When Shane Grant leaves her 3-year-old, Andrew, alone in front of the TV set in the morning, the Buffalo, N.Y., mom hears him pat the ground and call out Italian musical terms: Adagio! Accelerando! Allegro!
What has her tot sounding like a music aficionado is Disney Channel’s Little Einsteins, one of the hottest preschool shows on TV. After its multicultural cast of four kids and their trusty rocket ship starred in a best-selling DVD last summer, they debuted on TV last fall in a half-hour animated adventure series set to classical music, earning the highest-ever ratings for any of the network’s Playhouse Disney preschool shows, and now a second-season pickup.
These cute little characters regularly trounce their competition at 8 a.m. ET—Noggin’s Blue’s Clues and Cartoon Network’s The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy—and have some parents gushing that they’ve turned their tots into prodigies.
“Andrew’s just riveted by it,” says Grant. “He thinks about the show even when he’s not watching it.”
Disney’s bet on Little Einsteins reflects one of kids programmers’ highest hopes these days: Hook ’em early and keep them loyal as they grow. The TV series is the second act of the country’s most popular line of infant DVDs, Baby Einstein. Today, two out of every three mothers in the U.S. own a Baby Einstein product, and Disney executives project that the brand and its extensions will bring in $1 billion annually by 2010.
Each of the Baby Einstein videos and DVDs is set to soft classical music, designed to “expose little ones” up to 2 years old to music, art and language through puppetry and film of real kids. With titles including Baby Mozart Musical Festival and Baby Van Gogh World of Colors, Einstein gained popularity with parents enchanted that their infants were mesmerized by symphonies.
After spinning off Baby Einstein into some 500 consumer products from bath puppets to dessert plates, Disney is now putting its corporate muscle into making Little Einsteins a bankable phenomenon on television, using the same type of classical music and art to reach 2- to 5-year-olds and convince moms that TV can be good for kids.
Disney has tripled the number of Baby Einstein video and DVD titles to 21 and sold more than 20 million units. To date, the Baby Einstein brand, stamped on books and products in 30 countries, has brought in more than $500 million.
Disney hopes that Little Einsteins will command a chunk of the estimated $20 billion in annual worldwide retail sales of licensed products for preschoolers.
The show is set to debut later this year in France, India and Taiwan. The company plans to spin off a volcano of consumer products: books, music and theme-park attractions this spring and a bigger line of consumer products in 2007.
But major roadblocks lie ahead for Little Einsteins. Competition has never been more cutthroat in the preschool TV market. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and new digital channels such as PBS Kids Sprout are all trying to capture the 2- to 5-year-old audience—and parents’ wallets.
Nickelodeon programs the two top-rated preschool shows, Dora the Explorer and its spinoff Go, Diego Go!. Both premiered to higher ratings than Little Einsteins, (an 11.2 and 6.5 rating, respectively, in the demo, versus a 5.6), and Dora generally averages double the preschool audience of Little Einsteins. A show set to debut next month in the Nick Jr. preschool block and its digital spinoff network, Noggin, is similar in theme: The Wonder Pets! is a “photo-puppetry animation” in which a crew of animals travels the world to orchestrated original music.
As the industry grows, experts question the TV set as a teaching tool. Pediatricians recommend that children over age 2 should be limited to “high-quality educational media,” but there are no government standards defining “high quality” and “educational.” While many preschool-TV providers conduct formative research on their programming, it is concentrated on production needs: to make sure kids are entertained by the programs. Few do scientific quantitative long-term (read: expensive) research on how much their shows educationally affect their young viewers.
“The industry, when pressed, acknowledges they have no proof these products do what they say they do,” says Dimitri Christakis, a researcher at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle and the senior author of “A Teacher in the Living Room,” a study on educational media for babies, toddlers and preschoolers released in December by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. “It’s important for parents to know. We have metrics to determine whether kids learn math or science or reading.”
Children’s-TV companies often employ educational experts for marketing purposes, says Christakis. In the absence of formal standards, the only resource parents have in determining what constitutes “high-quality” entertainment is their own experiences and the company materials. “What they’re really interested in is sales,” Christakis says of children’s-TV networks. “Their own marketing is very effective, and products are selling. McDonald’s sells a lot of hamburgers; it doesn’t mean it’s good for us to eat.”
The Baby Einstein brand was born in a basement in Atlanta in 1997. Julie Aigner-Clark, a new mother and former teacher, grew disappointed with the lack of arts-based programming for babies. She filmed a crude puppet and cartoon show to fill the hole with a little help from her husband, who had just sold his own kid-targeted science company to Cox Communications. In four years, the couple shot eight Baby Einstein videos.
“I was trying to woo the Clarks by telling them nobody could really develop the property like we could,” says Russell Hampton, the Disney executive who in November 2001, after two years of dogged pursuit, sealed the deal for Disney to buy the company for $25 million. Now general manager of The Baby Einstein Co., he oversees all of Disney’s baby products worldwide, often packing Baby Einstein products in his carry-on bag on business trips to entertain potential consumers.
In 2002, responding to parents’ pleas for a series for kids who had outgrown the Baby Einstein DVDs, Disney recruited a dream team of executives to craft an Einstein-branded show for TV. With Clark taking a back seat as a creative consultant, Nancy Kantor, Disney Channel senior VP of original programming tapped Eric Weiner, a two-time Emmy nominee, as executive producer. Weiner had been a co-creator and head writer on Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer. A producer at mixed- media animation studio Curious Pictures, he also worked on Disney’s preschool series JoJo’s Circus.
Weiner crafted linear stories and sent the characters traveling around the world on missions. He set each episode to classical music, encouraging kids to interact with the program by singing, clapping to a beat, and solving musical and visual riddles. Clark consulted early on and offered a key piece of advice: Keep things light.
PEDIATRICIANS: NO TV BEFORE AGE 2
“We want the series to be educational, but most of all we want it to be a fun, engaging adventure,” Weiner says. The ensemble cast of characters—redheaded leader Leo, his blond sister Annie, and their neighbors, African-American Quincy and Asian-American June—broke the one-hero mold set by previous preschool shows. Flying them to real locations like the Sydney Opera House and through paintings like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Weiner and his team raised the bar of how much preschoolers could digest. After conducting focus groups at 100 preschools, he saw that even kids who had no music training could understand the show.
While a name like “Little Einsteins” implies brain-boosting power, Disney has gone to great lengths not to overstate the show’s educational benefit. There are no published studies on the cognitive effects of any educational videos currently on the market for children under age 6. Plus, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies under age 2 should not watch any TV. Children over age 2, the group suggests, should watch no more than two hours a day of high-quality educational media.
“The edutainment industry has emphasized the 'tainment’ part more than the 'edu’ part,” says Christakis.
Since its inception, Little Einsteins has employed Valeria Lovelace, a former advisor to Sesame Street and Dora as curriculum advisor. Disney and Curious Pictures test each episode throughout its development, and the show promises nothing other than that it will get toddlers listening, thinking, answering and moving through music, interactivity, and missions and adventures, says Gary Marsh, president, entertainment, Disney Channel Worldwide.
“It sparks preschoolers’ imaginations and sends them on the journey of discovering more information, whether it’s about music or nature or art or the things that are in the particular context of a mission of a show,” he says. “To me, the core attribute of both Baby and Little Einsteins is curiosity and exploration of new things.”
Even without governmental regulation, preschool-content providers take responsibility for making their programs educational as well as entertaining, says Sandy Wax, president of PBS Kids Sprout. The new preschool VOD and linear network from PBS, Comcast, HIT Entertainment and Sesame Workshop launched last year to directly compete for toddlers’ attention. They “can’t be bought,” says Wax, a Disney staffer for seven years, who helped research Little Einsteins.
Co-viewing by parents and kids is crucial to a program’s success. “The purple dinosaur is a lovely creature, but when you hear 'I love you, you love me’ a thousand times…,” says Disney’s Marsh, explaining why Barney has fallen off parents’ radar in recent years. “You can listen to a Brahms concerto or a Mozart symphony many times over, and you’re still engaged by it.”
EINSTEINS ATTACK PLAN
Researcher Christakis calls Little Einsteins a “reasonable-quality program,” with age-appropriate features that include slow pacing, a coherent story, adequate repetition to reinforce learning, and opportunities to interact.
Disney premiered Little Einsteins on DVD, a format with which Baby Einstein fans were already familiar. The hour-long movie, Little Einsteins: Our [Big] Huge Adventure, also gave Disney more time to introduce Little’s cast. Disney laid out its most aggressive marketing plan for a preschool property, tacking a sneak preview of the show onto Baby Einstein videos and teasing a clip on its February 2005 feature film Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. After an August launch, the DVD soon became a bestseller, with 750,000 projected to be sold in its first year.
With 12 animators at Curious Pictures working up to nine months to complete each episode, Little Einsteins debuted with a prime time special in October to the highest preschool rating of any premiere in the history of Disney’s Playhouse Disney block: a 5.6 rating and 737,000 viewers 2-5. Since then, it has averaged a 4.3 and 519,000 viewers in the demo.
Although Disney executives predict Baby Einstein and Little Einsteins will log $1 billion combined in annual retail sales by 2010, it still has a lot more ground to cover. By comparison, Nickelodeon’s Dora, which premiered in August 2000, has brought in $3.6 billion in retail sales from 27 videos and DVDs and assorted merchandise. It averages a 7.36 rating and 908,000 viewers 2-5.
But even ratings success won’t guarantee success for Little Einsteins. In its 26-year history, Nick claims only four “home-run” properties that have transcended high ratings to achieve successful consumer products sales, says Cyma Zarghami, head of MTV Networks’ Kids and Family Group: Dora, Blue’s Clues, SpongeBob SquarePants and Rugrats.
Nick’s program Hey Arnold!, was a runaway hit on television, but viewers weren’t interested in its consumer products. “Honestly, we couldn’t sell a T-shirt,” Zarghami says. “What you want to watch and what you want to wear are not necessarily the same.”