Beecham didn’t just do the preschool stuff. He took Disney’s block of preschool shows — Playhouse Disney — and British-ized it. Instead of having programs like Rolie Polie Olie play two short episodes to fill a half hour, like on the U.S. channel, Beecham ran one episode at a time; brought in a host to introduce the shows, do crafts and read cards from viewers on-air; and built an actual playhouse as the host’s set. When the channel debuted, ratings flew off the charts. He then took the show international, so Playhouse Disney filmed in Madrid, Paris, Buenos Aires — with Beecham traveling to and fro so frequently that he logged two million frequent-flyer miles in one year.
“I never saw my family,” he says. “It was crazy.” The man charged with entertaining the world’s preschoolers was missing his own growing up. And he, of all people, knew how crucial that age was, development-wise. “Preschoolers are little sponges that soak in everything,” he says. Not that his family didn’t visit him on the road.
“We’ve been to Disney a lot,” says his wife, Sarah. Beecham doesn’t underplay the strain on his family life: “It was really difficult,” he says.
It was about to get worse. Beecham got wind that the first-ever 24-hour preschool channel was launching in the U.S. — a partnership between Comcast, which would handle the distribution, and Sesame Workshop, PBS and HiT Entertainment, which would supply programs for that hungry American market of 19.8 million preschoolers. Other than that, there was no concept. No vision. There was just a name: Sprout.
“I wanted it,” Beecham says. He called up some pals at HiT, discussed what he’d done with Playhouse Disney, and revealed his big-picture plan: Since Sprout’s shows weren’t going to be new, the channel needed a radical approach to packaging them. What if they created shows around the shows? What if, à la the Today show, there were three-hour blocks with hosts (and puppets) who would talk directly to the kids watching (à la Mr. Rogers) and introduce the shows as if they were watching them with the kids? And what if those blocks followed the rhythm of a preschooler’s day: upbeat in the morning to help kids wake up, educational in the late morning, interactive in the afternoon, and mellow in the evening, toward bedtime? Sprout wouldn’t just be a channel for preschoolers, Beecham explained. It would be a destination.
Less than two weeks later, in May 2005, he was on a plane, moving to Philly. His wife and kids would stay in London until September — when the channel launched. In the meantime, Beecham would come up with … oh … the channel’s entire identity, plus the promos, graphics, theme songs, hosts, puppets. He’d pick the programs, then film the promos, lead-ins, lead-outs, and everything else to fill 24 hours, seven days a week. And he’d do it all in four months.