A new boomlet in TV for preschoolers

June 22, 2012

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.

‘Light-years better’

Even though little kids prefer television — or simply don’t yet have the motor skills to explore an iPad — executives are mindful that this new generation of watchers will never truly just regard a TV show as a passive experience. Kanter said the Disney Junior staff works to make sure every show incorporates the new technology available.

“It’s sort of the state of the business and the state of the art now,” she said. But she qualified that, saying: “It’s not the guiding principle. We obviously want to create the show, but now the show can live in many different ways.”

At Arlington County-based PBS, Senior Vice President of Children’s Media Lesli Rotenberg said that these days, she won’t even accept a TV proposal for a PBS Kids show that doesn’t have technology tie-ins mapped out from the beginning. It’s crucial, she said, especially in this age, when preschoolers are the early adopters of all sorts of new gadgets.

“We say to producers: ‘Don’t design a TV show for us. Design a media property for preschooolers.’ ” Rotenberg said. “Show us how it can work on smartphones, interactive whiteboards, inside the classroom, outside the classroom, on the Web. . . . We have the highest standards.”

Rotenberg, who has two teenagers, said she thinks standards everywhere have gone way up in terms of what to create for children, which is only beneficial to parents today.

“Sometimes I wish [my kids] were 2 and 5,” she said. “Because the programming we have today is light-years better than it was when they were growing up, if only because we know more about how kids learn.”

Networks are continuing to roll out new program options and spending countless hours and research to figure out what kids like.

As Teri Weiss, senior vice president of production and development for Nickelodeon Preschool, said, the one upside about conducting pilot research with little kids for upcoming shows is that they will immediately — and with brutal honesty — let you know how they feel about the series. Unlike adults, who in focus groups might rave about a show that will never make it past a pilot episode, kids can express their disdain for a certain program by just walking away to play with their toys.

“They’re in­cred­ibly honest about what they like and don’t like,” said Weiss, detailing the exhaustive process to research what kind of shows are the best fit for their youngest viewers. “They’re constantly reminding you about what is relevant to them and their world.”

‘A very formative age’

Any combination of the words “children” and “television” is bound to spark controversy and endless online comments, especially when the subject is the number of hours of television consumed by kids.

It’s tricky for networks to find that spot between making shows that kids crave but also making them educational and even healthy. Michael Brody, chairman of the Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said he’s seen the focus of children’s TV channels narrow in on younger and younger ages as parents become more rushed and plop the kids down in front of that always-effective flat-screen babysitter.

Of course, the driving force behind the networks’ move to beef up preschool programming is money. Ultimately, Brody says, it comes down to the economics — kids represent a huge part of the economy, and the more ways networks can tie in a preschooler’s favorite character to a toy or snack, the better.

“It’s a very formative age — we form a lot of habits that affect us later in life,” says Kelly O’Keefe, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter, a graduate advertising program. “That’s precisely the reason advertisers are starting to jump into this category.”

In addition to the fact that kids start habits early, O’Keefe said, advertisers will continue to target the preschool age group because of “pester power” — or what Brody calls the “nag factor.” Essentially, when kids annoy their parents enough into making purchases based on what commercials they see for breakfast cereals, games and toys.

Experts say they can only see the trend continuing, and they’re wary about how much is too much television for young children. Brody acknowledges that television can have some positives in terms of socialization, though there are lots of concerns about the wide variety of TV and mobile media options available that parents can use to entertain their kids.

Sierra Filucci, the TV editor at Common Sense Media — a nonprofit organization that studies children’s media and technology — says that what works for every family is different. Still, it’s important to balance screen time with other activities given that too much TV has been linked to problems with physical health and attention issues.

Kotler, the director at Sesame Workshop, agrees that context is everything. “It absolutely depends on what kind of content, or on what activities [the TV] replacing, or who’s watching it with you, or who’s discussing it with you,” she said. “If it’s taking the place of something that’s more educationally enriching, that’s a problem.”

Brody’s concern is that as children get so wrapped up and invested in so many shows and the characters they see on screen — which they ask Mom and Dad to buy stuffed-animal replicas of — their imagination, which is crucial at an early age, will be replaced.

“There’s three or four big companies that cater to children’s media,” Brody said. “And so, the stories of childhood are in fewer hands.”

So what are the kids watching these days?

According to data from Horizon Media and Disney, here’s a sampling of some of the kids networks’ most-watched programs by children ages 2 to 5 years old in approximately the past year.

Nick Jr.

“Bubble Guppies”

“Dora the Explorer”

“Team Umizoomi”

“Mike the Knight”

“The Backyardigans”

Sprout

“LazyTown”

“Barney & Friends”

“Thomas & Friends”

“Caillou”

“Pajaminals”

PBS

“Curious George”

“Dinosaur Train”

“The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!”

“Clifford’s Puppy Days”

“Sesame Street”

Disney Jr.

“Doc McStuffins”

“Jake and the Never Land Pirates”

“Mickey Mouse Clubhouse”

“Little Einsteins”

“Octonauts”

Read more: Advice on kids’ TV-watching habits

Emily Yahr is an entertainment reporter and pop culture blogger for the Style section. She joined the Post in May 2008, a week before she graduated from the University of Maryland, and worked on Lisa de Moraes' TV Column and blog.
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