In the crowded peak TV era, the biggest unscripted trend is packing the smallest talent.

With NBC’s “Little Big Shots” becoming the first real hit since “The Voice” debuted in 2011, reality television has finally found another niche: kid competition series are the new singing competition — at least in terms of ratings.

In March, “Little Big Shots” opened to 12.81 million overnight viewers and averaged an audience of 13.7 million in delayed viewing for its first season. Those numbers are vastly larger than any other new recent reality program with such vets as “The Bachelor,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “Survivor,” “Big Brother” and the now-gone “American Idol” largely dominating the unscripted space.

The kids competition arena is also home to “MasterChef Junior,” the Friday night Fox favorite; “Project Runway Junior,” which was just renewed for a third season; FYI Network’s “Man vs. Child: Chef Showdown”; and many other pint-sized cooking shows, including the popular “Chopped Junior” and “Chopped Teen Tournament” on Food Network, which is also home to such hit small-fry series as “Rachel vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off” and “Kids Baking Championship.”

“While ‘MasterChef Junior’ is a competition, what I put that success down to is that it’s shining a spotlight on all the positive areas,” says showrunner Robin Ashbrook, who also runs the flagship “MasterChef” series and serves as an exec producer on “Little Big Shots.” Of the two tyke shows he works on, Ashbrook says, “Not every kid dreams of being a football star or a pop star. Both of these shows put a spotlight on the skills of the next generation that are not being a supermodel.”

SMALL WONDERS: “Little Big Shots” is NBC’s biggest unscripted hit since “The Voice.” Courtesy of NBC

Ashbrook’s sentiment holds true for all of the successful kids shows on air. Unlike more grown-up series such as “Idol” or “America’s Next Top Model” that made for must-see-TV with harsh criticism and footage of failed auditions in the dawn of reality TV, the new wave of content seems to solely bring a smile to viewers faces.

“As well as them being incredibly entertaining, there’s so much s–t in the world,” Ashbrook notes, speaking of shows with younger casts. “It’s nice for us to be able to celebrate the next generation.”

With audiences craving lighter material, kid-friendly reality programming seems to be the perfect fit in the television landscape — because families can gather to watch together.

“One of the strengths of Food Network programming is the appeal across generations, attracting audiences of all ages,” says Didi O’Hearn, senior vice president of programming and development at Food Network and Cooking Channel.

The teen version of “Chopped” is averaging 1.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen’s Live +7 estimates — the same exact number as the flagship show. “Kids Baking Championship” was Food Network’s highest-rated 8 p.m. hour on Mondays of all time, and the show ranked as the top co-viewed series in its time period, among other cable networks.

“Our ultimate goal remains growing our core demo,” O’Hearn says, referring to the 18-49 adult demo. “If we hook the whole family at 8 p.m. with programming that includes kids, we benefit from engagement with that core demo, while also executing the best type of sampling as far as multi-generational family co-viewing, and perhaps even keeping parents tuned-in after the kids go to sleep.”

“If we hook the whole family at 8 p.m. with programming that includes kids, we benefit from engagement with that core demo.”
Didi o’hearn

While kids’ shows are merely a piece of the puzzle in a network’s full schedule, the proof is there: family viewing is delivering numbers. And with broadcast and cable nets jam-packed with mature comedies and high-concept dramas not fit for kids, there’s no doubt the family-friendly kids genre will continue to expand.

But it may not be so easy to find the next hit.

“We can’t just take a great format, put kids on it and suddenly it’s going to be the next big hit and put families on the sofa,” Ashbrook says. “Viewers are too smart for that.

“When ‘Idol’ was such a huge hit, it probably gave birth to 20 other singing shows,” Ashbrook notes of the cyclical world of television development. “I think it’s kind of lazy just to say, ‘Let’s put kids in TV shows’ because they won’t all work. I’m not criticizing any other shows, but I think people are just plucking kids purely for chasing ratings, but without really thinking about the form.”

While finding a good copycat may be a challenge, the current shows that are working are basking in the success — and the fun.

“When these kids and their incredible talents are on our sets, the biggest challenge may just be the adults — adults who are unsure what to do or how to behave given the fact that when most of us were 9, 10, 11 years old it is unlikely we could have competed half as well,” O’Hearn says of the “kid-testants.”

MIGHTY MITES: “MasterChef Junior,” right and “Project Runway Junior” both showcase positive young creatives. Courtesy of Bravo

“There’s something about watching them on a journey,” notes a source close to “Project Runway Junior.”

Ashbrook agrees. “They’re incredibly entertaining in the way that drunk people are — you’ll only get the truth from drunk people and kids,” he says with a laugh. “They’re not scared. They don’t have another agenda. They’re not in it to win any money. They’re not in any political game. They’ll say whatever they’re thinking and they don’t care.”

The producer notes that while his two kid shows are different in genre — cooking and performing — both have the same goal, which is celebrating the gift of children.

“We also have a bit of a kid in all of us,” he says. “That innocence is something that you can watch for 42 minutes and feel a little bit like a kid yourself.”