JOSH: Hello, Andy. May I call you Andy?
ANDREW: Well, actually I’m not a big fan of Andy – I’ll answer to most things but Andy’s always sent shivers up my spine even though my mum still insists on calling me that…hmm, maybe that’s the reason!
JOSH: I apologize. And I don’t want you to confuse me with your mum. So, Andrew, for our international readers, what exactly is Sprout?
ANDREW: Sprout’s the first 24/7 preschool linear TV network in the US and is a partnership between Comcast, HiT Entertainment, Sesame Workshop and PBS. We also have an unbelievably successful VOD platform (over 600 million orders since launch), companion online site (sproutonline.com), iPhone applications, podcasts, facebook pages, etc., etc…
JOSH: That’s an amazing number of VOD orders. (Just to put it in context, that’s two VOD orders for every man, woman and child in the US!) And what exactly is your job at Sprout?
ANDREW: Official title is SVP Programming, which means I look after the programming strategy, creative services, original production, on-air branding and scheduling, acquisitions and network services.
JOSH: After spending an afternoon with you, it became very clear to me that you’re a very happy person and you love your job. What do you love most about it?
ANDREW: There’s something very special about Sprout, I think it’s a combination of the brand, the staff, the can-do attitude and not being afraid to take risks. I have a tremendous boss in Sandy (Wax) who’s supported me through what may have seemed like crazy ideas at the time…like creating the first live preschool show, deconstructing the half-hour formats and scheduling off the clock. We also don’t have to pass ideas through endless committees before making it to air which means fresher content and way less time to see the fruits of your labor.
JOSH: And just to be fair, what do you like the least about it?
ANDREW: Well, budgets are always an issue, however I’m a firm believer in character and storytelling; we’ve embraced cardboard like no other network and Sprout’s Preschool Musical on a Stick! was low-budget in the extreme but one of our most successful stunts.
JOSH: After visiting Sprout’s beautiful offices in Philadelphia, I was most impressed by the positive energy and enthusiasm of your staff. Everyone seemed to be on the same creative mission. What’s your secret?
ANDREW: I think everyone understands and embraces our unique programming strategy, they hear from our viewers that what we do makes a big difference in family lives and we’re all passionate about delivering a service that kids love and parents can turn to whatever time of the day or night they need us. There’s also something special about being like the little engine that could and I hope this is obvious from the creative work that appears on screen every day. Finally, we try very hard to understand our audience…we have kids’ art work, birthday cards and pictures all over the walls and we’ve recently introduced what we call “Inspiration Outings” where we offer staff the chance to visit preschools, daycare centers, museums and any other places where kids and families spend time together.
JOSH: I love the idea of “Inspiration Outings.” I may just borrow it for Little Airplane. I was also amazed by the fact that you have a studio on site and produce original content for Sprout right in your building. Tell us about your studio and what goes on there?
ANDREW: I absolutely love our studio…it’s the size of a postage stamp (12 ft. square) but every Monday-Friday we’re broadcasting live from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. with a host and Chica the Chicken. We create around 40 minutes of unique content every day and I’m incredibly proud of the quality of the material we generate. The show’s called The Sunny Side Up Show and we’ve designed it to be a really interactive experience; we celebrate birthdays by showing homemade cards and we actively involve kids in our weekly themes. Our most popular activity is a game we play called Dress Chica where we send kids and their parents to the website (sproutonline.com) where they dress Chica in outfits to match our weekly theme. Then, live in the studio, Chica picks one outfit and dresses up in it…very simple, yet very effective – in fact we receive around 10,000 cards, uploads and Dress Chicas every week. The way we create the show is also pretty special: We have three hosts and three Assistant Producers all working a three-week pattern. Week one, host and AP develop ideas, props and costumes for their on-air week, they also pitch their ideas to our Curriculum Consultant and Producer. Week two, the host is on-air and the AP is the puppeteer for Chica (One of the reasons that she squeaks and doesn’t talk!). Week three, the host takes the week off and the AP directs the next team’s on-air week.
JOSH: I can imagine that kind of ensemble approach would be very inspiring for your staff. (I may borrow that, too.) I know that Sprout has been growing faster than Jack’s beanstalk. What are the numbers, and don’t be modest. You’ve earned it.
ANDREW: How about to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas” then…
JOSH: Okay, I’ll hum along.
Oh the numbers for Sprout have been really quite good,
And I’m pleased to share them with you.
VOD’s off the chart, every single month we grow
Half a billion views
18 million a month
47 million US homes! (That’s the five gold rings bit)
No. 1 in Q Scores
30% jump in linear this year alone
And a chicken called Chica to boot!
JOSH: Very catchy! It’s clear to me that you’re succeeding in building a direct relationship between your hosts/presenters and the families who watch Sprout. Tell us about this philosophy. Where did it come from?
ANDREW: When I moved from the UK it struck me that although there was great and compelling preschool content available, no channel was really providing a real destination for kids and families. Combine that with the challenge of a programming library that, at the time, had no exclusive content, led us to come up with the solution of a programming strategy that follows the day in the life of a preschooler. We divide the schedule into 3-hour blocks which mirror the energy and routines that preschoolers follow at home. I’m really excited at the moment since on August 24th we’ll be launching a brand new breakfast block hosted by our good friends The Wiggles which will feature lots of energetic music and movement, just right for kids when they wake up. From 9am-12pm we have our live Sunny Side Up Show, then from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. it’s time for The Sharing Show where we encourage families to share simple moments that their kids have achieved, like tying their first shoelace, swimming or riding a bike. From 6pm-9pm it’s time to help parents wind down their kids with The Good Night Show, our signature block, where Nina and her puppet friend, Star, sing songs, tell stories and do simple crafts. One of my favorite things about The Good Night Show is how we’ve created a half hour sequence of all our characters just sleeping, nothing else – we run this on VOD and encourage parents to switch from The Good Night Show to VOD and show that.
“Nina’s asleep, Elmo’s asleep, Barney’s asleep…isn’t it time you went to bed, too!”
Incidentally, we also run this on Christmas Eve as an uninterrupted 12-hour Snoozathon on the linear channel, it’s our preschool version of the famous Yule Log!
JOSH: I can see the appeal. Barney has been putting me to sleep for years. Now, many people are confused about the relationship between Sprout and its owners: PBS, Sesame Workshop, HiT Entertainment and Comcast. Can you tell us a bit about how this relationship works?
ANDREW: We’re extremely lucky to have strong owners, each of whom bring different things to the table. In Comcast we have a great technology and distribution partner and HiT, Sesame and PBS provide us with the majority of our content.
JOSH: Do you pick shows independently of Sprout’s owners or is there some type of committee?
ANDREW: Sprout’s responsible for program acquisitions, however, there’s a certain amount of each partner’s programming that makes up our schedule.
JOSH: Quite a few companies have tried and failed to create new preschool blocks or channels in the past few years. You are clearly succeeding. Besides your winning smile, what are some of the key factors that you feel have led to your success?
ANDREW: I think our strength is our strategy of harnessing the power of incredible series like Sesame Street, Barney and Caillou combined with creating strong branded blocks and a real and direct relationship between linear, VOD and online. The power of the block means that shows may come and go but the consistency that comes with hosts and an overarching brand helps us manage the switches and eases kids into different programming. Most channels offer VOD content that is a direct pull from their linear service, I believe we’re the only channel that offers an alternative strategy that works in tandem with the linear schedule.
JOSH: You mentioned over lunch that in the coming years Sprout will be commissioning original programs. Can you tell us more about that?
ANDREW: Of course, we already create short-form originals with our blocks and interstitials but it’s no secret that we have big ambitions. We’ve come in to a crowded marketplace and made an impact in a very short amount of time. I’ve a lot of ideas that I’d love to pursue but the timing has to be right. At the moment we’re concentrating on distribution and building our brand.
JOSH: Do you encourage independent producers to bring you show ideas? If so, what is the way you prefer that they approach Sprout?
ANDREW: I’m always happy to look at show ideas and take pitches initially through email (email@example.com), however, don’t come to us yet if you’re expecting us to fund or co-produce shows. What we lack in budget we absolutely make up for in terms of visibility on the network and the love we show to all our characters. Our stunt strategy is the best in the business and we work hard and well with our content providers.
JOSH: In Sting’s song, “An Englishman in New York,” he sings about how he prefers “his toast done on one side.” What are the biggest challenges for you as an Englishman in Philadelphia?
ANDREW: My biggest challenge is trying to persuade my eldest daughter to maintain her British accent, I think the line that she’ll be the cutest one in high school is doing the trick at the moment but I’m not sure for how much longer. Philadelphia’s a really interesting city and I’m happy and grateful to make it my home, also, if you haven’t seen the new Comcast tower where Sprout’s based you’re missing something pretty unique. I’m now also able to give tourists directions to Pat and Tony’s Cheesesteaks and that bell with the crack in it.
JOSH: Yes, I know the one. It’s called Taco Bell.
Thank you, Andrew, you’re an executive and a gentleman.
I encourage you to share your thoughts and observations on Sprout and its unique approach to programming and VOD.