In the highly competitive preschool space, where global demand for cross-platform content that entertains and educates continues to grow, kidcasters are increasingly looking at new concepts that best reflect the changing needs of today’s early learners and their parents.
For Nickelodeon, which has maintained a legacy of delivering high-quality preschool shows (Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer) driven by engaging characters, stories and interactivity, its 2014/15 season is notably significant.
It marks Nick’s biggest ever in terms new content production across multiple platforms, demos and genres. And the kidsnet is zeroing in on its youngest viewers with particular vigor. Stateside, more than 100 episode premieres are lined up for the channel’s preschool block, from a bevy of brand-new animated series including Wallykazam!, Dora spin-off Dora and Friends: Into the City!, Blaze and the Monster Machines, Shimmer & Shine and Fresh Beat Band of Spies. (Also on-deck are a whack of new eps from current preschool series such as PAW Patrol, Bubble Guppies, Dora the Explorer, Peter Rabbit and Team Umizoomi.)
“Two years ago we made a decision to increase our pipeline by developing and producing more content than ever before, and now we are seeing the fruits of our labor,” says Teri Weiss, EVP of production and development for Nickelodeon Preschool. “With every market, there is more content and stronger worldwide competition than ever, especially in the preschool space. So it’s crucial that we cut through the clutter and remain best-in-show for kids content.”
A big reason for Nickelodeon’s success with preschoolers is its ongoing commitment to research and curriculum diversification. Among its new shows, Wallykazam! is Nick’s first literacy-themed series. Blaze and the Monster Machines is billed as the first preschool show dedicated to all aspects of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Dora and Friends: Into the City!, meanwhile, examines social-emotional skills like community service and peer relationships. Shimmer & Shine stresses learning from mistakes in its emotional-intelligence curriculum, while Fresh Beat Band of Spies teaches problem-solving.
“What we bring is the strength of our characters and storytelling, combined with a really unique way to approach the curriculum of each show, and integrate it in a way that feels very organic. This is our domestic and global challenge,” says Weiss.
She points to Wallykazam! and Blaze and the Monster Machines as great examples of how Nick is integrating curriculum in new ways. For both series, in fact, Nickelodeon took its usual storybook episode-testing and curriculum consultations a step further.
“In addition to educational consultants, we started to integrate preschool and kindergarten teachers into our collective group for feedback, which was tremendously helpful. They could really identify what kids are struggling with and the things they are interested in/responding to,” says Weiss.
To ensure STEM concepts in Blaze would resonate with its youngest audience, for example, Weiss says Nick paid special attention to visual and musical cues. “When you talk about force, adhesion and inertia, they can be very heady concepts. But because we have the ability to demonstrate them visually by showing vehicle impact, or the way car suspension works, it helps get the difficult concepts across more easily,” she says. The use of catchy songs is also a good method to help kids define scientific terms, she adds. “If kids can recite the songs in their heads, the science will stick. Repeat viewing is really important, too.”
So far, Nick’s 2014/15 programming strategy for preschool is paying off. As of April, its preschool block’s year-to-date average sat at 4.9 for kids ages two to five on US television—an 11% increase versus the same period a year ago, according to Nielsen ratings.
PAW Patrol and Wallykazam! also filled the number- one and two spots, respectfully, as the top-rated preschool shows for kids ages two to five on all US cable TV for the same period.
As new shows continue to roll out (Dora and Friends in late summer, Blaze this fall, Shimmer & Shine and Fresh Beat Band of Spies in 2015), Weiss says the future is bright for Nick’s preschool production, noting the importance of cultivating talent internally and identifying new talent outside the network through its Nick Jr. animated shorts program.
“Our success rate for developing preschool series out of our shorts program has been terrific, and we’ll soon be able to showcase shorts on the Nick Jr. App, giving us another great opportunity to expose talent,” says Weiss.
The Nick Jr. App, originally slated to launch in the US this spring, is now expected to debut this fall, according to Nickelodeon’s SVP of digital Matthew Evans. “It gives us a better opportunity to launch with our upcoming new shows like Dora and Friends,” he says. “And it gives us extra time to ensure we will have double the amount of interactive activities and more original content. It will ultimately be a stronger experience for our audience and better reinforce our focus on curriculum.”