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.