Live, From New York: Sprout’s Morning Show For Kids Wants Celebrities In Mix

Live, From New York: Sprout's Morning

Some talk shows lure guests with the promise of hyping a new project. Others deliver instant fame.  And then there’s one that hopes to hook visitors with the sounds of an anthropomorphic chicken whose voice is reminiscent of a kazoo.

Chica, that clucking character, has held forth for seven years from the “Sunshine Barn,”  a set placed in converted office space in Comcast Corp.’s Philadelphia headquarters, all part of kiddie-cabler Sprout’s “Sunny Side Up Show.” Now the character and her four handlers have a new roost: a tiny studio on the sixth floor of NBCUniversal’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza complex, not far from the wardrobe racks used by the Roots, the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” Chica and crew will continue to celebrate viewer birthdays and do crafts projects live seven days a week. The new twist? Every once in a while, a celebrity guest or musician will join them.

Regular viewers of “Sunny Side Up” are likely to notice more than a few interlopers this week. Among the guests making cameos are “Parenthood” actress Monica Potter; comic actress Jenny Slate (also appearing on “Today” during the week); and writer and producer B.J. Novak, who will discuss his new children’s book. Padma Lakshmi, host of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” is slated to make an appearance at a later date.  Sprout will add another familiar element to the proceedings by taking a segment once known as“Sprout News,”and calling it “Sprout Today.” Viewers will see a video of kids on the plaza best associated with NBC’s “Today” program waving signs for Chica.

”It shifts the tone just enough to be celebrated with Sproutlets ,”says Carly Ciarrocchi, one of the show’s four hosts, using the term the network has for its young viewers, “but makes it extra enjoyable for the parents. We are all about the co-viewing.”   The new version of “Sunny Side Up” launches officially today, but Sprout has quietly been broadcasting it from 30 Rock since last week.

By increasing its spotlight on “Sunny,” Sprout is placing a bet on an old-school type of kids show (think of  stuff like “The Magic Garden, “Romper Room,” “Captain Kangaroo” or even “The Howdy Doody Show”) at  a time when animated programs seem to rule the age group’s screen.  Sandy Wax, the network’s president, acknowledges  the show may remind older viewers of “local-market” programming, but notes that Sprout  is “modernizing” the concept, while striving to give kids a human being to focus on rather than rapidly moving artwork. “I think sometimes children’s networks become all animation, and there’s no human connection,” she explains.

Having real people on screen throughout the day is critical to Sprout’s mission, which tries to spur its audience to interact with the content they see on TV, rather than just stare at it. Yes, the network runs plenty of cartoons, but it buffers them with segments featuring actors talking to kids. Signature shows include not only a mid-morning dose of Chica, but an evening session with Star, a talking celestial body who helps put kids to bed with host Nina during Sprout’s “Good Night Show.”

And it may give the network an edge in an intensifying bid by several large media outlets for TV’s youngest viewers.   Sprout represents NBCUniversal’s attempt to contend with strong rivals, including Walt Disney’s Disney Junior, which launched in 2012 and has gained traction with fare like “Doc McStuffins” and “Sophia The First,” and Viacom’s Nick Jr., originally known as Noggin, which has been the home of Dora the Explorer since 1999. Now new players are looking to compete.  Video streamers Netflix and Amazon are launching original kids programming while making available episodes of old favorites, while Time Warner announced last week an effort to transform its Boomerang network into a destination for family fare.

Sprout has room to grow. The network commands just 11 cents per subscriber each month from its distributors, according to research from SNLKagan, compared with 14 cents for Disney Junior and 24 cents for Nick Jr.  Sprout has about 56.8 million subscribers, Kagan estimates, compared with Disney Junior’s 68.3 million and Nick Jr.’s 80.3 million.

NBCU took sole control of the network in late 2013, buying out partners PBS and HIT Entertainment in the belief that using the large Comcast unit’s assets and could boost the kids network to new levels, said Bonnie Hammer, Chairman of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group. She sees opportunities in everything from consumer products to digital-media consumption. “There is an amazing business to be had, but you really have to be strategic about it,” she says.

The move to New York allows Sprout to use better technology, tap “green screens” to create better effects and graphics and gain access to talent that may want to visit the show, which once included kid-rock star Laurie Berkner, a zoologist and an astronomer.  The new studio also has a “Sunshine Stage” for musical performances and packets of crayons and craft implements that attach to the wall – the better to let Chica choose her own tools of the trade, rather than having something handed to her.

Still, executives say they are mindful of not letting special guests upset the rhythm of the program, which tends to follow a certain “ritual,” says Andrew Beecham, senior vice president of programming at the network. “Of course, this show isn’t all about celebrities. When there are interesting people around and they have got interesting things to say in a fun way, then obviously, we’d love to have them on,”he says. “Day in and day out, we are about connecting with kids.”

The celebrity move isn’t being done haphazardly. Sprout’s efforts to corral famous folk began this summer, with executives making the rounds of talent agencies and public-relations firms to describe the particular environment of “Sunny Side Up.”  Behind the scenes, the hosts expect to work on celebrity segments much as they do with other parts of the show. They typically spend a week off camera so they can devise conversations, ideas, songs and more with educational consultants and show staff for their next on-camera appearance.

Other kid-focused media outlets are making use of celebrities, too. PBS Kids’ popular “Curious George” series has tapped the voice talents of Carol Burnett and Bindi Irwin in recent season openers. Next week, Belinda Carlisle will join the inquisitive monkey. Nickelodeon has teamed with the seemingly ubiquitous Michael Strahan to launch a sports-award franchise,

In “Sunny Side Up’s” early time in New York, staffers have already had some encouragement.  While strutting around her new corporate aerie one day, Chica encountered Jimmy Fallon, who recognized her, say Wax and Ciarrocchi (There is some chatter the latenight host even gave the bird a hug). Could Fallon make an appearance on “Sunny Side Up” sometime soon? “He’s a very busy guy,” says Wax. “We’ll see what happens.”

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