During a breakfast kicking off a recent public TV programmers’ conference in La Quinta, Calif., marketers for Scholastic Entertainment donned capes to spoof the ratings potential of Maya and Miguel and Clifford’s Puppy Days, two animated series from Scholastic that were promoted as antidotes to PBS’s daytime ratings woes.
Scholastic’s reps cast themselves as “scheduling superheroes” prepared to battle the cable TV executives who’ve grabbed preschool viewers and sent public TV’s youngster ratings downhill for the past three years.
As the sales skit concluded, a screen near the podium dropped to reveal a dunking machine. A hotel worker dressed as Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob Square Pants, the indefatigable king of children’s TV, sat above a water tank.
As the superheroes pelted him with foam balls, SpongeBob waved,
cracked a smile and fell into the waist-high water.
PubTV station reps laughed and cheered, gathered promotional tchotchkes, and moved to the day’s next event — a more sober presentation on strategies to combat SpongeBob, Dora the Explorer and the scores of media entertainments that have weakened pubTV’s standing in the children’s media landscape.
At that meeting and others in public TV this year, PBS enlisted station leaders in a high-stakes discussion of the children’s service, its problems and possible fixes. Armed with conclusions drawn from a recent Sesame Workshop study with mothers, PBS is making the case for local stations to devote their whole daytime schedules to kids programming and to follow its lead in creating a TV space that’s oriented to tots and their learning needs. For new content, PBS wants its producers to put their own stamp on “interactivity” — the buzz word for what PBS Kids lacks and cable kiddie shows have in spades.
The playful SpongeBob bashing was a morale-booster for programmers disheartened by daytime rating declines and the gains of new and aggressive competitors. Until 1994, public TV was the sole provider of uninterrupted, educational and nonviolent preschool programs. But the morning preschool blocks Nick Jr. and Playhouse Disney and the 12-hour Viacom digital cable service Noggin took some pages from the PBS Kids playbook to create programming that has won over tots and parents.
The last high point for PBS Kids was the 2000-01 season, when Arthur, Dragon Tales, and Clifford the Big Red Dog led PBS to a 4.8 seasonal average rating for preschoolers. By 2004-05, that average had dropped 42 percent to a 2.8.
Viacom’s Nickelodeon — home of SpongeBob and Dora — surpassed PBS Kids in the ratings in 2002-03, while the Disney Channel and Time Warner’s Cartoon Network charted ratings gains through most of 2003.
“When losses to our primetime audiences hit, people said, ‘At least we still have kids,’” said Keith York, program director of KPBS in San Diego. Now public TV’s ratings woes extend from daytime to primetime, he said.
“Parents are voting with their feet and going to the services with the best schedules, Nick and Noggin,” said Scott Chaffin, broadcast director at KUED in Salt Lake City. His station can’t go head to head with the cable networks all day because it’s committed to broadcasting instructional TV programs during certain hours.
To respond to intensified competition and rethink the business models that fund new PBS Kids content, PBS unveiled its Next Generation PBS Kids initiative this fall during regional Round Robin meetings with general managers and at the Public Television Programmers Association Conference in La Quinta. The project aims to devise programming and promotion strategies for series debuting next year and long-term plans for new services and business models.
The PBS Kids’ broadcast service has two big tasks ahead: to compete more aggressively with the cable kids’ networks and to recruit parents and adult caregivers as stronger allies in this battle.
“Those of us who work within public TV and have a mission to meet, like the Workshop, have to make sure this is a vibrant environment,” said Gary Knell, president of Sesame Workshop, producers of the PBS flagship Sesame Street as well as Dragon Tales. “If the kids aren’t there, we’re not meeting our mission.”
PBS also has some work to do with parents, whose trust for PBS Kids and offerings such as Sesame Street has been one of public broadcasting’s biggest assets. The Sesame Workshop study found that PBS’s reputation as the most educational preschool service has eroded somewhat, according to programmers who attended the PTPA session in La Quinta. The session was closed to press coverage at PBS’s insistence.
In focus group research, some mothers of preschoolers said, “Noggin is really like the new PBS,” said Bohdan Zachary, program director of KCET in Los Angeles.
“It sends a cold chill down your spine to figure out what we are going to do,” Chaffin said.
The rise of Noggin is something of a sore point in public TV, since Sesame Workshop formed a partnership with Nickelodeon to create the channel in 1999. The workshop sold its stake in Noggin three years later, but last year it forged an alliance with Comcast, Hit Entertainment and PBS to create PBS Kids Sprout, a digital cable service combining video on demand and a 24-hour preschool channel. Roughly half of public TV stations declined to cross-promote the channel, which launched in October.
No room for adults in daytime?
The workshop’s Lapsed Viewers Study calls for major changes in the way PBS and stations package and schedule children’s programs.
Some of the recommended changes are needed to help PBS compete with Nickelodeon and other kids’ channels, and some will help public TV better meet children’s learning needs, said Lesli Rotenberg, PBS senior v.p. of brand management, who heads cross-disciplinary teams working on the Next Generation PBS Kids initiative.
The study found that mothers want PBS Kids programs to air at more convenient times, in more consistent patterns and with child-friendly content in the program breaks, according to summaries provided by PBS and the Workshop.
“They would like it grouped in a cohesive block so that everything in there is there for the child,” Rotenberg said. Mothers want to be able to leave their tots in front of the TV, she said, knowing that everything on the screen will be appropriate for them developmentally. Schedule changes, including the debut of It’s a Big Big World in January and Curious George next fall, along with a new on-air “environment” for preschoolers, will address some of these problems.
Moms gave public TV bad marks for accessibility, according to Knell. Scheduling strategies of PBS’s competitors were more convenient, and the interactivity of their programs made them “more engaging and vibrant,” he said. “The public TV landscape looked a little tired.”
PBS and the workshop are asking stations to air children’s shows all day instead of switching to general audience programs at midday, when fewer kids are perched in front of TVs. It’s unclear how many stations broadcast general audience fare in the early afternoon, although the practice has become more widespread as pubTV’s daytime child audiences dwindled.
TRAC Media Services, the public TV research firm that operates PTPA, advocates splitting the daytime between child and adult audiences. “Our company’s line is that you should serve the adult audience at some point during the day,” said Craig Reed, director of audience analysis. “Once you have served children for a certain part of day, you don’t extend your mission” by airing more kids shows, he said. “If you think about the footprint of children shows in the schedule, they already have a huge chunk. At what point do you say, ‘enough is enough’?”
“When [WNET in New York] goes to Charlie Rose in the afternoon, kids are going to Nick, and they aren’t coming back,” Knell said. “I’m not suggesting that Charlie doesn’t have a place on public TV, but they pay a price for sending kids elsewhere.”
“If we could be on from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with children’s programs, they would be with us,” Rotenberg said. Parents also are looking for preschool fare on weekend mornings, when many stations air how-to programs.
Sesame Workshop’s researchers identified mothers who said their children watched PBS Kids less this year than last and asked them why. They spoke with focus groups of moms in Atlanta, Chicago and Phoenix, grouped by the age of their preschoolers, family size and the mother’s employment status. After an initial session discussing preschool TV, researchers gave the mothers homework: to watch DVDs of competing cable services for preschoolers and share their reactions.
“It’s an important wake-up call for the system,” said Dan Soles, program director at WTTW in Chicago, referring to the lapsed viewers study’s recommendations. “It’s really important that we focus on targeting children and creating that safe haven for kids all day.” Soles schedules children’s programs throughout the day but is selective about what he airs. Kids can vote on WTTW’s website for shows that they want broadcast in Friday afternoon stunts.
As with every change proposed for public TV, stations’ reactions to the PBS Kids overhaul will be mixed, Soles said. “But the reality is if we maintain the status quo, our kids’ audience will continue to erode. If we’re smarter about the way we schedule kids’ programs, things will change.”
“We have to be more aggressive in our scheduling,” Soles said. “Then we can grow the children’s audience and remain a viable force in the marketplace.”
Yikes! An interactivity gap!
Moms also expressed preferences for “interactive” preschool shows that actively engage children in solving problems or playing along with the characters. Fred Rogers pioneered the technique on PBS’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Nickelodeon’s Blues Clues popularized it with animation in 1996. Now it’s widely adapted for shows such as Nick’s Dora and Disney Channel’s JoJo’s Circus, as well as Sesame Street.
“Today’s preschoolers are ... expecting — and they get on other channels — a media experience that has a high level of interactivity,” said Rotenberg. Mothers who participated in the workshop’s study told researchers “we need to add to the most educational content the most engaging content,” she said.
“The construction of PBS shows hasn’t kept pace with the techniques of the competition,” Reed said.
The challenge to PBS’s producers is to design new approaches to interactivity and not copy the cable competition, Rotenberg said. “We believe it is our role to lead, not follow.”
It’s a Big, Big World, a PBS Kids series debuting Jan. 2 that combines puppetry with lush computer-generated animation, has the potential to put PBS ahead of its competitors with its visual appeal and learning elements, she said. “It will look unlike anything else on public TV . . . and also introduce a new curriculum that doesn’t appear anywhere else on television by focusing on science and geography concepts.” Mitchell Kriegman, creator of Disney’s Book of Pooh and Bear in the Big Blue House, created the series.
PBS is promoting It’s a Big, Big World heavily and introduced some of the characters in special breaks between children’s programming on Nov. 25. A 14-minute preview clip provided by PBS had wow-quality visual effects and the gentle pacing and characters that characterize PBS preschool fare. But it wasn’t explicitly interactive in the manner of Dora or Blues Clues. Snook, a giant sloth who is the lead character, has a curious but laid-back persona and a California-cool way of speaking. At the end of the segment, he puts his hairy paw up to the TV screen, subtly inviting viewers to touch palms and say goodbye.
The program was unveiled with great fanfare at the PBS Showcase Conference in Las Vegas in April. During the summer, the East Coast chapter of the Writers’ Guild called a strike on Kriegman’s Big Big Productions that lasted 122 days. The producer and the union signed a contract resolving the labor dispute Dec. 8, less than four weeks before the series’ scheduled debut.
Curious George, a series based on the popular children’s books, will premiere in fall 2006 amid a general overhaul of the PBS Kids service, addressing some of the shortcomings described in the Sesame Workshop research. PBS will introduce new break materials, creating a new preschool environment to be anchored by a live host. The lapsed viewers’ study helped PBS refine its plans for the new break materials, Rotenberg said.
The new preschool block will be “very similar to what we did with PBS Kids Go!,” the block for school-aged kids that PBS introduced in 2004, Rotenberg said.
Programs will be scheduled to appeal to kids by developmental stage rather than age, “and we will create a whole environment around it so that it meets the needs of those children with seamlessness,” she said. “Once they are in it, it’s all very them and they can stay as long as they want.”
“Stations that are serious about rebuilding a competitive service,” Knell said, “need to understand that these kinds of solutions around interstitial programs and feeding programs together that are developmentally appropriate are important to saving the overall franchise.”
posted Jan. 6, 2006
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee