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Comcast, PBS Plan New Service

Cable System Will Offer Children's Programs on Demand

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page E04

SAN FRANCISCO, April 4 -- Accompanied by Big Bird and Barney, Comcast Communications Corp. Chairman Brian L. Roberts on Monday announced a new Public Broadcasting Service option for preschool children that will launch not on a cable channel but on Comcast's video-on-demand system.

Called "PBS Kids Sprout," the service's shows will feature public broadcasting kid-favorites Bob the Builder, the Teletubbies, Elmo and so on, for no extra charge on Comcast digital-cable systems with video-on-demand (VOD) service.

Comcast subscribers can watch those programs in any order and at any time by selecting them from an on-screen menu with their cable box's remote control. Comcast will also offer "Sprout" as a conventional channel in the fall.

"Parents and kids can get it whenever they want it," Roberts said yesterday at the annual cable industry convention here. The service will offer 50 hours of PBS programming a month, with many of the shows updated every two weeks, the company said.

Roberts said the new PBS programming would not have commercials "in the traditional sense"; it will, however, include about the same dose of sponsorship spots as other PBS fare. They will be targeted at parents and caregivers, not children, and will appear only between programs, said PBS spokeswoman Stephanie Aaronson.

PBS, funded mostly by viewer donations, grants and corporate sponsorships (the government kicks in a small share), cannot show advertisements that include a "call to action" -- a hard sell to buy something. But PBS spots for such firms as food giant Archer Daniels Midland can describe a sponsor in enough detail to be indistinguishable from ads on commercial TV.

Comcast owns 40 percent of the new service, with Barney creator HIT Entertainment owning 30 percent and PBS and Sesame Workshop 15 percent each.

Comcast's move is a response to consumers' growing desire to watch television on their own schedule. In addition to renting digital video recorders (also offered by satellite carriers like DirecTV and services such as TiVo), Comcast stores selected programs on its own system for later viewing via its digital-cable boxes. "Sprout" will be available through that latter system.

In a panel discussion earlier in the day, Roberts said that Comcast customers ordered 1 billion video-on-demand programs in 2004. Comcast is the nation's largest cable company with about 22 million subscribers, and about 85 percent of them have VOD service.

In any after-the-fact watching, viewers can easily fast-forward past commercials. Cable companies and networks are struggling with how to get ads past that behavior.

Roberts said that there will be a short-term "displacement" in the ad market because of skipped commercials, but that he expects unskippable ads to soon be embedded in recorded programming. (He did not say who would do this or how it would be done.) He also suggested that Comcast and others would soon be able to customize ads to match viewers.

The rollout of the new Comcast-PBS service was staged at a carousel in downtown San Francisco with dozens of preschoolers -- the target audience -- in attendance. To introduce a video clip of the service, the children were told to yell its slogan, "Let's Grow!"

Backstage, Roberts at one point found himself walking with the Bob the Builder and Angelina Ballerina characters. "I guess I'm playing the 'corporate stiff' " character, Roberts joked.

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