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NBCU’s Sprout Grows Up: Universal Kids to Debut in September

Variety logo Variety 5/1/2017 Brian Steinberg
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Chica, the anthropomorphic chicken who has delighted children on NBCUniversal’s kiddie-cable network Sprout for the past few years, is getting a refurbished coop.

The Comcast-owned media conglomerate said Monday it would in September rechristen the network as Universal Kids, and work to make the network home to a range of content from Dreamworks Animation, which it acquired last  August for approximately $3.8 billion. The company said the network would continue to utilize the Sprout name and work toward reaching a preschool audience, even as it broadened its programming to lure kids between 2 and 11 as well as their parents.

“We see enormous potential to grow our audience in this space and create the Universal Kids platform for families to experience together,” said Frances Berwick, NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Lifestyle Networks President, in a prepared statement. “NBCUniversal is invested in the kids and family business, and the company believes in working together – we will benefit from promotion across our portfolio of networks and across the company through support that is unparalleled in the industry.”

NBCUniversal no doubt sees the opportunity to be a bigger player in the kids’ TV market. The purchase of DreamWorks Animation, which controls rights to everything from Casper the Friendly Ghost to Gerald McBoing Boing gave the company more traction in competing with other big media companies that cater to kids, namely Viacom, Walt Disney and Time Warner – and use animated characters and films to feed its TV networks, theme parks and consumer-product operations as well as its movie business.

Already, the company said that Universal Kids, which will launch officially September 9, will feature two series based on DreamWorks franchises:  “All Hail King Julien” and “DreamWorks Dragons: Riders of Berk,” based on the popular “How To Train Your Dragon” franchise. The network will also be the site of the debut of “Top Chef Junior,” produced by Magical Elves, the production team behind Bravo’s “Top Chef.” The series  will launch in October 2017.

Sprout is expected to continue, with 15 hours airing live each day between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., while Universal Kids will be featured after 6 p.m. Devoted Sprout viewers might have seen the move coming. “The Good Night Show,” a three-hour programming block meant to soothe youngsters before bedtime with storytelling, sand art and cartoons, was phased out several months ago. NBCUniversal said it would continue to add new, original programming aimed at the pre-schooler set, including new series like “Kody Kapow.”

NBCUniversal has no guarantee its ambitions will be achieved. The kids’ market is tough to crack. Hasbro and Discovery Communications tried it out in 2010 with the launch of The Hub, a family programming cable network that was formed as a joint venture. Discovery took control of the outlet in 2014 and renamed it Discovery Family.

One of the chief challenges in the field are the viewers themselves. Kids have been among the first to gravitate to new viewing venues, such as streaming video and mobile devices. Nickelodeon, PBS Kids, Disney and Cartoon Network have all unveiled robust digital initiatives, such as a streaming service for Boomerang, the Time Warner kids-and-family animation outlet. PBS Kids has a subscription video on demand deal with Amazon and Disney backs its Disney LOL app aimed at getting kids to interact with short-form content. Over time, Universal Kids will have to show it can play in those fields as well.

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