|Headquarters||30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, New York, U.S.|
|Picture format||1080i HDTV|
(downscaled to letterboxed 480i for the SDTV feed)
|Owner||NBCUniversal Television and Streaming|
|Parent||NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group|
|Webcast||Watch live (U.S. pay-TV subscribers only)|
|Available on many systems||Channel slots vary on each provider|
|FuboTV, YouTube TV, Hulu Live TV|
Universal Kids (formerly known as PBS Kids Sprout and Sprout) is an American pay television channel owned by the NBCUniversal Television and Streaming division of Comcast's NBCUniversal through NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment.
The channel first launched on September 26, 2005, originally 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 rebranded as Universal Kids (derived from sister film studio Universal Pictures), and began to devote its evening and primetime lineup to programming targeting a youth audience, including DreamWorks Animation content, unscripted programming (including game shows, and youth spin-offs of reality series from its sister networks, such as American Ninja Warrior and Top Chef), and imported series from other countries. Universal Kids continues to air preschool-oriented programming throughout its daytime schedule.
As Sprout, it was available to approximately 56 million American pay television households (48.2% of households with television) in the United States as of January 2016.
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 partly created to compete against Nick Jr. and its sister network Noggin; at the time, Noggin was co-owned by the Children's Television Workshop (the production company behind Sesame Street) and Nickelodeon. Because the pay-TV rights to the Children's Television Workshop's programs were owned by Noggin, the channel did not broadcast any CTW programming, including longtime PBS staple Sesame Street, with the exception of Dragon Tales (which premiered during the PTV era).
The channel was unsuccessful and had only reached 9 million households as of 2002, compared to Noggin's 23.3 million households at the time. Once the channel shut down on September 26, 2005 (alongside PBS YOU), 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 (before Sprout's rebranding to Universal Kids four months later), this time being structured as a multi-platform service 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 (formerly known as the Children's Television 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 (VOD) service before launching its linear pay-TV channel. The network would be ad-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. 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 chose to not follow the convention of bundling short-form series into half-hour episodes 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, stated 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."
Effects of Comcast/NBCUniversal merger (NBC era)
Comcast acquired a 51% majority stake of NBCUniversal from General Electric (GE) 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 never 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, therefore giving Comcast full ownership. Its operations were then merged into its NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group subsidiary. As a result of Comcast earning full ownership of the brand, the "PBS Kids" branding was dropped from the network's name (leaving the network 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 weekend mornings, 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.
Under NBCUniversal ownership, the channel began to shift away from its original focus on library content, and invested more heavily in original programming to displace older, licensed content to better compete with fellow preschool-oriented pay-TV networks Disney Junior (part of Disney-ABC) and Nick Jr. (part of ViacomCBS), which in turn was also partially made by Sesame Workshop. Under NBCUniversal, programs seen on the network such as The Chica Show earned increased visibility airing on NBC as part of the NBC Kids block.
In mid-2016, it was announced that Sandy Wax would be leaving NBCUniversal at the end of the year. Deirdre Brennan, formerly of Corus Entertainment, was named the new president of Sprout in January 2017.
As Universal Kids (2017–present)
On May 1, 2017, NBCUniversal announced that Sprout would rebrand as Universal Kids on September 9, 2017. With the rebranding, the network revamped its evening and primetime programming to aim 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. LT.
Network president Deirdre Brennan claimed that Universal Kids' new programming would be renowned 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 included 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 United States.
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 as a competitor in the space. Universal Kids has also aligned itself with Canada-based DHX Media and its Family, Family Chrgd and Family Jr. television channels, acquiring and co-producing a number of series together. DHX had recently signed a partnership with DreamWorks.
The channel has seen a significant decrease in viewership since the relaunch, with Michael Schneider (then of 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 unveiled a new logo and branding designed by the design agency Kill 2 Birds.
On June 19, 2019, it was reported that in a bid to ensure long-term viability, Universal Kids 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 series Powerbirds, Where's Waldo? 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.
Original programs produced for the network include the Top Chef youth-oriented spin-off Top Chef Junior, an American edition of the Japanese game show The Noise, a revival of Beat the Clock, Get Out of My Room, and American Ninja Warrior Junior. In addition, following NBCUniversal's acquisition of DreamWorks Animation, the channel airs several 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, Home: Adventures with Tip & Oh and Trolls: The Beat Goes On!. The rest of the network's programming is sourced from the international children's market.
In Summer 2020, the network began to program marathon 'best-of volume' blocks of one program featuring individual segments for several hours rather than a traditional block of consecutive episodes, emulating the model of the official YouTube channels for prevailing children's series, which either feature a continuous live stream of the series, or an uploaded video several hours in length containing many episodes.
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 3:00 p.m. Pacific Time (6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time/3:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Pacific Time 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, stating 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 premiered 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 different "tiny house" set with additional areas and camera options. Unlike Sunny Side Up, the segments are pre-recorded instead of broadcast live; supervising producer Vinny Steves felt that the live format was too "limiting", and explained 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 older shows that aired on its channel when it was originally known as Sprout. The Wiggles on June 5, 2017, The Chica Show on May 20, 2019 and Justin Time on November 19, 2021.
Universal Kids HD
Universal Kids HD is a high-definition simulcast feed of Universal Kids launched in September 2010 on Comcast's default 1080i resolution format. Currently, the network's entire original programming roster post-2010 is carried in high definition, along with most airings of films. Available on the vast majority of pay television providers, it is downscaled at the provider headend level to provide a standard definition equivalent for those systems.
- DreamWorks Channel, this network's worldwide equivalent, outside the United States and the United Kingdom.
- Peacock, where some Universal Kids content is hosted.
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