Cartoon Network is sending preschoolers off for a little early education in laughter this fall, with the launch of its first block specifically aimed at four- and five-year-olds. Tickle U will run from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., nestled within a larger preschool-friendly daypart from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Cartoon certainly hasn’t ignored preschoolers in the mornings up to this point, and classic any-age series such as Looney Tunes and Scooby-Doo have helped the channel score an average rating of 1.8 with two- to 11-year-olds. But VP of development and programming Alice Cahn is convinced that addressing the demo in a more targeted way will improve the block’s performance against competitive offerings from Nickelodeon, PBS and Disney.
That’s no small task. The market Tickle U is going into is a well-served one, and Cahn is the first to praise her competitors for creating safe and fun viewing destinations for preschoolers. ‘But it wouldn’t have made sense for us to launch another preschool service focused on a mix of cognitive and affective skills,’ she says. ‘And as I looked at the environment that we’re raising our kids in, what seemed to be missing was a focus on the skills children need to be optimists and use humor as a response to the things that are happening in their lives.’
While humor itself is nothing new in preschool programming, and is often used as an element to cement a lesson about math or literacy, Cahn says what she’s looking for is a bit different – the lesson itself is humor and optimism. ‘This has never been explored as a curriculum before, and the more we looked at the research, the more clearly it stood out as a need,’ she says.
With that in mind, Cahn has put together a lineup of six shows, varying in length from five to 11 minutes, and she will be making at least two more announcements before the block’s August launch. Tickle U’s tentpole series is Krypto the Superdog, a co-pro between Warner Bros. Animation and DC Comics that follows the crime-fighting adventures of Superman’s dog. Rounding out the slate is a second WB toon called Firehouse Tales (about a group of young fire trucks learning how to be heroes), Cookie Jar’s Dr. Seuss classic Gerald McBoing Boing, Collingwood O’Hare’s Gordon the Garden Gnome, CCI’s Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs and Contender’s Peppa Pig.
Cahn says it wasn’t easy finding programming that put as high a premium on laughter as she wanted since most preschool shows uphold a traditional 11-minute story arc that’s squarely centered around curriculum. ‘On the plus side, it’s a really healthy environment for preschoolers to be in right now. On the down side, I used to hear a lot more laughter,’ she says, adding that while there is funny content out there, it’s tough to find shows that also have main characters who are optimists.
Depending on how well the block is received, Cahn is looking to pick up anywhere from two to six new series for the 2006/2007 season, and she’s open to both straight-up acquisitions and co-production deals. Shows with episodes that run longer than 11 minutes need not apply, and all of Tickle U’s programming will be stripped throughout the week.
Skewed to reach the four to five set, the block is aiming a bit older than the competition, but Cahn points out that kids in the U.S. start to grow out of traditional preschool programming at age three and a half – and sometimes even younger if there’s an older sibling in the house. By aiming high, Cartoon should also be able to draw in younger preschoolers on an aspirational level.
Cahn has also strayed from normal preschool protocol by adding a live host to fill in between the series with physical comedy bits and simple gags like pies in the face and slipping on banana peels. ‘It works everywhere else around the globe, but for some reason, the U.S. seems to have moved away from hosted programming,’ says Cahn, who took a careful look at hosted blocks on Milkshake and CBBC in the U.K. and Pogo in India for inspiration and guidance.