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LOS ANGELES — Sorry, Dora. You’ve been dethroned.
Nick Jr. has long been cable television’s No. 1 channel dedicated solely to preschool children. The service, owned by Viacom, had a smash hit in “Dora the Explorer,” which made its debut in 2000. Competition was also light: the Walt Disney Company, preoccupied with hunting for preteenagers, operated no 24-hour preschool channel.
But in the year since Disney introduced Disney Junior, a channel aimed at the tiniest of viewers, Nick Jr. ratings have plummeted more than 50 percent, according to Nielsen. On Tuesday Nielsen data for Disney Junior will be revealed for the first time; the new channel is expected to beat its rival, even though Nick Jr. is available in 75 million homes, 25 percent more than Disney Junior.
Disney now has the top three preschool cable programs, led by what appears to be a monster-size new hit, “Sofia the First,” a cartoon that stars a pint-size princess and her zany animal friends.
Although ad revenue is small — Disney Junior accepts limited sponsorships; Nick Jr. allows advertising aimed at mothers, but only a bit — the potential payoff in the toy aisle is huge. Even at 13, “Dora the Explorer” generates about $1 billion annually in global retail sales. “People have been saying ‘Dora is dead’ for years, but the old girl still has a strong following,” said Chris Byrne, a toy analyst.
Merchandise related to Disney Junior shows is already catching fire among retailers. Disney said it expected sales to surpass $1.5 billion in its current fiscal year, a 50 percent increase from last year.
“A massive, massive success” is how Richard Barry, chief merchandising officer for Toys “R” Us, described products related to “Doc McStuffins,” a new Disney Junior hit about a girl who runs a clinic for her toys. One doll sold out so fast it soon traded on eBay for $300.
Animated preschool shows also draw strong audiences in reruns, and some easy dubbing makes them a valuable overseas export. Beyond all of this, the value of future brand loyalty is incalculable. Anne M. Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, has devised her fast-growing TV portfolio to retain children as they grow, just as Viacom tries to hook toddlers into the Nickelodeon family.
Disney’s hope is that they will start with Disney Junior; migrate to the Disney Channel, aimed at ages 6 to 14; and then move on to boy-centric Disney XD or ABC Family, which is on a hot streak of its own. “These children are the Walt Disney Company’s most important audience,” Ms. Sweeney said. “They’re the future, and this is their first introduction to our brand.”
Preschool television has long been a rough and tumble playground, with broadcasters competing against upstart cable channels. Children ages 2 to 5 spend an average of 32 hours in front of a TV each week, according to Nielsen. But competition is increasing. For media companies, this represents an area of growth and, as more children move to mobile devices, there is more pressure to keep their attention.
The battle has moved to apps, with Nickelodeon, Disney and Sesame Workshop, producer of PBS’s “Sesame Street,” competing to funnel preschool shows to iPads — by some measures the new electronic baby sitters.
Nickelodeon in particular is fighting back at Disney Junior. Last month, it unveiled four new preschool programs, including a spinoff of “Dora the Explorer.” Another new series called “Wallykazam!” tries to teach literacy, embedding a reading curriculum in a plot that involves a boy and his pet dragon, Norville.
Not to be counted out is Sprout, a channel largely stocked with PBS shows like “Thomas & Friends” that has grown steadily since becoming part of NBCUniversal in 2011. Sprout is pushing new merchandise of its own and has increased marketing efforts, entering a float, for instance, in last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Preschool entertainment is a politically delicate area filled with advocates who recoil at TV aimed at children as young as 2. “There continues to be a lot of anxiety from parents over how much TV is too much,” said Dade Hayes, author of “Anytime Playdate: Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom, or How Television Became My Baby’s Best Friend.”
Even so, Mr. Hayes, who is also executive editor at the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable, noted that there had been surprisingly little commotion over “Sofia the First.” That show was considered risky because — while rooted in teaching social skills — it is more driven by entertainment than overt education. Princess Sofia, wearing a purple gown and tiara, attends a prep school run by the three fairies from “Sleeping Beauty.”
Nickelodeon’s preschool offerings are known for engaging characters mixed with eat-your-broccoli educational messages; one hit, “Ni Hao, Kai-Lan,” aims to teach children some Chinese. “We were in the trenches talking to kindergarten teachers and brain experts,” Teri Weiss, executive vice president for production and development at Nickelodeon Preschool, said of the development of “Wallykazam!”
She added: “There are competitors that dabble in education.”
Ms. Sweeney of Disney-ABC, who has a master’s degree in education from Harvard, argues that Disney Junior does more than dabble. She noted that “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” incorporates numbers and counting, and “Doc McStuffins” teaches about hygiene. Disney said that when developing preschool shows, it talks to 700 children and 300 parents and spends up to 450 hours testing the concept.
But Disney also said that its research indicated that mothers were less interested than they used to be in programs that promote academic goals. What matters more now, Disney said, is emotion-based storytelling that captures attention long enough to teach social values and good behavior.
Conversations about starting a new Disney channel started when Ms. Sweeney spotted problems at her SOAPnet channel. DVRs were undoing its raison d’être — “today’s soaps tonight,” as an early slogan put it. The supply of daytime soap operas to rerun also started to dry up. She decided to replace SOAPnet with Disney Junior.
Simultaneously, Gary Marsh, now chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide, had been working to strengthen Disney’s TV animation pipeline. In particular, he helped poach a Nickelodeon executive, Eric Coleman, and put Nancy Kanter, with experience from “Sesame Street,” in charge of expanding preschool ideas for Disney.
“You can grit your teeth really hard and come up with a franchise, but it won’t succeed,” he said. “It has to start from the ground up, with a spark of creativity and quality storytelling.”
A third piece of the puzzle was a gift from Nickelodeon, which started to sputter. It found a new preschool hit in “Bubble Guppies,” which follows the underwater adventures of mer-children. But other ideas were duds, and last year Nickelodeon fired its preschool programming chief.
Nickelodeon contends that it does not matter who wins the ratings race between Nick Jr. and Disney Junior as long as its flagship Nickelodeon channel, primarily aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds, bests the competition. A Nickelodeon spokesman said Viacom considered Nick Jr. an “ancillary service.” All of its new preschool series have their premieres on Nickelodeon and the network says it does not want the Nick Jr. channel to cannibalize its big brother’s audience.
Nickelodeon’s main channel, stocked with “SpongeBob SquarePants” episodes, attracts 37 percent more preschool-age children on a 24-hour basis than Disney Channel, Viacom’s analysis of Nielsen data shows.
The message that the Nick Jr. channel is of little importance seems somewhat out of step with one coming from Philippe P. Dauman, chief executive of Viacom. Mr. Dauman said during a conference call in January that part of Nickelodeon’s strategy for continuing its climb out of an overall ratings slump rested in its preschool programming.
He said that the company needed to hit “a generational reset button” and that it needed to “capture that preschool audience so they grow with us.”
–By BROOKS BARNES and AMY CHOZICK, Published: March 31, 2013, NYTimes