Nickelodeon, which harvests bigger Nielsens than the broadcast networks, the TV syndicators and the other cable networks in programming to kids ages 6-11, said Monday that it will lay out $ 30 million over the next three years to capture the preschool children audience.
The first deal under the new strategy is with Jim Henson Prods., which will sell an exclusive two-year window for 65 half-hour repeat episodes of “The Muppet Show” to Nickelodeon, and extend for another three years the current deal for the 94 rerun half-hours of “The Muppet Babies.” The two shows will run in a 60-minute block at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday beginning April 4, with “The Muppet Show” getting a second run every weeknight at 7:30.
The new material Henson Prods. will supply is what its chief operating officer Charles Rivkincalls “interstitial programming in the form of 40 two-minute pieces that will introduce new Muppet characters in new situations.” If any of these new characters take off, Rivkin says, Henson Prods. would create one or more half-hour series built around them to run in the “Nick Jr.” block of time Nickelodeon devotes to preschoolers — 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The first two original series in the new push for the preschool viewer are “Gullah Gullah Island,” which Nickelodeon describes as “a multicultural exploration of music and family starring Nathalie and Ron Dance, an African-American husband-and-wife team from the South Carolina Sea Islands,” and “Allegra’s Window,” a puppet show dealing with the experiences of a 3-year-old girl. Nickelodeon will produce an initial order of 20 half-hours of each series at its studios in Orlando, Fla., for a fall 1994 start.
“Our series will try to avoid the old-fashioned attitudes in a lot of the preschool programming kids are getting now,” says Geraldine Laybourne, president of Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite. “We can be playful and fun without being condescending or overly sweet.”
Panic button unpushed
The Public Broadcasting Service, which is the dominant provider of successful preschool programming such as “Sesame Street,””Barney & Friends” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is not pushing panic buttons at the potentially tough new competition from Nickelodeon.
“I don’t see any scenario in which PBS’ position with preschoolers could be eroded,” says Bill Baker, general manager of WNET, the PBS station in New York. “Our goal is to educate children — Nickelodeon’s goal is to make money by selling time on these programs to advertisers.”
Besides, Baker says, PBS, through its 300-plus affiliated stations, reaches every U.S. household. By contrast, Nickelodeon is limited to the 63% of U.S. homes that subscribe to cable.
And the $ 30 million figure over three years is not impressive to Alice Cahn, director of programming for PBS, which, she says, ponies up $ 16 million a year on children’s shows.