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NBCUniversal Builds ‘Sprout House,’ Hopes Kids Will Visit

On most weekdays at 9 a.m this fall, Megyn Kelly will vie for viewer attention with time-slot rivals Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest. But these morning luminaries will have to contend with someone else: a chatty orange puppy named Snug.

When fans of Sprout, the kiddie-cable outlet that is part of Comcast’s NBCUniversal, tune in to the network at 9 a.m. on Monday, they will be greeted by something different. Gone will be the familiar antics of “The Sunny Side Up Show,” a live program that has long featured friendly hosts and “Chica,” an excitable anthropomorphic chicken whose squawks are usually translated into English by her human companions. In their place? “Sprout House,” a new series that features the team of Carly Ciarrocchi, a “Sunny Side” veteran, and her verbose canine pal.

Kids who have seen the program being taped in recent weeks “light up around his floppiness and his voice. That makes me particularly excited for when this goes out into the world,” said Ciarrocchi, hanging out on the set of the new program at NBCU’s New York headquarters. “It’s a big space to fill. I think Snug is up for it.”

This dog better be ready. To help snare the attention of kids across the nation, Comcast recently put down $3.8 billion to acquire DreamWorks Animation – making no secret of its desire to compete with Viacom’s Nickelodeon, Walt Disney’s Disney Channel and Time Warner’s Cartoon Network for the attention of TV’s younger set. Sprout in September will be renamed Universal Kids, and feature, among other things, the debut of “Top Chef Junior.” But “Sprout House” will serve as a souped-up reminder that the network aims to catch the attention of pre-schoolers during daytime hours. The younger set will no doubt be invited to stick around for the other stuff as they grow.

Executives have been at work on the new show for the past eight months, said Amy Friedman, senior vice president of programming and development, Universal Kids, in an interview. In the new show, Carly and Snug will hold forth in a miniscule space at NBCU’s 30 Rockefeller Center that is testament to the “tiny house” movement. The new set has a place for everything – crafts, a Murphy bed, Snug’s favorite “Shy Cat” stuffed animal, in-wall video screens, even a fold-out flight of stairs  – but with everything in its place.

Sprout’s willingness to shake up what has been its signature program is testament to how quickly kids’ media outlets need to move to keep current with their wee audience’s ever shifting viewing habits. More than half of kids between the ages of 8 and 11, 12 and 14 and 15 and 18 listed “streamed television” as their preferred type of entertainment in a September, 2015, survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The live “Sunny Side Up” show proved limiting, said, Vinny Steves, supervising producer of “Sprout House.”  Cast and crew had to shoot the program in a specific way, and had to favor keeping the show rolling over working for the best possible performance. The “Sprout House” set allows for more camera angles and even shots from hand-helds. “The live show was an idea that was unique in the marketplace, but we found we weren’t able to make so much content and we weren’t able to finesse the quality so much,” said Friedman.

The three-hour “Sprout House” will be built out of taped 90-second segments that will feature clever editing; performances by kid-music bands like Secret Agent 23 Skiddoo; and shots of Snug and Carly making use of a “twisty tree” that functions like a Japanese pachinko game and a “frustration bell” Snug can ring when things aren’t necessarily going his way. Hosts serve up various animated features between segments. The short vignettes, said Steves, can then be sent out via digital and social media.

Kids’ TV networks must be mindful of the way their young viewers interact with content, said Sherri Hope Culver, who studies kids’ content habits as director of the Center for Media and Information Literacy at Temple University. “Kids are finding their way into online spaces more and more. And for the youngest media consumers, finding content that is short and infinitely accessible really draws them in,” said Culver, who served as a consultant for Sprout, which was once based in Philadelphia after being formed in 2005 as part of a joint venture of Comcast, PBS, Sesame Workshop and HIT Entertainment (NBCU now controls it outright).  “Content that can be sliced and diced into small pods, especially with beloved characters, seems to be where much of the industry is heading – or is already there,” she said.

About 98% of Sprout’s audience – kids between 2 and 5 – watch the network’s shows live, but it has served over 2 billion video-on-demand sessions since its launch. On some days, Carly and Snug – and regular visitors like T.J., played by actor Donnell Smith  – will broadcast live, said Steves, particularly on holidays when more kids are home from school.

Sprout – or Universal Kids – has some room to grow. Cable and satellite distributors pay around 14 cents per subscriber per month, according to data from Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Disney Junior gets 19 cents and Nick Jr. gets 25 cents. The bigger networks get even more: Nickelodeon commands 74 cents per subscriber per month, while Disney Channel secures a whopping $1.55.

To build a foundation for “Sprout House,” executives at the network had to indulge some fowl play. Chica, who has been used extensively in marketing campaigns for Sprout over the years, will now be utilized in less prominent fashion. She will be featured in vignettes about going to pre-school that will air during “Sprout House.”Culver, the academic, recalls a previous generation of Sprout executives spending a lot of time and money to ensure the character would connect immediately with the young audience. “We know how much our fans love Chica,” said Friedman. “It does not behoove us to cut her out.”

Having a puppet who can talk makes life easier for the “Sprout House” cast, said Ciarrocchi.  “It means we can get more mileage out of our comedy, and when dealing with social and emotional things,” she said. “It’s all going to be more meaningful because the puppet is more expressive.” Kids will no doubt have something to say about all this after the show launches next week.

(Pictured, above: Donnell Smith as T.J.; Snug; and Carly Ciarrocchi as Carly in “Sprout House”)

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