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Growing up preschool: Kidcasters find fertile ground with the four to seven demo

For the past five years or so, many producers and broadcasters have been doggedly chasing the preschool model showcased in Nickelodeon juggernauts Dora the Explorer and Blue's Clues. These shows' interactive frames have proven to be highly effective for reaching the two- to three-year-old preschool viewer, but what about kids who are well out of diapers, yet not quite ready for the edgier fare their older siblings are watching? Lately it seems that more broadcasters are looking for ways to cater to the four to seven demo in their schedules. And to meet that demand, some preschool producers are headed in a slightly more sophisticated visual, conceptual and narrative direction to broaden the appeal of their shows and help programmers bridge the gap between preschool and core kid viewers.
September 1, 2005

For the past five years or so, many producers and broadcasters have been doggedly chasing the preschool model showcased in Nickelodeon juggernauts Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues. These shows’ interactive frames have proven to be highly effective for reaching the two- to three-year-old preschool viewer, but what about kids who are well out of diapers, yet not quite ready for the edgier fare their older siblings are watching? Lately it seems that more broadcasters are looking for ways to cater to the four to seven demo in their schedules. And to meet that demand, some preschool producers are headed in a slightly more sophisticated visual, conceptual and narrative direction to broaden the appeal of their shows and help programmers bridge the gap between preschool and core kid viewers.

Connecting blocks

ABC Kids programmer Deirdre Brennan says she’s been searching for solid bridge content for the past three years, and it hasn’t been easy to find the right kind of material because the biggest thing lacking in the market for the four to seven demo is volume.

Brennan is focusing on two transitional time periods – before school (7 a.m. to 8 a.m.) and afternoons (4 p.m. to 5 p.m.). ‘These hours provide a buffer between preschool and older programming, as well as offering valuable opportunities for sibling co-viewing,’ she says. In fact, ABC’s average audience share on weekdays from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. was about 75% of kids ages zero to 12 in the first half of 2005, and between 74% and 79% of the five to 12 set. Plus, 16 of the top 20 children’s programs last year for Aussie kids up to age 12 targeted four- to seven-year-olds as their primary demo.

Nick Wilson, controller of children’s programming for Five in the U.K., has experienced similar success with preschool shows that stretch up in age appeal, such as Target’s Fifi and the Flowertots and Nelvana’s Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends. In Britain’s extremely competitive kidcasting market, Five’s Milkshake block currently draws between 10% and 15% of four- to nine-year-olds, and 18% of kids in the four to six range.

Transitioning both kids and caregivers out of preschool gradually is extremely important, says Sebastian Debertin, head of acquisitions and co-productions for KI.KA, and the German kidnet learned this lesson by tinkering with its 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. evening lineup. ‘Since both preschoolers and school-age children watch this time slot, we need programs that serve both age groups. And we’ve found that targeting four to sevens works best here.’

Decode partner and executive producer Beth Stevenson also notes that there seems to be more of an appetite for this type of programming outside North America because family viewing is more prevalent overseas. ‘Our eight- and nine-year-olds are so sassy, they’re watching The OC,’ says Stevenson, who works out of Decode’s Toronto, Canada headquarters. ‘But in countries like Germany, they still watch pure children’s programming.’

The ABCs of language and narrative development

So what’s the difference between a three-year-old and a six-year-old, anyway? One of the inherent challenges of creating shows for the four to seven crowd lies in knowing exactly where they sit developmentally in comparison to both their older and younger counterparts. ‘There has always been some confusion when it comes to defining the key characteristics of this demographic,’ says Brennan, adding that the recent phenomenon of age compression has muddied the waters even more.

But there are a few defining milestones that set this group apart, and probably the most important one centers around verbal skills. Word play will be lost on a two- or three-year-old, but by age four, kids are starting to grasp the subtleties of language and can handle a story driven by narrative and dialogue. ‘You can experiment a bit more with story lines, character development and relationships [with four- to seven-year-olds],’ says Dr. Lynne Oldershaw, a developmental psychologist on staff at Canada’s pubcaster, the CBC. She adds that in order to understand humor, viewers must be able to grasp the incongruity in an on-screen situation. If the verbal skills aren’t there yet, jokes will be lost on the audience.

Dr. Janine Spencer, director of the Center for Research in Infant Behavior at Brunel University in London, says that as you target up the demographic scale to age seven, stories can take on more complexity and even include B plots and a couple of narrative twists.

This allows prodcos more leeway when it comes to creating characters that are proactive and willing to take the risks that can drive a more complicated story. Decode’s Stevenson says the literary world is quite good at achieving this balance, which is why her company tapped Evan Solomon’s Nathaniel McDaniel for development as a 2-D animated series. Based on the book, the toon follows along as a young boy travels back in time to return artifacts he finds in his archaeologist grandad’s attic to their rightful owners. Stevenson says the stories are more layered in that they have adventure and more advanced historical contexts than is typical of preschool fare. But actual peril is rare, so the eps are still sweet and safe.

In addition to more challenging scripts, the four to seven demo is able to process on-screen action more quickly, which means the visual pacing can pick up the tempo too. Kurt Mueller, director of creative development for Sesame Workshop, says upcoming series Pinky Dinky Doo contains a lot more action and animation in both the background and foreground of each frame.

Gender differences and finding common ground

The gender split is also particularly important when it comes to how this age group perceives humor. ‘I have yet to see girls laugh at burping or armpit farts in the same way that boys do,’ says Alice Cahn, VP of development and programming for Cartoon Network’s new Tickle U preschool block. ‘It’s just a really different sensibility.’ She contends that broadcasters and producers have ignored this fundamental difference in their drive to create a gender-balanced universe for preschoolers. So when it came to finding funny shows for Tickle U that would appeal to girls, Cahn found the prospect quite difficult.

Although there are many cultural and individual quirks that mark four- to seven-year-old kids from around the world as unique, they do have one big thing in common – starting school.

This universal experience has expanded their world considerably and made relationships paramount, and more producers need to key into these life changes. ‘That’s why Arthur’s been knocking it home for years,’ says Cahn. ‘Arthur is Seinfeld for short people. He’s this angst-ridden third-grader, but he’s the perfect character for this age group. They’re worrying about their friends more than they did before, and their priorities are shifting as they spend more time out of the home.’

Spencer says that kids start to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings different from their own at this stage. Strong characterizations are becoming more important as they begin to examine the motivations behind the actions of all the folks in their lives. However, any dramatic personality changes a producer might want to weave into a story need to be explained explicitly and logically. ‘They might find it a bit difficult to accept inconsistency in a character’s behavior, and could easily get confused,’ she says. So if a normally happy protagonist is suddenly really grumpy, it needs to be made crystal clear that the reason is because he has to forgo an important baseball game so he doesn’t miss his pesky little sister’s birthday party.

Four to sevens also tend to interpret things a bit more literally than your average eight- or nine-year-old, says Cahn. ‘There’s a reason for the TV Parental Guidelines TV-Y7 rating (which is slapped on programs that are deemed by a voluntary board of TV industry orgs to be inappropriate for kids under seven). Children younger than seven tend to believe that much of what they see on the screen is actually true. For example, if you queried four-, five- and six-year-old children about where the characters they like live, many would probably point to the TV and say, ‘In there.”

And lastly, in terms of curriculum learning, these kids are picking up core competencies like understanding cause-and-effect relationships and working things through logically from their lessons at school. So Oldershaw says programming that challenges them to use problem-solving skills while invoking slapstick humor at the same time is ideally suited to positively reinforcing these life skills.

Where to sell it

Arguably the biggest new broadcast player in the market for this type of programming is Cartoon Network. The channel launched its daily Tickle U block devoted to four- and five-year-olds last month, and VP of programming and scheduling Marc Buhaj says this is just the first phase in a strategy to bring in more four to seven viewers. To that end, Buhaj will be broadcasting transitional shows such as Krypto the Superdog and Baby Looney Tunes when Tickle U ends at 11 a.m. in an effort to age up the viewing audience gradually until the six- to 12-year-old kids get home from school.

Buhaj is constantly on the lookout for series that might refresh Tickle U and bridge the afternoon slots, and he can afford to take his time finding the right programming since four to sevens tend to be more tolerant of repeats. But Cartoon is hardly resting on its laurels, with six in-house series in production right now that Buhaj hopes will have the kind of broad appeal that marks effective bridge material. ‘We’re also looking for other opportunities in our schedule where preschoolers may not be served at the moment,’ he says. ‘We’ve started with two hours a day, five days a week, but we may expand from there if there’s a call for it.’

It was tricky to find age-appropriate series that suited Tickle U’s unique curriculum of humor and optimism prior to the block’s launch, says Cahn. ‘We bought what we thought were phenomenal shows that really fit into our philosophy. But beyond what we purchased…? Well, that’s why we have as many shows in development as we do.’

Five’s Wilson has also adopted a do-it-yourself strategy for serving his four- to seven-year-old viewers. Confronted with a serious dearth of live-action drama that appeals to younger kids, he tapped U.K. indie Red Eye Pictures to create The Secret of Eel Island (26 x 11 minutes), the story of a seven-year-old boy who befriends a young girl living by herself on a mysterious island in the broads of Norfolk. ‘I think it’s good, as children are coming out of preschool, to give them an intro to drama that’s easily palatable,’ Wilson says. But he goes on to warn that producers need to be mindful of the demo’s life experiences. With most four to seven programming, romantic elements simply won’t be relevant; but a quest-type story based on something exciting like a treasure hunt might be a lot more accessible.

Four to sevens are also now a focus for the CBC, which runs a five-hour preschool block each morning. Kim Wilson, deputy creative head of children’s and youth programming, says she’s after content with a bit of stretch to it for the channel’s before-school and lunchtime slots. And Clifford (Scholastic Entertainment) and Dragon Tales (Sesame Workshop) exemplify her need for shows that would appeal to four to sevens without frustrating their little brothers and sisters.

Wilson is actively hunting for partners to help fill in these gaps, and has jumped in on two new co-prouctions for next year with Pinky Dinky Doo (Sesame Workshop/

Cartoon Pizza) and Alliance Atlantis’s Lunar Jim. Still on her wishlist for this demo are boy-skewing series and a solid live-action arts-and-crafts show.

Developmental Milestones

Age four: This is the time when passion for creativity can be fuelled for a life-long love of the arts. Also, there is rapid progress in linguistic skills.

Physical: Can stand on tiptoe and run skillfully

Linguistic: Asks lots of What, When, Why and
How questions. Laughs at jokes and understands plays
on words. Can use language to negotiate.

Cognitive: Begins to understand some abstract ideas. Drawings include more detail, such as hands and fingers. Begins to communicate through pictures and symbols

Emotional and social: Can work out right from wrong. Becomes good conversationalist with adults and other children. Shows an interest in his own development, i.e. asking ‘What was my first toy?’

Age Five: Now is the time for a great burst of
interest in anything and everything.

Physical: Plays ball games with good coordination. Can dress herself.

Linguistic: Can engage in conversation with adults. Can pronounce most words of his mother tongue. Makes up riddles.

Cognitive: Can retell a favorite story. Exploring forms of communication such as writing and expression through music.* Can listen to an adult’s instructions without dropping what she is doing.

Emotional and social: Responds well to one-on-one relationships. Shows sympathy towards friends who are hurt. Can play cooperatively.

Age six: This is a period of great excitement as children are constantly on the go in terms of physical and
mental curiosity.

Physical: Can learn dance sequences. Learns to ride a two-wheel bike, usually with stabilizers. Can kick a football with force. Pencil control is well-developed.

Linguistic: Turn-taking rules in conversation are understood. Constructs accurate sentences using ‘would’ and ‘could.’ Can answer the phone maturely.

Cognitive: Weighs possibilities to make decisions. Can distinguish between fact and fantasy. Has fully integrated attention. Draws people using detail.

Emotional and social: Can consider the wishes of others. Distressed if friendships are disrupted. Can describe his own feelings. Enjoys cooperative games.

Age Seven: Huge leaps are made in mental prowess during this time, largely characterized by inquisitiveness and thoughtful
questioning.

Physical: Can hop with ease. Movements are precise and
controlled – can balance well. Ball-catching skills have improved. Shows good spatial awareness.

Linguistic: Jokes are complex. Has mastered most regularities and exceptions in language. Talks about everything and anything! Continual questioning diminishing.

Cognitive: Can do simple mental calculations. Produces short pieces of writing independently. Personal drawing style may be developing.

Emotional and social: Can be helpful, fair and forgiving. Play is elaborate. Peer group is influential.

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