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PBS’ preschool network blossoms

The States' first 24-hour preschool net is jazzing up its sked with themed blocks, in-house-hatched interstitials and promotional stunts as it prepares for its first anniversary this September. Launched as a collaborative effort between PBS, Comcast, HIT Entertainment and Sesame Workshop, PBS Kids Sprout now has the potential to reach 20 million households through satellite and digital cable, and its VOD service that went live last April has since racked up more than 80 million views.
June 1, 2006

The States’ first 24-hour preschool net is jazzing up its sked with themed blocks, in-house-hatched interstitials and promotional stunts as it prepares for its first anniversary this September. Launched as a collaborative effort between PBS, Comcast, HIT Entertainment and Sesame Workshop, PBS Kids Sprout now has the potential to reach 20 million households through satellite and digital cable, and its VOD service that went live last April has since racked up more than 80 million views.

While Sprout’s slate is primarily made up of series from its partners, including HIT’s Bob the Builder and Sesame Street from The Workshop, senior VP of programming Andrew Beecham is looking to shake things up with original productions. The Sprout library consists of nearly 30 series produced by the three partners, but Beecham says that there is always room for more. Although long-form series are not a priority, he is looking for new content to serve as companion shows to current programming, so producers looking to pitch him should emphasize how their series will complement the Sprout sked.

As 2007 approaches, Beecham is aiming to build on Sprout’s slate of short-form programming, and his main priority is finding original fare that’s well-suited to a multi-platform approach.

To fill the gap, live-action or animated series ideas should be no longer than five minutes per ep and targeted at boys and girls between two- and five-years-old. Cross-platform rights must also be available. In terms of curriculum, Beecham is seeking out general themes relevant to preschool kids, such as safety, exercise and nutrition.

As for what he’s specifically got his heart set on, Beecham isn’t picky about gender demos. The current viewer boy/girl split is unclear due to the absence of Nielsen ratings, but he says it’s not a huge concern for preschool programming, anyway – and neither is the split between animation and live action. Prospective pitchers need to obtain a submission-release letter from his assistant Maria Weglarz first, and bibles will only be accepted once the letter has been returned. ‘No e-mail, phone calls or carrier pigeons please,’ Beecham notes. Pitchers that make it past this stage should send series bibles with curriculum and educational consultants lined up, as well as detailed episode synopses.

In-house production is another priority for the diginet. The live-action segments that frame the episodes featured in Sprout’s Goodnight Show evening block have recently been completed, and are slated for broadcast in July. Running every night from six to nine, the block features a live host and her puppet sidekick and aims to help parents get preschoolers ready for bed. The host encourages kids to perform bedtime activities such as washing their faces and brushing their teeth, and Sprout’s creative team cherry picks episodes from its current slate that fit the sleepy theme.

Interstitial series are also in the offing. Production is underway for an educational series called The Many Adventures of Mr. Mailman, which aims to teach kids about communication and U.S. geography. Mr. Mailman is a wooden figure who uses an old-fashioned puppet theatre as his set and delivers mail across the States. The character originated from Sprout’s Birthday Block, a segment that airs around a dozen times a day, where a live host reads kids birthday cards on air. Other interstitials are in production, but Beecham’s not ready to divulge details.

The new digital media landscape has certainly become part and parcel of Beecham’s interstitial development plans. ‘Finding clever ways to use our different platforms I think is absolutely key,’ Beecham says, adding the new content is being tailored to live in different ways on the linear network, VOD and the web.

The newbie net will close the year with the addition of a few new short-form programs, including PBS’s Jakers! in September, as well as mounting some live-hosted promo stunts for Grandparents’ Day and its first anniversary. ‘We can do a lot of stunting that other networks are unable to do,’ Beecham says. ‘If there’s a theme, there’s a stunt for it.’

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