And not all are entirely gung-ho about the audience-participation bit (like sending in those birthday cards). “I use TV to keep them entertained while I get stuff done,” says Jenn in Marlton. “I don’t know if I would turn on the TV to interact with the kids — I use it more not to interact with them.”
Plus, doesn’t the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that kids over two watch no more than one to two hours of TV a day?
“That ship has sailed,” says Amy Jordan, director of the Media and Developing Child sector of the Annenberg Center. Why? Because 79 percent of parents admit to letting their kids watch more TV than they’re supposed to. As a result, media researchers have shifted their focus from quantity to quality of programming. And here’s what they’ve found: Preschoolers learn best from TV that breaks the fourth wall, so that kids are being talked to, directly, through the screen; the person — a real, live person is best — needs to be warm and nurturing and help kids make connections between the show they just watched and their lives. Which is precisely what Beecham is doing with Sprout.
Beecham, however, hasn’t seen that research. Yes, his curriculum consultants make sure his ideas are appropriate for preschoolers, but the ideas come from his “gut,” he says: What would a three-year-old like to see? And he just knows, like he’s somehow cosmically in tune with the little buggers.
“He’s amazing with kids,” says his wife, who is still surprised at how he seems to get both boys (taking Ollie, now 11, camping and sailing) and girls (advising Hannah, now 13, not to drop her British accent — high-school boys will think it’s “cute”).
It comes as no shock, then, that the most important aspect of Sprout reflects the most significant finding of the research — that parents should watch TV with their kids. Which was the model when the parents of today’s preschoolers were themselves preschoolers, watching Electric Company and Sesame Street, which actually added content for adults — naming a character Placido Flamingo, or having R.E.M. sing about “Furry Happy Monsters.”
“Sesame stopped that because they realized they didn’t have parents in the audience like they used to,” says Jordan.
Beecham is trying to bring parents back. And they’re coming. Because someone is making the 19,000 calls to Sprout’s Mother’s Day special. Someone’s sending the 50,000 e-mails and cards every month. And enough someones called their cable providers, asking for Sprout, that its distribution grew by 30 percent last year.
“He’s made a real, genuine connection with kids and families,” says Josh Selig, Emmy-award-winning creator of the super-successful Wonder Pets! for Nick Jr. and Oobi for Noggin. “Andrew brought community back to preschool TV.”