DOC MCSTUFFINS Michelle Obama
Courtesy of Disney

Kids’ TV is filled with figures like Dora the Explorer, Doc McStuffins and Star, an anthropomorphic celestial body who helps lull preschoolers to sleep. Behind the children’s content, however, looms something decidedly more adult: using kids TV to reach parents with money to spend.

Some of the big media companies that own kiddie networks are testing new ways to distribute their content and sell it to advertisers — all in the name of offering up young parents who often tune-in the toddler favorites with their child. The sector has long been dominated by Viacom’s Nickelodeon and Time Warner’s Cartoon Network, but rivals are making new bids to grab something from this media-sector toy box and make it their own.

“There’s a real interest in spending time with millennial moms, who are usually with preschoolers,” said Rita Ferro, an executive vice who oversees ad sales for Disney Junior and other Disney-owned cable networks. Disney Junior typically does not run ads during programs, but sells commercial opportunities that surface between shows. “There is a lot of interest in ‘together time’ with mom and child, and speaking to them in the right environment,” she said.

PBS, which also eschews traditional commercials but does seek money in support of individual programs, will launch a new effort later this year that will allow its member stations to transmit kids’ favorites like “Wild Kratts” and “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” via cable and streaming video. NBCUniversal recently placed Sprout in the hands of executives who also program Oxygen and Bravo, putting the kids’ outlet closer to networks that attract young women. “Research has shown that parents are definitely more tuned in with their kids, when they are watching together,” said Laura Molen, executive vice president of ad sales for NBCUniversal’s lifestyle-themed cable networks.

Young eyes are being harvested to lure advertiser interest as part of the TV-industry’s annual upfront market, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season. At stake is approximately $800 million in advance ad commitments from toy-makers, movie studios and other Madison Avenue residents seeking to entice kids and their parents to part with hard-earned income.

TV makes its wee-viewers pitch as reaching kids overall has become more difficult. The core audience for kids networks — children between 2 and 11 – has fallen at Nickelodeon, Disney XD and Cartoon Network in the quarter to date as of March 6, according to data from Todd Juenger, a media-industry analyst for Bernstein Research. A 2015 study from Miner & Co. Studio, a marketing consultancy, found 57% of 800 parents surveyed indicated kids preferred to watch video on a handheld device rather than a TV set.

If kids are harder to find, the theory goes, maybe their parents can make traditional TV viewing more worth sponsors’ while. Ratings are also down on broadcast and cable networks that program for adults, meaning parents who tune in for kids’ shows are highly desirable. Toy companies and movie studios are eager to reach young parents, said both Disney’s Ferro and NBCU’s Molen. In the recent past, retail outlets and companies marketing vacations and travel have also used kids’ networks to reach the adults who may be in the room.

Nickelodeon is seeing big ratings gains at Nick Jr., a network that uses programs like “Peppa Pig” and “Team Umizoomi” to reach the tot set. “The preschool audience does a tremendous amount of work to lift the 2-to-11 audience,” said Cyma Zargahmi, president of Viacom’s Kids & Family group of networks, which includes Nickelodeon. “When you look at Nickelodeon overall, preschool is a real important component.”

All the companies are stocking their programming pipeline with new material to lure the kids. PBS will launch “Splash,” a series from the Jim Henson Company that encourages an interest in science and marine biology. Disney Junior has ordered two new series. “Vampirina” tells the story of a young vampire girl who becomes the new kid in town when her family moves from Transylvania to Pennsylvania.“Puppy Dog Tails,” created by comedian and actor Harland Williams, centers on two fun-loving pug puppies, Bingo and Rolly and their adventures. Nickelodeon will release series such as “Rusty Rivets,” which shows the animated adventures of Rusty as he invents his way out of challenges by using repurposed parts and objects to create contraptions.

As kids discover the new properties, advertisers hope they can discover the parents who turned the TV on in the first place

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