Nighty night! – Kidcasters shaping evening schedules to reflect preschool bedtime rituals

With dedicated preschool channels striving to program around the ebb and flow of a toddler's daily life, several broadcasters in the space have identified a real opportunity to help parents deal with what is often the most contentious and, ironically, the most exhausting part of the day - bedtime. It's when cries of 'No! I don't wanna!' ring out around the world, and new bedtime blocks are helping to ease the struggle.
April 1, 2008

With dedicated preschool channels striving to program around the ebb and flow of a toddler’s daily life, several broadcasters in the space have identified a real opportunity to help parents deal with what is often the most contentious and, ironically, the most exhausting part of the day – bedtime. It’s when cries of ‘No! I don’t wanna!’ ring out around the world, and new bedtime blocks are helping to ease the struggle.

Notably, UK market leader CBeebies and US diginet PBS Kids Sprout have planted their flags firmly in the daypart. CBeebies, in fact, has achieved considerable success with its spring ’07 channel overhaul that put Ragdoll’s In the Night Garden at the center of a new Bedtime Hour block that runs from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Not only has the show been bringing in audiences of more than 300,000 an episode, but it has quickly become part of UK preschoolers’ nighttime routine, with thousands of them likely to be found these days clutching their Blanket Time Igglepiggle plush toy (based on the show’s lead character) as they toddle happily off to bed.

As this programming strategy continues to strike a chord with parents and kids on both sides of the pond, we thought it was time to take a look at how the blocks are structured, what’s working, and where there might be room for producers to step up with creative designed specifically to meet the needs of this daypart.

Art imitates life

It’s not surprising that the blocks are, by and large, constructed to mirror real-life bedtime routines, featuring series that emphasize storytelling, and songs and interstitials that highlight nightly rituals like teeth brushing and putting on PJs. CBeebies has been finding that parents use the block to let their kids know that it’s time to quiet down, says BBC Children’s head of scheduling, Philip Stagg. As opposed to programming shown during the rest of the day that deliberately seeks to get children talking, singing and dancing along, the last hour of CBeebies’ day features content that is slow, quiet and gentle. It also reinforces the routine with a song played every night at 6:57 p.m. that helps ease kids into the bedtime mindset.

CBeebies isn’t the only channel singing this tune in the UK. Turner’s Cartoonito, which evolved from a block to a full-fledged net in May 2007 and airs from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., has an end-of-day block from 5:15 p.m. to 7 p.m. that similarly features a wind-down song, showing close-ups of kids getting ready for bed. Programming in the block includes Fraggle Rock, Baby Looney Tunes and The Land Before Time.

Over at Nick Jr. – which also runs a song emphasizing the fun of the bedtime routine twice during its two-hour calm-down schedule before the channel signs off at 8 p.m. – programming that helps kids get ready for bed includes Little Bear, Max & Ruby, Maggie and the Ferocious Beast and Wobbly Land.

And in the US, PBS Kids Sprout has produced a structured bedtime block that runs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and then repeats from 9 p.m. to midnight for families in Western time zones. SVP of programming Andrew Beecham says that, like CBeebies, the channel aims to follow a day in the life of a child and thus created a hosted three-hour program called The Good Night Show in 2005. It stars a woman named Nina and several puppet characters, including a star-shaped pillow aptly called Star, who has the personality of a preschooler. Over the course of the three-hour block, Nina encourages Star to feel sleepy and drift off into dreamland. ‘Nina and Star aren’t just navigational devices; they lead bedtime routines such as playing gentle games, reading stories and singing lullabies to encourage kids to wind down,’ says Beecham.

Beecham has specifically selected shows for the block that run between five and 10 minutes long, such as Dragon Tales and Thomas & Friends. He says the shorter segments not only match a preschooler’s attention span, but they play into the constant negotiation to stay up a little longer. ‘Kids always want to watch one more show. So this way, Mom can say OK because she knows that they are only five or 10 minutes long,’ says Beecham.

Helping parents help kids

Along with becoming an integral part of their viewers’ daily rituals, these broadcasters are also striving to air and produce content that both helps and entertains parents. For example, CBeebies has a celebrity host from an adult-oriented BBC show visit the bedtime block and read stories every night for a week, which Stagg admits is designed to draw in parents. It also enables the net to run cross-promotions featuring voiceovers at the end of Beeb series such as Doctor Who announcing that one of its actors is headed over to CBeebies for the week.

Stagg plans to switch up the Bedtime Hour programming in the spring and has Charlie & Lola and 64 Zoo Lane on deck. Though preschoolers enjoy watching the same shows over and over again, and even revel in knowing what’s going to come next, the constant repetition for parents for months on end could lead them to switch channels. However, he also pays close attention to feedback and is willing to bring back shows for which there is high demand.

Sprout’s Beecham addresses this issue by constantly refreshing the interstitial-length hosted parts of The Good Night Show, including segments that showcase crafts kids have sent in. There are 52 completed episodes of The Good Night Show, and Beecham says that every month Sprout shoots new footage of Nina and Star talking about crafts to add to the episodes as well as the companion website.

Nick Jr. also actively draws parents into the channel by involving them in the storytelling ritual that is part of most toddlers’ bedtimes. ‘We know that parents use TV as a babysitter, so we’re trying to encourage parents and kids to watch together,’ says VP of programming Debbie MacDonald. In late 2006, for example, the channel launched ‘Once Upon a Bedtime,’ a contest that challenged parents to write their own original bedtime stories. A panel of judges, including well-known UK author Michael Rosen, picked the top three stories and commissioned them as animated specials that are still on-air. The winning writers also won a creative writing weekend workshop and a cash prize. With more than 8,000 entries from keen parents, the initiative garnered so much interest and publicity that MacDonald says there are plans afoot to mount a similar promo to coincide with the UK’s National Year of Reading this year.

Moreover, parents are approaching the content as an ally in what can be a nightly struggle. ‘We’re seeing a surge in bedtime programming because Mom wants and needs it, and advertisers [on commercial nets] are going to pay for it,’ says Gary Pope, a partner at Kids Industries, a UK-based research and marketing company. KI recently helped create branded content for Cartoonito’s bedtime schedule to launch a new Aquafresh toothpaste intended for kids under 10. The 90-second spot that’s been airing since November focuses on a set of characters called Nurdles that are essentially squirts of toothpaste come to life. And at 6:58 p.m. every evening on Cartoonito, the Nurdles show kid viewers how to brush their teeth.

‘We’ve done a lot of research in the area of brushing teeth, and it’s become known as the bathroom battle,’ says Pope. In previous research he’s conducted, 86% of parents agreed that characters can help kids develop self-efficacy around environmental issues, hygiene and citizenship. He says the prompt from these characters going through this pivotal element of bedtime preparation on TV encourages kids to brush their teeth and talk about the Nurdles with their parents as they do so. Though the segment is branded, Pope says the focus remains on brushing teeth and bedtime in general, with a call-out for Aquafresh appearing only at the very end.

Night life

Taking what moms want to heart, Sprout is continuing to conduct market research and test the block through focus groups and consultations with curriculum experts. However, admits Beecham, the challenge now is to find programming that matches exactly what Sprout is trying to do with the block. He hasn’t seen anything on the market circuit in the last year that satisfies his desire for that perfect nighttime show. Beecham would love to find content that better reflects the nature of the blocks, although he says he doesn’t have a commissioning budget to work with yet for such efforts.

Stagg says CBeebies will also be keeping an eye open for restful programs that encourage a mood of peacefulness and manage to incorporate a bit of humor to fit specifically into that zone. He says the gentle, imaginative world of In the Night Garden and its strong, dynamic cast of characters, in particular, are what keep kids engrossed for its full 28-minute duration, which is quite long by preschool standards. Though CBeebies uses an in-house producer to ensure that series being created for it are up to snuff, Stagg says Ragdoll’s previous track record with Teletubbies freed the 100 commissioned eps from much interference from the broadcaster.

Though Stagg doesn’t like to see pitches that copycat already successful shows, he says the basic principles of gentle, calming storytelling are good to keep in mind when developing and pitching a show that can work well for bedtime.

That said, it’s unlikely that this bedtime scheduling bonanza is going to lead to a similar boost in commissions of programming built around the theme. Stagg notes that pitching with specific time slots in mind can be a double-edged sword for producers. Though pitches always need to target the singular needs of a given broadcaster, he’s still more likely to pick up shows that can work in any daypart so he’s not limited to only ever showing it in the one slot. Stagg also admits that budgeting plays a role, and shows that can do double duty in multiple slots are always attractive.

For as much as it fits the gentle story-led bedtime ethos, In the Night Garden also airs during the morning and in the early afternoon on CBeebies. In fact, Ragdoll’s commercial director, Mark Hollingsworth, says the series wasn’t designed specifically for bedtime slots, but rather as an international program that could play into any part of a kidcaster’s schedule. Creators Anne Wood and Andrew Davenport add that the dreamlike picture-book environment is a universally intriguing world between waking and sleeping, designed to make one- to four-year-olds feel secure, while at the same time reinforcing counting and shape recognition skills.

While Hollingsworth agrees that the increase of extended preschool hours on US channels like Noggin could create an opportunity for bedtime-specific programming, he warns that producers will limit their audience and market dramatically by saying that a show only works at a certain time.

For her part, Cecilia Persson, VP of programming acquisitions and presentation for Turner Broadcasting System Europe, says she wants shows for Cartoonito’s evening block that slow down the pace, but they don’t necessarily have to be bedtime-themed. She points out that Amblin Entertainment’s The Land Before Time, a 26-episode series about the journey of an orphaned dinosaur, does well on the block because it’s about storytelling and friendship and encourages kids to sit calmly and watch the tale unfold.

That being said, Persson does tailor acquisitions. In the case of Monster Animation’s 2-D animated toon Fluffy Gardens (52 x five minutes), which also airs twice in the morning, Persson cherrypicks episodes that fit with the quiet, narrative-led MO of the bedtime block. (An episode in which character Tooty the elephant runs a race was deemed a bit too active, but a more passive story about Floella the fruit bat’s shopping trip did make the bedtime cut.)

And Cartoonito’s scheduling tactic has given Fluffy Gardens creator Jason Tammemagi some ideas on how to expand the concept. He has tentative plans to create shorter bedtime-themed episodes that will be even more dulcet and relaxed, with each one ending when the characters switch off the lights and go to bed. However, Tammemagi hasn’t gotten a lot of traction on this plan thus far. ‘It’s something that I’m interested in,’ he says. ‘But it seems like there aren’t enough bedtime slots at the moment to get it off the ground.’

However, Ragdoll’s Hollingsworth says there could also be more opportunity for bedtime programing in the flourishing VOD market. ‘Producers could look at being more targeted on VOD because bedtimes are so different for kids of different ages and in different time zones,’ he explains.

Sprout has created exclusive bedtime programming in-house to add to its VOD service that has racked up more than 380 million downloads since 2005. The channel recently launched a half-hour VOD segment that shows nothing but Nina and her puppet sidekicks sleeping soundly. The episode first ran on the linear channel for 11 hours on Christmas Eve, which Beecham jokingly refers to as Sprout’s version of the yuletide log.

‘We encourage parents to watch the show on linear television, and when it’s time to go to bed, they can quickly go to the on-demand part of our service and show their kids that Nina and all the characters are asleep, so it’s time for them to go to sleep, too,’ he says.

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