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The preschool demo splinters as channels welcome younger and older eyeballs to the programming mix

The steady influx of new preschool specialty channels and blocks over the past few years has started to translate into a serious need to diversify programming for this demo. Whereas preschool was previously defined as kids ages two to five, broadcasters, producers, caregivers and regulators alike are now noticing that toddlers as young as 16 months and kids as old as six or seven are an integral part of this audience, with the older group bridging the gap between the traditional preschool ceiling (five years old) and the general kid demo (six to 12). Because the programming needs of a 16-month-old differ so greatly from those of a seven-year-old, a market demand for programming tailored specifically to each subset (kids up to age three, and kids four to seven) has emerged.
April 1, 2002

The steady influx of new preschool specialty channels and blocks over the past few years has started to translate into a serious need to diversify programming for this demo. Whereas preschool was previously defined as kids ages two to five, broadcasters, producers, caregivers and regulators alike are now noticing that toddlers as young as 16 months and kids as old as six or seven are an integral part of this audience, with the older group bridging the gap between the traditional preschool ceiling (five years old) and the general kid demo (six to 12). Because the programming needs of a 16-month-old differ so greatly from those of a seven-year-old, a market demand for programming tailored specifically to each subset (kids up to age three, and kids four to seven) has emerged.

Recognizing that two separate sub-demos exist within the general preschool audience is the first step towards addressing the evolving programming needs of the demo, but many programmers–wary of espousing TV viewing for the under-two set–are loathe to do so. Thus, aiming for programming that hits the preschool middle ground and accommodates peripheral viewing at both ends of an ever-broadening spectrum appears to be the current modus operandi for some.

Nancy Kanter, VP of programming for the Playhouse Disney block on Disney Channel, generally looks for all-encompassing series with great characters, a good story and an innovative visual style. ‘We’re not looking at segmenting–or at least not younger than two or three,’ she says. ‘But we’d like series with enough story and curriculum to keep a six- or seven-year-old interested.’

That said, Kanter’s tune could change when Playhouse Disney launches as a 24-hour channel in 2003, since dedicated preschool channels require a narrower focus for different dayparts. Programming before 11:30 a.m. generally hits the 18-month to three-year-old crowd, while programming after 11:30–when older preschoolers get home from kindergarten–usually skews up a bit.

While Clare Elstow, head of preschool for CBBC, admits that the general kid audience is becoming increasingly sophisticated, she claims that preschool programming has its own unique pacing and rhythm that needs to be maintained. ‘There are kids who can visit a program at age two and get something out of it, and then come back and get something else out of it at three or four,’ says Elstow. ‘And just as kids learn how to walk at different ages, I think we have to cater to those ranges in development on the TV side.’ CBBC is hoping two fresh preschool commissions–one a magazine series (no working title, 100 half hours), the other a drama from CBBC Scotland–will provide that overarching appeal.

Yet safety-padding programming strategies takes a channel only so far, and some broadcasters are beginning to brave the new preschool reality by developing or commissioning programming that specifically addresses the individual needs of the two preschool subsets.

Within the one to three segment, narrative takes the backseat since kids that age experience the various elements of a program, but don’t yet have the logic skills to understand how and why these parts fit together. ‘With Teletubbies, there’s a lot of repetition. The activities the characters engage in play to a child’s early sensory perceptions rather than being dialog-driven–and that’s because early speech development isn’t there at age one,’ says Mark Johnstone, director of children’s and learning for BBC Worldwide. ‘Children within this younger age group tend to seek value from toys, games and video products by themselves.’

According to early childhood development research, they also experience an enormous amount of personal reward from finding things for themselves. And that’s what the Beeb is banking on with Finders (working title), a 130 x 20-minute live-action series in preproduction with London-based Novel Entertainment. The series features three characters (played by actors in costume) that live in a magical world. In each episode, the characters find something–tangible (a flower or a bottle) or intangible (a color or a kiss)–that becomes the episode’s theme, tying in stories, activities and music.

With kids four to six, dialog and interactivity become paramount. ‘Kids that age are playing with other children, and programs targeting that demo will reflect that,’ says Johnstone. ‘There’s a greater interaction between the characters.’ The older preschool set also demands more sophisticated humor and narrative. ‘It doesn’t necessarily have to be a storytelling narrative, but there has to be a greater sense of the program being complete in itself–there has to be a wholeness to it rather than a simple sequence of experiences, which plays more to the younger set.’

CBBC is pooling its in-house resources to develop a new live-action series for kids four to six. Slated to air on CBBC in 2003, Flip Flop (130 x 20 minutes) follows the adventures of a family inhabiting a tropical island that floats around the world on a voyage of discovery.

Although the perceived needs of preschoolers appear to be very specific, ‘different broadcasters define preschool differently, and educational requirements vary from network to network,’ says Steve Galloway, VP of development for Nelvana. ‘There’s no pro forma in preschool–it’s really about tailoring properties to the specific needs of the networks and playing a matchmaking game.’ Nelvana series Max and Ruby (currently in early development) was a perfect fit for Nick Jr., since the channel generally skews toward the younger end of the ‘true preschool’ audience (two to five) with shows featuring relatable material presented in a repetitive rhythm with rich colors. Based on a popular book series by Rosemary Wells, Max and Ruby follows the adventures of a brother-and-sister duo as they try to overcome typical preschool problems.

Although story lines for the series were still being nailed down at press time, they should reflect the themes explored in the book series pretty closely. In one title, Max can’t sleep, so he and Ruby explore every available solution to that problem–including padding the bed with stuffed animals until there’s no room left for a sleepless Max.

John Morris, VP of global TV and video sales for preschool powerhouse HIT Entertainment, echoes Galloway’s sentiments, noting that producers generally begin with an idea and then figure out which demo is the most natural fit for it. Bob the Builder is primarily targeted to the older end of the boys preschool demo, since ‘kids that age can imagine themselves in that world–they love building and playing.’ Likewise, Angelina Ballerina targets the older preschool girl (ages four to seven), featuring a seven-year-old central character coping with the transitional issues of growing up and not always getting what she wants.

Wish fulfillment is a big issue for kids in the older segment, says Morris, but younger preschoolers wouldn’t have access to those feelings yet. Barney is closer to the two- to three-year-old mark, where themes of conflict management, general interaction, singing and dancing are most engaging. ‘The story lines are more accessible,’ says Morris. Simple narrative also featured high in development plans for HIT/Nick Jr. co-pro Oswald. Whereas older-skewing preschool series can accommodate several stories simultaneously, one primary story unfolds in each Oswald ep. The animation was kept simple, the music had to be engaging–’kids respond to music before they respond to words,’ says Morris–and there couldn’t be too many characters.

Yet sometimes it’s not a matter of pre-determining where a show will fit along the demo scale, but rather allowing the audience to stake its claim and then tweaking content as needed from there. Ever popular with kids up to age four or five, Sesame Street’s appeal currently rests at the younger end of the preschool demo, according to the show’s advisors. To widen the show’s reach, subtle yet significant changes were made in season 33.

The street story (which used to appeal to younger viewers with its multiple-segment format) now runs uninterrupted, followed by longer interactive segments hosted by popular characters. The idea was to lead kids through the hour more easily, maintaining the learning elements that appeal to both younger (social interaction and general cognitive responses) and older (problem-solving, math, literacy) segments of the demo.

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