The call from Australia came at 5 p.m. on a Friday in May.
Andrew Beecham was still in his office on the 30th floor of the Comcast Building. It started as a casual chat between two old friends: How’s the wife? The kids? But Beecham, like a four-year-old struck with the awesomest idea on the planet, couldn’t contain himself. He spouted off a proposition: What if the two of them started working together? What if he gave the musical group his friend manages a TV show … a three-hour TV show … a three-hour daily TV show … with puppets! (Beecham loves puppets.)
“We need to talk about this more,” the friend said.
“We should,” said Beecham.
“How about Monday morning in your office? At nine?” said the friend.
“I’m getting on a plane.”
And he did. The man arrived on Monday morning and met his friend Andrew, 46, who was sporting that easy smile of his, those funky glasses, that brown hair combed perfectly to the side. The two talked all day, and by six were popping open champagne at Tangerine in Old City. The deal was sealed. Andrew Beecham had scored the biggest coup of his career.
He’d landed the Wiggles.
Yes, those Wiggles. The four Australian guys in primary colors with a pirate friend named Captain Feathersword. The ones who drive around in a big red car and sing songs to kids about fruit salad. The group that’s sold more than 23 million DVDs and seven million CDs, and whose sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden beat a record set by the Rolling Stones. The highest-earning entertainers in Australia. Those Wiggles.
And at 6 a.m. on August 24th, The Wiggly Waffle Show, starring the Wiggles (who, incidentally, left Disney for this gig), became the newest addition to the lineup at Sprout, the preschool television channel created in 2005 by Andrew Beecham. Officially, he’s Sprout’s senior vice president of programming. Unofficially, he’s the Brit who, right here in Philly, launched the craziest, riskiest venture in preschool TV since the debut of a big yellow talking bird.
The first 24-hour channel for two-to-five-year olds? (Aren’t they supposed to watch less TV?)
Airing only reruns of programs like Sesame Street and Thomas and Friends, which have been on TV for, like, ever? (What? No Super WHY!? No WordGirl?)
Encouraging parents to watch with their kids? (Isn’t TV what parents use to babysit while they do other things?)
Barely six minutes of advertising each hour, each weekday? (Doesn’t the FCC allow up to 12?) No ads targeted to kids? (Then … um … what’s the point?)
It’s all so backward. So anti-mass media. So un-American.
And it’s working.
EVEN BEFORE SPROUT sprouted — before it exploded into 47 million homes, before its On Demand programs logged an unheard-of 650 million orders, and before this past spring, when moms of preschoolers ranked it as their favorite kid channel (ahead of PBS, Noggin, Nickelodeon and even, yes, Disney) — it was conceived as part of Comcast’s master plan to become a programming empire (i.e., to take over the world). Along with sports (the Versus channel) and entertainment (E! and Style), kids have always been on Comcast’s priority list. Remember that failed bid to buy Disney in 2004?
“We get more from Sprout than from our other channels,” says Jeff Shell, president of Comcast’s programming group. The channel doesn’t just drive tons of VOD orders; it’s in super-high demand with subscribers, which brings in those monthly programming fees from cable operators who offer Sprout on their lineups. Cha-ching.
But that’s just the start. To really play with the big boys, Sprout needs more viewers. More viewers mean more distribution, which means more advertisers, which means more revenue, which will allow Sprout to develop its own content (that costs millions). Content equals characters. Characters equal DVDs and video games and parents walking into Target and recognizing Sprout products. That’s when the real money rolls in.
Beecham knew when he signed on nearly four years ago that wooing viewers depended on one thing: moms. If moms didn’t like Sprout, didn’t trust it, didn’t flip it on while they were making dinner, then the channel — and Beecham — were done. Which was why, barely three months after Sprout launched on-air, he was freaking out. He and his boss, Sprout president Sandy Wax, had driven from Philly to a research facility in Baltimore, where they would listen as a focus group of 50 moms talked about the new channel. Beecham watched the interviews through a one-way mirror. He didn’t say a word. He just sat, eating M&Ms from a bowl. By the handful.
It wasn’t as if he was new to this whole TV thing. It’d been his plan ever since he graduated from high school in England, when his headmaster asked him, “What are you going to be when you grow up, Beecham?”
“I’m going to be in television,” he answered.
“Don’t be so stupid, son.”
Beecham decided to be stupid, earning a degree in TV and music from the University of Kent in 1986, starting a production company called Pink Hippo, and jumping into the glamorous world of corporate training videos, where he was named Young Entrepreneur of the Year. He landed a job at the BBC and worked his way up, eventually launching the company’s international channel, BBC Prime.
When Disney decided to start a channel in the U.K., Beecham wanted in. He started in promotions but got his big break in 1998 due to two simple facts — his daughter Hannah was two, and his son Ollie was six months old. “I was the only one at Disney who had young kids,” he says, “So they said, ‘You do the preschool stuff.’”
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.
“We were flying by the seat of our pants,” Beecham says. And that never could have happened at Disney, he adds, because Disney’s a machine, with countless policies and people who must sign off on every detail. (In fact, years ago, when Beecham tried to sell his Playhouse Disney concept to the U.S. channel, a bigwig there told him, “That’s great, Andy, but it will never work here. Preschoolers’ attention span isn’t the same over here.”) With Sprout, it was just Beecham and Lisa O’Brien, a creative director from Playhouse Disney he’d recruited, in a Philly hotel bar, writing the first script of what would become the channel’s signature — The Good Night Show.
Beecham knew (or at least had heard from his wife) that winding down preschoolers for bed was the hardest part of a parent’s day. He also knew that at 6 p.m., other channels with preschool content switched to more grown-up programming. On his Good Night Show every night at 6 p.m., a host and a pillow-y star-shaped puppet would sit on a dreamy blue-and-purple set. In between introducing shows, Star (like a typical four-year-old) would beg the host to let him stay up just a little longer, while the host would keep reminding him that it was almost bedtime. At 9 p.m., when the show ended, Star would finally fall asleep.
On September 26, 2005, Sprout went on-air, anchored by The Good Night Show. Beecham had had big plans — eventually there’d be a live morning block with a chicken puppet named Chica; an afternoon block involving finger-puppet hosts who play in a jazz band; the Birthday Card segment, for which parents could send in homemade birthday cards that might show up on-air. (“We used to whoop for joy when we got one card in the mail,” Beecham says. “Now we get 10,000 a week.”) But there hadn’t been time to get it all up and running. By now, his family was set up in a lovely million-dollar home in Wayne. Ollie and Hannah were enrolled in school. And Beecham was still waiting for a sign that he was right (and the Disney bigwig wrong): that this crazy, interactive 24-hour channel for two-to-five-year-olds would work.
As Beecham sat feverishly eating M&Ms at the focus group that day in Baltimore, he knew that no matter how much he believed in Sprout, no matter how much energy and lost family time he’d dedicated to it, only one thing mattered: the moms.
And then he heard one mom weigh in:
“The Good Night Show saved my life.”
OF COURSE, NOT all parents love Sprout.
Mike, a Center City dad of a two-year-old, compares its Sesame Street reruns to Chinese torture: “I seem to be constantly watching the singing episode, the farm episode, the exercising episode … ” Kristy, mother of two in Wallingford, thinks Sprout’s shows are “pretty sleepy.” And Danna, Haddon Township mother of a four-year-old, has some thoughts on the Sprout show Caillou, which stars a four-year-old cartoon boy: “Caillou is a little asshole. You know, in one episode, he threw a fit because he wanted to get his Christmas tree today, and his pansy of a father, instead of putting him in a time-out for being a little shit, took him outside to decorate a living tree. What a douche.”
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.”
IT’S JULY, AND Andrew Beecham’s back in his office, with photos on the walls showing him posing with Elmo, with Oscar the Grouch. A graph on the back of his door charts his weight in preparation for the Broad Street Run, and there’s the electric drum kit in the corner, which he actually plays. Just not so much lately.
After the Wiggles signed on in May, his team went into hyperdrive — again — to come up with concepts, scripts and promos in just two weeks — again — and then jump on a plane the day after his daughter’s bat mitzvah to go to Australia for two weeks to film The Wiggly Waffle Show.
On top of that, the Sprout staff just shot the third season of The Good Night Show, and is “refreshing” the channel for the first time — making the graphics for the logos look more homemade, as if a kid glued together buttons, pipe cleaners, felt and cardboard. (“We love cardboard,” Beecham says.) The refresh rolls out this month.
But now Beecham’s practically jumping out of his khakis to see the rough cuts of the Australia shoot.
“That shoot was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever experienced,” says Mike Conway, managing director of the Wiggles, the man who called Beecham that Friday afternoon just a few months before. “The guys just clicked with it. It was freaky.”
This, Beecham is certain, is going to be the coolest thing he’s done yet. Sure, the Wiggles will bring their ginormous fan base — known, technically, as “Wiggle Mania” — to Sprout. And sure, that might be just what the channel needs to jump its distribution into 90 million homes, the Big Dog zone. But Beecham is most psyched about the set. It’s like Laugh-In’s, but the windows don’t open out of a wall; they open out of a waffle. Every episode, Jeff (a.k.a. the Purple Wiggle) is still sleeping when the show starts; kids send in suggestions for how the Wiggles should wake him up. (Bang a cowbell! Play a trombone!) Kids can go online to suggest toppings for the waffle that will fall down from the sky, or send photos of themselves and appear on-air as the Fifth Wiggle. And of course there’s a puppet … or actually, a mascot/juice box with apple-slice feet, named JB.
Beecham sits in the editing room, watching cuts. There’s no music. No background. There are just Wiggles popping out of waffle windows like Goldie Hawn in drag. They sing about yawning. Then JB the juice box introduces another feature: kids sending in video requests for songs that will air during the The Wiggly Waffle Show. “Big Red Car.” “Fruit Salad.” “Hot Potatoes.”
“And this one,” says JB, “is from Andrew in Philadelphia!”
It’s just a placeholder. Everyone knows it. But Beecham, Peter Pan that he is, can’t help but giggle: “That’s me!”