It's just two years old and PBS Kids Sprout, the 24/7 pre-schoolers' network spawned by PBS, Comcast, Sesame Workshop and HIT Entertainment, may be one of fastest growing cable networks in history. PBS Kids Sprout, targeted at kids 2 to 5 years old, is designed to work on three platforms that support and supplement each other: the linear channel carried on digital cable tiers; a video-on-demand (VOD) service; and a robust—and recently relaunched—Website at www.sproutonline.com.
The partners first launched PBS Kids Sprout' VOD offering in April 2005. Video-on-demand is a perfect service for this young audience because they love to watch their favorite shows—Barney, Angelina Ballerina and Bob the Builder, among others—many times in a row.
In the past two years, the service has served up some 280 million videos, according to VOD tracking service Rentrak Corp. Sprout President Sandy Wax thinks that number may be even higher. “When kids want to see Thomas the Tank Engine, they want to see him over and over again,” says Wax. “With Comcast, if a child watches a show 10 times in a 24-hour period, that only counts as once. But pre-schoolers love repetition. They get a sense of mastery when they know something is going to happen.”
In September 2005, Sprout launched as a digital linear channel, now in 35 million homes. “Distribution is the key to any cable business. If Sprout isn't the fastest-growing channel in cable history, it's among the top five,” says Comcast Programming President Jeff Shell.
The linear channel closely tracks a pre-schooler's day through programming divided into dayparts. “Pre-schoolers are not spending their whole day in school yet,” says Wax. And each three-hour block is hosted by an adult or a character. “Our human hosts are talking directly to each child as they watch from home,” says Andrew Beecham, senior vice president of programming. “They aren't there as teachers or educators. They are there as friends, companions and guides.”
PBS Kids Sprout divides shows into tiny segments. “We know that six, seven or eight minutes were pretty much the tops that a regular 4-year-old can take in one viewing,” says Beecham. “So we deconstructed the half-hour format by chopping our regular shows into narrative elements. Thomas the Tank Engine on the linear channel is only a five-minute show.” Kids who crave more can use the VOD service.
The channel is currently focused on the launch of The Sunny Side Up Show, its first live morning show for kids, which kicked off Sept. 26, the network's second birthday. “The Sunny Side Up Show really pushes interactivity in a new direction,” says Wax. “We're really trying to connect TV with our online environment.”
Early mornings are crazy for kids and parents, so Musical Mornings airs then, starting at 6 a.m. The block features Coo, a first-of-its-kind animated cuckoo bird produced by The Jim Henson Co.
That show wakes kids up. In the afternoons, it's The Let's Go Show, with Miles and puppy puppet Bandit. At night the channel quiets kids down with The Good Night Show, hosted by Nina and her puppet, Star.
“Initially, the industry and parents were skeptical about our plans,” Beecham says. “But in the last few years, the whole universe has changed. Multi-platform opportunities have really changed the landscape, and shorter formats are working incredibly well. This format works really well for kids, and that's empowering for parents.”