|Launched||September 26, 2005|
|Owned by||NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group|
(NBCUniversal Broadcast, Cable, Sports and News)
|Picture format||1080i HDTV|
(downscaled to letterboxed 480i for the SDTV feed)
|Headquarters||30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, New York, United States|
|Formerly called||PBS Kids Sprout (2005–2013)|
|Replaced||PBS Kids Channel (first generation; on most providers)|
|DirecTV||Channel 295 (HD)|
|Available in most service providers||Channel slots vary on each provider|
|Google Fiber||Channel 430|
|Xbox Live||Internet Protocol television|
|AT&T TV Now||Internet Protocol television|
|YouTube TV||Internet Protocol television|
|Hulu Live TV||Internet Protocol television|
|PlayStation Vue||Internet Protocol television|
Universal Kids (formerly PBS Kids and Sprout) is an American children's television channel owned by the NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group division of NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast. The channel was launched on September 26, 2005.
The network was first launched as a joint venture between PBS, Comcast, Sesame Workshop, and HIT Entertainment devoted to children's television programming aimed at a preschool audience. Following Comcast's purchase of NBCUniversal, the company gradually bought out the remaining owners' shares in the channel, reaching full ownership in 2013. The network's operations were subsequently relocated from Philadelphia to New York City, and the "PBS Kids" name was dropped from its branding.
On September 9, 2017, the network re-launched as Universal Kids (derived from sister film studio Universal Pictures), and began to devote its evening and primetime lineup to programming targeting youths aged 8–12—including programs from the library of recently-acquired DreamWorks Animation, imported series from Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and non-scripted programming (including game shows, and youth spin-offs of reality series from its sister networks, such as American Ninja Warrior and Top Chef). Universal Kids continues to broadcast a block of preschool programming during its daytime schedule.
As of January 2016, the channel was available to approximately 56 million American pay television households (48.2% of households with television) in the United States (when it was still primarily known as Sprout).
Universal Kids traces its origins to the PBS Kids network (referred to as the PBS Kids Channel in press materials), which launched on September 6, 1999 coinciding with the rebranding of PTV, PBS’ children's programming block, to PBS Kids that day. The PBS Kids feed was available on high-tier subscription providers, and was also offered to PBS member stations for use on a "cablecast" service (a subscription-based local channel provided by the member station) or for use on the member station's free-to-air analog channel to provide a portion of the daytime PBS Kids programming on the station. Participating stations were required to pay an annual fee of $1,000 to use the feed. At launch, 32 PBS member stations had signed up to use the service. The channel was created, in part, to compete against Nick Jr. and its sister network Noggin). Because the pay TV rights to the Children's Television Workshop’s program library were owned by Noggin (which CTW owned a 50% interest in at the time), the channel did not broadcast any CTW programming, including Sesame Street, a longtime staple of PBS' children's programming lineup. The CTW-produced Dragon Tales, which premiered on the same day as the launch of the PBS Kids Channel, was the only exception to this.
The channel was unsuccessful and had only reached 9 million households as of 2002, compared to Nick Jr.'s 23.3 million households at the time. Once the channel shut down, many member stations which had been using the PBS Kids channel on their cablecast channels or free-to-air digital subchannels continued to operate their children's channels as local services scheduled independently of a satellite feed, while other member stations shut down their kids channels entirely and redirected viewers of those channels to the newly launched PBS Kids Sprout. PBS later revived the PBS Kids Channel on January 16, 2017, this time with an online streaming option in addition to utilizing largely the same distribution methods that had been used for the original channel.
As PBS Kids Sprout/Sprout (2005–2017)
On October 20, 2004, PBS announced that it had entered into a joint partnership with cable provider Comcast, and production companies HIT Entertainment and Sesame Workshop to launch a then-unnamed subscription-based channel aimed at preschool children. On April 4, 2005, Comcast announced that the network would be known as PBS Kids Sprout, launching initially as a branded video on-demand service before launching its linear cable channel. The network would be advertising-supported, but ads would only air between programs in small quantities, and would be aimed towards parents and caregivers.
The linear network officially launched on September 26, 2005, with a reach of around 16 million viewers across Comcast and Insight cable providers. Zoom was the last program shown on the original PBS Kids Channel while Boohbah was the first program to air on PBS Kids Sprout. The multi-platform approach was designed to appeal to different viewing habits, with the linear channel focused on variety, and the on-demand services focused on instantaneous access to specific programs. The linear service was designed around dayparted programming blocks, featuring activities and other feature segments presented by on-air hosts. Some of these segments were designed to promote supplemental content (including activities and interactive features) on Sprout's website.
Sprout's scheduling also eschewed the practice of combining multiple episodes of short-form children's series into a single half-hour episode with interstitial segments for U.S. broadcast, electing to air such programs individually in their original format. Andrew Beecham, a former director of worldwide programming strategy for the Playhouse Disney brand, explained that with this practice, "you get to sample a huge variety of material. You'll get all these smaller shows that translate into something bigger." The network would be advertising-supported, but ads would only air between programs in small quantities, and would be aimed towards parents and caregivers.
Effects of Comcast/NBCUniversal merger
Comcast acquired a 51% majority stake of NBCUniversal in January 2011, and would assume full ownership of the company in 2013. As a result, Comcast's interest in Sprout was turned over to the company. When Apax Partners sold HIT Entertainment to Mattel on October 24, 2011, HIT's ownership interest in Sprout was not included in the deal and was retained by Apax Partners. In December 2012, Sesame Workshop sold its interest in Sprout to NBCUniversal, which in turn later acquired Apax and PBS's shares in the network on March 19, 2013 and November 13, 2013 respectively, thus giving Comcast full ownership. Its operations were then merged into its NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group subsidiary, the "PBS Kids" branding was dropped from the network's name (leaving it as simply Sprout), and operations were moved from Philadelphia to New York City. On July 7, 2012, Sprout began to produce a Saturday morning block for NBC aimed at preschoolers, NBC Kids, along with MiTelemundo, a Spanish-dubbed version of the block airing on sister network Telemundo that airs on both Saturdays and Sundays, which replaced Qubo (a previous joint venture between NBCUniversal, Ion Media, Corus Entertainment, Scholastic, and Classic Media, which was later acquired by DreamWorks Animation and is now, in turn, owned by NBCUniversal), which had been airing on NBC and Telemundo since September 2006. On Sprout's 10th anniversary on September 26, 2015, the network received a brand refresh and shifted focus towards original shows, such as Nina's World, and phased out older acquired shows such as Barney & Friends (which later returned to the network in 2018), Thomas & Friends and Super Why! due to the network's licenses for these shows expiring and were replaced with newer acquired shows such as Maya the Bee and Sydney Sailboat. Only two shows that have been on the channel since its launch, Caillou and The Berenstain Bears, remained on the network. Caillou continued to air on the network until March 31, 2019, while The Berenstain Bears continued to air on the network until the channel rebranded into Universal Kids. On October 1, 2016, NBC Kids was replaced with Litton Entertainment's The More You Know educational block oriented towards teenagers 13–16 years old.
Since NBCUniversal took over management of the network as shown above, Sprout evolved from its initial intent to serve as a home for archived content produced by the partners, and invested more heavily in original programming in order to better compete with fellow preschool-oriented pay-TV networks Disney Junior and Nick Jr., which in turn was also partly made by SW. Under NBCUniversal, programs seen on the network such as The Chica Show gained increased visibility airing on NBC as part of the NBC Kids block.
As Universal Kids (2017–present)
On May 1, 2017, NBCUniversal announced that Sprout would be relaunched as Universal Kids on September 9, 2017. With the rebranding, the network revamped its evening and primetime programming to target preteens aged 8–12. Universal Kids continues to broadcast preschool programming, initially retaining the Sprout brand, occupying 15 hours per-day of programming from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. ET.
Network president Deirdre Brennan explained that Universal Kids' new programming would be distinguished from its competitors, stating that "we're offering something to 2 to 12 year olds that has a slightly different purpose — widening their eyes, opening their minds and celebrating many aspects of being a kid. We have great [shows] for the preschoolers, which is important, but we needed to grow up with the rest of the family." Universal Kids will initially focus on acquired programs and unscripted series (such as Top Chef Junior, a spin-off of the Bravo reality franchise Top Chef), with plans for scripted original programming in the future. NBCUniversal intended to make "significant" investments in original content for Universal Kids over the next three years. The launch lineup featured a large number of international acquisitions, particularly from the U.K., Australia, and Canada; Brennan acknowledged that since youth audiences had become "globally aware", the network wanted to showcase foreign series that had not yet aired in the U.S.
Universal Pictures' acquisition of DreamWorks Animation in 2016 would also be leveraged by Universal Kids to bolster its programming; industry observers felt that the DWA purchase and the launch of Universal Kids were meant to help NBCUniversal establish a viable multi-platform presence in children's media, and give the company a competitor to other major children's brands such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney Channel. Universal Kids has also aligned itself with DHX Media and its Canadian Family, Family Chrgd and Family Jr. television channels by acquiring and co-producing a number of series together. DHX had previously signed a partnership with DreamWorks.
After the relaunch, the channel has seen a significant erosion in viewership, with IndieWire reporting a 30% decline in 2017, followed by a 73% drop in 2018. Brennan was replaced by Frances Berwick as network president in February 2019.
On April 12, 2019, Universal Kids adopted a new logo and branding designed by the design agency Kill 2 Birds.
On June 19, 2019, Kidscreen reported that in a bid to ensure long-term viability, the channel had ceased developing new original series, leaving it to focus on acquired content, and productions from DWA. The network's then-upcoming original shows, such as the new Where's Waldo? series and Norman Picklestripes would air as scheduled, along with other upcoming originals such as the DHX co-commissioned Bajillionaires, Create the Escape, and Top Chef Junior: Remix. Universal Kids will now transition to relying more on acquired shows and series produced by DreamWorks.
Original programs produced for the network include the Top Chef youth-oriented spin-off Top Chef Junior, a U.S. edition of the Japanese game show The Noise, a revival of Beat the Clock, and American Ninja Warrior Junior. In addition, following the acquisition of DreamWorks, the channel currently several DreamWorks Animation programs that were originally Netflix-exclusive: All Hail King Julien, DreamWorks Dragons, The Mr. Peabody & Sherman Show, Noddy, Toyland Detective, The Adventures of Puss in Boots, Dinotrux, and Home: Adventures with Tip & Oh, and airings of Universal Pictures animated films. The rest of the network's programming is mainly programming from the international children's market.
Universal Kids Preschool
Universal Kids Preschool serves as the channel's current daytime block, which runs from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time (3:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekends). Up until January 26, 2018, the block utilized the network's former name, Sprout.[failed verification] Deirdre Brennan emphasized that Universal Kids would continue to focus on its preschool programming, explaining that "the greatest thing is, there is nothing to fix there. Sprout is a beautiful brand. If anything, we want to invest more in original production. There is more we can explore there."
Prior to the Universal Kids rebranding, the network replaced its long-running morning block Sunny Side Up with Sprout House (renamed Snug's House in 2018), which debuted on August 14, 2017 and is hosted by Carly Ciarrocchi and the new character Snug, a talking dog portrayed by puppeteer Chris Palmieri, through 90-second segments throughout the block. The program was designed to be more flexible to produce than its predecessor, with a varied "tiny house" set with additional areas and camera options. Unlike Sunny Side Up, its segments are pre-recorded rather than broadcast live; supervising producer Vinny Steves felt that the live format was too "limiting", and stated that the new format was also designed to enable the segments to be distributed on digital platforms such as social media. With the launch of Sprout House, the network began to downplay its longtime mascot, Chica, although she will continue to be featured in certain segments (such as Chica at School).
Since 2017, the network has been bringing back shows that used to air on its channel when it was originally known as Sprout. The Wiggles returned on June 5, 2017, Barney & Friends returned on December 17, 2018 and The Chica Show returned on May 20, 2019.
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