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To Launch New Series, Sprout Lets Space Animals Invade Its Kiddie-Program Lineup

Space travelers have invaded TV’s kiddie-oriented Sprout network.

Tykes viewing a recent broadcast of the animated series “Justin Time” on the NBCUniversal-owned outlet may have been surprised to see the actual show shrink into the center of the screen as a group of animated animal astronauts surrounded it and started to comment on the action. Yet that surreal tableau is indicative of the aggressive maneuvers it sometimes takes to get a TV show – even one aimed at tater tots (young couch potatoes) – off the launching pad.

To get the word out about “Astroblast!,” a new original animated series set to debut on Sprout July 12th and then run seven days a week, the network is using an unorthodox means of promotion. About ten times per day in the week leading to the debut of the new program this Saturday, certain Sprout programs are being used for what Andrew Beecham, senior vice president of programming at the network, calls a “break-in.”

For five to ten seconds, characters from “Astroblast!” – cosmos-trotting animals with names like Haley, Comet, Sputnik and Sal the Octopus – surround the show in question (which shrinks on the TV screen) and say a few words. The original program quickly resumes its size and place.The idea, said Sandy Wax, Sprout’s president, is to do something that might interest parents and kids watching together. “I think oftentimes a parent gets it and the parent laughs and says, ‘That’s interesting.’ Kids get that their parents enjoy it.”

Sprout has tried such stuff in the recent past. When the network launched its “The Chica Show,” an animated series about a squeaky chicken (who also hosts a morning program on the network’s schedule in anthropomorphic form), it had various characters in its regular programs squeak and cluck like the bird. Such “Easter egg moments,” said Beecham, “are surprising, and they are very short” and attempt to minimize disruption of the viewing experience for the network’s tyke audience.

Disruption, however, has become a key element in the quest by TV outlets to drive awareness for new programs. At a time when broadcast and cable networks continue to launch ambitious and expensive programs throughout the year, many of them are testing new methods that often compete with the very shows that draw audiences in the first place.

In 2008, for example, Time Warner’s TBS tried an extremely chatty come-on: To tout “The Bill Engvall Show,” the network ran a promo at the bottom of the screen during episodes of “Family Guy” that was rendered impossible to miss. With a remote control in hand, Engvall would start speaking over the dialogue being uttered by Stewie, Peter, Brian and other members of the animated comedy’s Griffin clan. He then used the remote to freeze the show while continuing to speak. After delivering a promotional message, “Family Guy” was allowed to continue.

Sprout took care to insert its “cut-ins” only when action in the series they would interrupt was at a low point, said Beecham. The network has heard no outcry about the clever inserts, said Wax.

Sprout has reason to draw attention to “Astroblast!” Much of Sprout’s lineup is acquired programming, while “Astroblast!,” co-produced with Scholastic Media, represents an original series in which the network would hold a stake – and thus stand to gain from potential re-sale of the show or merchandising of its characters and themes. Executives also believe the news show has appeal for five- and six-year-olds, said Wax, who are slightly older than the large part of Sprout’s current audience.

The network intends to run “Astroblast!” twice a day, including during its heavily viewed 8 p.m. hour, as part of its “Good Night Show,” which aims to get tots ready for dreamtime.

In another interesting effort, Sprout has arranged for Syfy, another cable outlet also owned by NBCUniversal, to run 90 minutes of “Astroblast!” this Sunday – a day after it debuts on Sprout – introduced by hosts from Sprout’s “Sunny Side Up Show” as well as the Chica character. The Sprout talent will appear to invade the Syfy control room, said Beecham. Sprout will also run a live version of its “Good Night Show” this Saturday, when “Astroblast!” debuts – the first time in its relatively young history that it has done so.

“You want to get the whole family involved,” said Wax. “The more we create an event, the more it will really help get the word out about the show.”

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