The Turf War for Tots

In TV's battle for the hearts and minds of preschoolers, it's Mandarin and math vs. stories and sparkle
Amy Chozick in Nov 5, 2010
They're just learning how to tie their shoes and use the bathroom, and yet they represent one of the most important demographics in television. Preschoolers aged 2 to 5 spend an average of more than 32 hours in front of a TV screen each week, according to Nielsen.
The big media companies chasing this audience, armed with studies and statistics, are gearing up for the next major battle. As they jockey for competitive position, two starkly different points of view about toddlers and television are emerging.
Executives at Walt Disney Co., preparing their latest push for this audience, say that some TV for tots favors curriculum over storytelling. They argue that it's sometimes too much work, not enough play.
They're offering themselves as an alternative to Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. channel, which emphasizes learning. Disney says that today's parents are ready for a change. In an age of video games and iPads, kids can learn their ABCs anywhere. What's missing are good, old-fashioned stories that kids can repeat to others, pretend to be the characters, and watch again and again.
At stake is much more than the more than $276 million marketers spent last year to advertise during children's TV shows. Fast food and movie studios topped the list of biggest spenders, according to Kantar Media. The sale of toys, books and DVDs for Nick Jr.'s "Dora the Explorer" has generated more than $11 billion in sales globally since 2002, Nickelodeon says. The value of future brand loyalty is incalculable.
Nickelodeon, a unit of Viacom that took older children by storm in the early 1990s, began winning preschoolers a few years later. In the monthly period ending Oct. 17, nine of the top 10 most-watched cable shows among viewers aged 2 to 5 were on Nickelodeon or Nick Jr., available in 77 million homes. "Dora" and spinoff "Go Diego, Go" teach kids Spanish. "Team Umizoomi" follows doe-eyed Milli, Geo and Bot as they solve math problems.
One of the top-rated shows among preschoolers on Nick Jr. is "Ni Hao, Kai-Lan," in which a cartoon Kai-lan Chow, a 6-year-old with big round eyes and black pigtails, teaches kids Mandarin Chinese. The series draws about 828,000 viewers aged 2 to 5, compared with 753,000 for "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse," Disney's top-rated preschool series.
Disney, which of course was built on telling stories to kids and is playing to its strengths, needs to do something. To support its decision to focus on feel-good stories rather than core curricula, the company proffers a six-month study of 2,200 parents of preschoolers the company commissioned and conducted last year. These Disney researchers found that when parents were asked what they most want for their children, the most popular reply was for them to be happy.
That's a big shift from five or 10 years ago when academic and cognitive skills topped parents' list, says Nancy Kanter, senior vice president of Disney Junior Worldwide. "It wasn't 'I want them to count to 100' or 'I want them to spell their name,' or 'I wish she could speak Chinese,' " she says.
Many people, of course, think small children shouldn't be watching TV at all, much less be subjected to commercials. The venerable "Sesame Street," which has corporate sponsorships but no ads, has been education-based from the beginning, with Cookie Monster, Big Bird and friends teaching numbers, letters and social behavior.
"Sesame Street" was designed in 1969 as a nonprofit tool for underprivileged kids. "We had a very specific goal of trying to get these kids ready for kindergarten," says creator Joan Ganz Cooney. Up until now, neither Disney or Nickelodeon had strayed very far from the PBS icon's playbook.
Disney's new initiative for kids starts in February, when it will launch Disney Junior, a new 10-hour block of daytime programming on the Disney Channel targeted at preschoolers. Disney Junior will replace its existing "Playhouse Disney," and in early 2012 will become a 24-hour cable channel of its own.
Nickelodeon declined to comment on Disney's plans, but says it believes that the best way to engage preschoolers is through educational programs that provide opportunities to learn core academic skills, largely through interactive game play. "We make kids feel important and smart—it's our secret sauce that no one else has figured out," says Brown Johnson, president of animation, Nickelodeon/MTV Networks Kids and Family Group. "Moms expect their kids to have vitamin-fortified programming," she adds.
Disney says its researchers talked to preschool and kindergarten teachers and found that kids had easy access to basic facts, but lagged in social skills like sharing or being a good listener. "Jake and the Never Land Pirates," a new series launching in February, follows a group of kids who get into adventures with Captain Hook. Even though Hook is a bad guy, Jake still invites him to play at the end of the episodes, an important social lesson, Disney says.
Just as Nick Jr. has shows like "The Backyardigans" that emphasize storytelling, Disney doesn't shy away from academics entirely. In "Jake and the Never Land Pirates," the kids receive gold doubloons as rewards in each episode, a story device that helps kids learn to count. In an upcoming country-western-themed episode of "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" Mickey and the gang do a square dance, followed by a triangle and circle dance to teach shapes. Other new series like "Mickey Mousekersize" and "Special Agent Oso: Three Healthy Steps" give tips for healthy living.
But some parents say they're tired of being made to feel guilty about their child-rearing. They've become leery of experts who say, "No, no, this way is wrong," or, scarily, "It's all over when your kids are 3," says Ellen Galinsky, author of "Mind in the Making" and president and co-founder of Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research center. "They don't want to just raise smart kids—they want kids who are happy, who have social skills, and can get along with other kids and adults."
Following the death of the broadcast networks' Saturday morning cartoon tradition, preschoolers have been watching at all hours. Forty percent more of them now watch Nick Jr. from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. than during the rest of the day, according to the network.
Turn on the Sprout network's on-demand channel at night and Big Bird, Ernie, Star and others appear in a kind of modern test pattern, fast asleep in bed 'til morning—it's called "Snooze-a-Thon." Kids are supposed to get the hint. Sprout is owned by cable giant Comcast Corp., Hit Entertainment, PBS and Sesame Workshop.
Disney executives say they trail Nick Jr. because they aren't able to air preschool shows in prime time, when the Disney Channel must cater to older kids. The Disney Junior channel, which will reach 75 million homes and replace Disney's low-rated SOAPnet channel, would remedy that.
More than 70% of parents told Disney they want preschool programs in the afternoon and evenings, especially 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. A record 2.9 million viewers watched a prime-time special of Disney's "Handy Manny," a preschool series about a bilingual Hispanic handyman and his anthropomorphic talking tools.
"Little Princess," in development for Disney Junior, follows the fantastical world of the classic Disney princess. In the upcoming Disney Junior series "Doc McStuffins," about a repairer of damaged toys, hints are offered on taking care of your body (a toy fire truck, for example, can't run on a hot day if he doesn't have enough water). But mostly it's designed to deliver what Disney calls a "sense of sparkle," which sounds like the classic Disney, with fireworks splashing over Sleeping Beauty's castle.
"Disney has done a good job of building channels to the I-just-want-my-kids-to-be-happy group, and Nick and a few others have certainly been going after the I-want-the-smartest-child set," says Langbourne Rust, a consumer psychologist and researcher who has conducted large-scale studies for "Sesame Street" and other children's programs. "The sector that wants to make their children smarter and work on that all the time is a small but a heavily involved group." A mass-market company like Disney needs to be broader.
For Disney, preschool is an entry point to the entire brand—from DVDs, theme parks and plush toys to Pixar movies and older-skewing Disney Channel series like "The Wizards of Waverly Place." Disney Junior will target Playhouse Disney's 2 to 5 demographic and also try to attract 6- and 7-year-olds.
Disney says it will adjust "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse," which teaches kids math, to make it less academic and more whimsical. "We're trying to capture the essence of what a family feels like when they go to visit a Disney theme park for the first time," says Gary Marsh, president of entertainment and chief creative officer at Disney Channels Worldwide.
In 1990 Nickelodeon executives gathered child-care experts, developmental psychiatrists, preschool teachers, toy designers and other experts to discuss how children learn. One of the conclusions was that children must play in order to absorb information. Back then, Nickelodeon was becoming one of the top-rated channels on cable. Its image as a wall-to-wall funhouse run by kids, not parents or teachers who talked down to them, captured older children. Nickelodeon emphasized that it was okay to be goofy, even a little naughty.
Nickelodeon tacked in a different direction when it approached preschoolers. In 1996, it launched "Blue's Clues," considered the first interactive kids show. In addition to the facts it dispensed, the action in each episode unfolded from left to right, as sentences do, to prepare children to read. Then came, "Dora the Explorer" which thrilled parents who saw their preschoolers dance around the living room saying "Hola" and "¿Cómo estás?"
The Disney Channel has now won tween audiences with stars like Mikey Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. But as it was luring these deep-pocketed pre-teens, Disney was losing ground as a go-to for preschoolers. Its most popular cartoons, "Fish Hooks" and "Phineas & Ferb," attract an older audience and do not tie into the classic Disney characters that populate theme parks and gift shops.
Disney says it sees an opportunity to fill a void in preschool entertainment with programming that emphasizes layered narratives that help kids develop emotionally. The approach requires breaking with the industry rule that children's shows should not have villains, believed to upset young children. Most Nick Jr. shows do not have bad guys. Disney historically has been pretty good at wicked witches, mean stepsisters, vicious hyenas and the hunters who shot Bambi's mom.
"Well, if you can't have bad guys, then you can't have conflict and then it's difficult to have a real story," says Ms. Kanter from her corner office at Disney's Burbank headquarters.
Some Nick Jr. shows, like "Max & Ruby," a preschool hit about a 3-year-old bunny and his big sister who resolve conflicts, emphasize storytelling and social skills. But the most popular series have a specific curriculum, Ms. Johnson says. Whether a show has a villain is determined on a case by case basis, she says.
PBS Kids emphasizes cognitive development with a particular focus on math and science in shows like "Sid the Science Kid," but the network doesn't aim to drill kids with facts. "Recitation of hard knowledge might not be right for 2- and 3-year-olds," says Linda Simensky, vice president of children's programming at PBS. The channel's science-oriented "The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!" is currently the top-rated show on TV among viewers aged 2 to 5.
With all the multitude of studies and statistics these companies marshall, analyzing this particular audience is an inexact science. On a recent afternoon right after nap time, a group of preschoolers at the Tutor Time child-care center in Castaic, Calif., gathered around a TV set to watch early sketches (or "storymatics") of an upcoming episode of "Jake and the Never Land Pirates."
Four-year-old Ali played with his shoelace. Five-year-old Devin giggled coyly after she passed gas. Jacob had a hard time obeying the "don't touch your friends" rule. Disney executives and researchers watched their every move, taking careful notes. An executive producer thought Devin clearly "felt comfortable with the program."
At the request of several very young participants, the writers also scurried to add another element to the story—more tickling.

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