At PBS, Chasing Kids Who Watch ‘Odd Squad,’ ‘Daniel Tiger’ Isn’t Child’s Play

At PBS, Chasing Kids Who Watch
Courtesy of PBS Kids

The sounds of “Saturday Night Live” are being enjoyed by an audience that could never stay up late enough to hear them.

When tykes tune in to “Nature Cat,” an animated series on PBS, they routinely hear the voices of “SNL” mainstays like Taran Killam (who recently left the show), Bobby Moyinhan, Kate McKinnon and, occasionally, Kenan Thompson. There are no impressions of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and no appearance by “Drunk Uncle,”one of the characters Moynihan regularly trots out on the NBC program’s “Weekend Update.” On the other hand, there are plenty of comments by Hal the Dog and Squeeks the Cat, all following the show’s titular feline into outdoors adventure.

Not Ready for Prime Time Players aren’t the only things on PBS’ daily schedule for kids that might surprise adults. There are fewer sing-song recitals of the alphabet and more of the programs focus on problem solving, experimentation and math and science. Yes, “Sesame Street” remains on the air –  but in a half-hour version that is seen first on HBO under a new financial arrangement between the Time Warner pay-cable service and Sesame Workshop, the producer of the show. It might be fair to say that managing the decades-old PBS tradition that spawned fondly-recalled institutions like “The Electric Company,” “Zoom,” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Villa Alegre” is no longer as easy as 1-2-3 – and even if it were, number counting and letters-of-the-day might be too simple for the network’s current audience of tykes.

Devising TV shows that resonate is only half the battle for the public broadcaster, which has in recent months unveiled efforts to place its programming in new venues, including a new kids-programming channel and live-stream slated to debut early next year. “Nowadays, it’s really the exception rather than the rule that people just make a TV show,” explained Shalom Fisch, a formPreviewer Sesame Workshop executive who is president of Mediakidz Research & Consulting, an education-content consultant. “It’s a TV show, and a web site, and an app, and a live show and a museum exhibit. It’s a multi-platform approach.”

Little wonder, then, that the producers behind “Odd Squad” a relatively new PBS kids’ series focused on agents who use math skills to probe strange phenomena, recently announced the start of a traveling live show.

Because children are often the first adopters of new technologies, younger-skewing media outlets like Viacom’s Nickelodeon and Time Warner’s Cartoon Network are early movers to the new screens that have taken up so much consumer bandwidth. PBS Kids is no different, said Lesli Rotenberg, senior vice president and general manager, of children’s media and education for PBS. “We are transforming our whole enterprise,” she said, in an interview. “The days of putting all your eggs in the TV basket are long gone.”

Getting aggressive is a trait usually frowned upon in PBS shows like “Wild Kratts” or “Curious George,” but for the public broadcaster, it’s a behavior pattern that has to be embraced. Simply put, getting TV content to kids isn’t child’s play.  A 2015 survey of 800 parents of kids between two and 12 years of age found that 57% said their child preferred watching video on a device other than a TV set, and that 58% of kids have their own tablet. These are dynamics that have engulfed other kids’ outlets, too: Time Warner’s Adult Swim is exploring the concept of running online programming at specific days and times. Nickelodeon is devising concepts like “Game Shakers,” about girls who code, then releasing their creations in the digi-sphere for fans to test themselves.

PBS’ shifting emphasis also must take into account so-called “Common Core” policies have taken root at many American schools. These new standards ask students to use more logic and reasoning, and move beyond vocabulary words and numbers. “Kids need 21st-century skills much more than they do rote memorization,” said Rotenberg. “They need to be problem solvers, think collaboratively and creatively.”

A new crop of PBS shows that has surfaced in recent seasons includes “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” a program based on a hallowed “Mister Rogers” concept – characters from the Land of Make Believe that was an integral segment on his series – that explores emotional development. “Ready Jet Go,” which debuted earlier this year, explores astronomy, and counts NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a partner. Even some of the network’s mainstays are getting in on the act: In November, the Jim Henson Company – the people behind the Muppets who populate Sesame Street – will launch “Splash and Bubbles,” a series that uses digital puppetry to explore marine biology.

And while PBS takes care to make sure its programming remains free for kids who may not be able to afford the costs inherent in gaining access to modern TV, it is moving more aggressively into alternate means of distribution. In January, PBS will launch a new “multi-cast” kids channel that can be accessed via over-the-top means such as Chromecast or Roku; a live-stream on pbskids.org; or even the old-fashioned way, a channel that individual PBS stations will distribute locally. PBS recently moved more definitively into streaming, striking a deal earlier this year with Amazon that makes the e-commerce giant’s Amazon Prime service the home to the bulk of recent years of PBS kids programming – everything from “Cailliou” to “Zoboomafoo” (with a few exceptions).

Changing tactics can be tricky. PBS Kids programming remains an important educational tool for children whose parents rely heavily on over-the-air TV. As much as terms like “DVR” and “streaming video” are bywords of the new generation of digitally savvy consumers, a significant number of families find the price of early adoption prohibitive. “They make up a disproportionate amount of our audience,” said Rotenberg. At the same time, she said, three quarters of kids between zero and eight have access to a smartphone or mobile device.

No matter how scattered the broadcaster’s young audience becomes, she said, PBS still wants to reach them. “We haven’t changed what we are here to do,” said Rotenberg. “And yet, the way we go about it is completely different.”