Comcast/NBC Universal has done it again. Just a year ago, in our May/June print issue, I pondered what the impact of the conglomerate’s US$3.8-billion purchase of DreamWorks Animation might be on the kids entertainment business, specifically in terms of consumer products. My conclusion? While the combined footprint would be substantially bigger than its component parts, it was still no match for Disney—inarguably the largest kids and family entertainment business in the world. And with the May 1 announcement that NBCU preschool net Sprout would be morphing into Universal Kids for the two to 11 set in September, the media giant has revealed it’s not backing off its stated ambition to become a kids and family powerhouse.
From what little we know about the new channel, it’s an interesting proposition in an already crowded kids TV marketplace. Sprout will become a 15-hour block within the channel, which will switch to older kids programming at 6 p.m. Naturally, series from the DWA library like All Hail King Julien and DreamWorks Dragons: Riders of Berk will become part of the lineup. But so will live-action formats such as Top Chef Junior, and acclaimed international programming like Nowhere Boys, Hank Zipzer and The Next Step, which has received little airtime in the US. It’s a smart move that will differentiate Universal Kids’ lineup from the competition, but will it be enough to make inroads with US kids?
As I see it, Universal Kids is facing a few obstacles beyond the ones with which the entire industry is grappling (i.e. kids’ penchant for watching what they want, when and where they want, with little use for scheduled programming). The biggest one is audience penetration and reach. Part of Sprout’s struggle to reach a critical mass that would drive consumer products programs was/is that it has never exceeded cable carriage beyond 60 million US homes. (In fact, I’ve had a few people in the licensing business tell me that the big retailers won’t even look at non-toyco-owned preschool properties on Sprout—the channel’s Super Wings may be the exception—as they’re not convinced the channel can drive sales. It’s Nickelodeon/Jr. or Disney Junior or nothing, not even Netflix.) By comparison, Cartoon Network, Disney and Nickelodeon are all sitting around the 94 million mark, or 80.6% of US households. (Disney Junior is in 75 million.) And being owned by cable giant Comcast is not going to help Universal Kids up those numbers. The US cable industry is very competitive, and the companies in it are usually reluctant to, er, help each other out.
I’m not sure what Comcast will have to do to get its competitors to pick up this channel. Then again, Sprout was an industry leader in the format that most kids now know and love—VOD. While I am not privy to the channel’s plans, I can only assume it will further capitalize on that strength, along with instituting a robust off-channel digital strategy, which is crucial for any network now. It would not surprise me if Universal Kids also made a play for its own SVOD (although untangling the DWA library from the historic 300-hour output deal with Netflix may take awhile). Will we have to wait another year to find out? Did I mention that, like Inigo Montoya, I hate waiting?