junior replaced Disney’s soap-opera themed SoapNet in some markets.) With those stats locked in, executives set about filling the lineup with existing Disney shows — “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,”“Handy Manny,” “Special Agent Oso” and others.