Multi-purpose PBS Kids takes flight next week

Originally published in Current, Aug. 30, 1999

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Aiming to be everywhere that kids and their parents turn for information and entertainment, PBS on Sept. 6 launches its first all-kids channel, a 24-hour stream of its signature children's fare that will be repackaged with neon-bright branding and on-air materials that speak directly to youngsters.

The PBS Kids Channel, the network's first endeavor at repackaging its signature content with a cohesive identity and delivering it over multiple distribution platforms, will benefit from a branding strategy that promises kids that it will be fun, "amazing" and available lots of ways, all the time. Over the next several months, PBS will adopt the new PBS Kids brand on the new channel, its daytime Ready to Learn Service, PBS Online web pages for kids, and a home video label.

As of late August, 30 public TV stations had confirmed their intentions to distribute the PBS Kids Channel: 19 plan local cablecasts; nine plan standard-definition digital TV broadcasts, and three plan to broadcast PBS Kids on regular analog broadcast channels, according to PBS. A few of these stations haven't established official launch dates, but 16 will begin delivering the service to an estimated 2.2 million non-digital TV households this fall, and another 11 next winter, most of them broadcasting in SDTV. PBS also is negotiating with direct broadcast satellite service providers to distribute PBS Kids nationally as a "set-aside" noncommercial educational channel [earlier article].

PBS developed the channel after surveying stations' interests in packaged feeds to supplement Schedule X, a variety service that PBS launched in 1995 for home satellite viewers and DBS subscribers. More than half of all PBS member licensees now carry some portion of Schedule X, according to Merlyn Reineke, senior director of PBS satellite channels.

Out of several channel ideas that PBS floated in its surveys, stations were resoundingly interested in the Kids Channel; nevertheless, stations' strong early response to the Kids Channel is "a little surprising," says Gwen Wood, v.p. of distribution services.

Many of the early adopters are small rural stations or educational licensees looking for a low-cost way to enhance their services. In Atlanta, WPBA will cablecast the PBS Kids Channel on its second cable channel in the evenings, supplementing a daytime schedule devoted to ITV programs, according to Nancy Southgate, manager of TV services.

WOUB in Athens, Ohio, will carry PBS Kids on the Ohio University Telecommunications Center's local cable channel in the mornings, when its broadcast service is delivering ITV programs, and on weekends. The cable system reaches only 7,500 subscribers, but WOUB wants to gauge the community's reaction to it, says General Manager Carolyn Bailey Lewis. "Since we'll be having to program multiple channels in the future, this will give us an opportunity to see how that's going to work."

The Kids Channel will resemble Schedule X in some ways: for a license fee of $1,000 a year, stations that participate in its National Program Service can distribute the Kids Channel on their main over-the-air channels, or via noncommercial cable, through local ITFS systems, or through "additional local broadcast channels," including include DTV. Per-subscriber fees paid by DBS providers to PBS will subsidize channel operations.

The channel is scheduled as a six-hour rotating block in mornings and afternoons. A separate primetime block features three hours of PBS's most popular programs--Teletubbies, two episodes of Barney & Friends, Arthur, Zooboomafoo and Zoom. This block is repeated twice, and then Teletubbies leads the overnight block. PBS will schedule different episodes than those distributed the same day through the National Program Service.

Stations broadcasting PBS Kids through their main analog service must carry at least five consecutive hours daily, but, PBS is packaging the service so that stations can easily customize it. "The break schedule will be predictable with in- and out-points for stations that will allow them to easily localize the channel with their own branding, interstitials and underwriter spots," says Wood.

Nine-year-olds will like it, too

As much as PBS Kids presents an opportunity for public TV stations and PBS to expand and enhance their services, it also gives PBS a new vehicle for fighting back its kidvid competitors.

The inroads made by commercial TV services for kids have fully informed PBS's branding and promotional strategy that accompanies the Kids Channel launch.

"In the last few years, so many more channels are coming on the scene that are targeted to kids," explains Carole Feld, senior v.p. of communications and brand management. "They position themselves as being educational and entertaining, because that's the place to be right now. But they're not the real thing: we are, and we need to make sure that parents and caregivers and kids know that."

Early this summer, research by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found that the percentage of parents who recognize PBS as the best source of children's programming declined from 61.1 percent in 1997 to 44.3 percent this year; the percentage of those who cite cable channels rose slightly to 38.4 percent [earlier article].

A widely disseminated PBS memo outlining the branding strategy for PBS Kids cites other competitive threats--the introduction of new kids' channels; aggressive challenges to PBS's "preschool stronghold"; the loss of exclusive rights to Sesame Street (old episodes of which now appear on Noggin, a digital cable channel started by Nickelodeon and CTW); and the growth of "a wide variety of off-air brand extensions" by commercial competitors.

PBS's communications plan to help fend off these challenges is to create a unified brand identity for all of its children's services. The new PBS Kids logo--featuring a "thought bubble" over the round head of a grinning, wide-eyed boy or girl--represents exactly how the image-makers want viewers to perceive PBS Kids. "It's about imagination, thinking and using your head, but in a fun way," explains Feld.

PBS will carry the thought bubble concept throughout the new packaging elements and break materials to be sent to stations in October. "We have to make sure that we control all the messages so that we can create a strong brand," she adds. "What we're hoping is that the container or thought bubble becomes a signature of PBS Kids, kind of like the mouse ears for Disney or the MTV."

PBS intends to offer "early adopter" grants to stations that agree to adopt the new on-air look within a yet-to-be-determined time frame, according to Feld. Stations will be able to spend their grants on a range of promotional activities.

PBS executives predict that the new look will strengthen the appeal of PBS Kids for a wide range of age groups. PBS's strongest audience of "little kids"--preschoolers and early elementary students--will get it, along with their parents, says John Wilson, acting program chief and senior v.p. of programming services. "A nine-year old will not think it's babyish. They'll see it as a brand that works for them."

Feld wants kids to see public TV as a cool place that's worth checking out, and she believes it won't be hard to create that perception. "I actually think it will be quite easy, because, the truth is, we never really positioned PBS and the local stations as a destination for kids."

She describes the Internet's popularity as evidence that "the combination of information and entertainment is now becoming cool for kids. PBS perfectly embodies those two attributes, ... so I think it will be something kids really gravitate toward."



To Current's home page

Earlier news: PBS among the nonprofits seeking slots on DBS satellites, 1999.

Earlier news: Pediatricians again frown on TV for young children, without mentioning Laa Laa, Tinky Winky, Po or Dipsy by name, 1999.

Outside link: PBS Kids area of PBS Online.



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