Universal Kids is an American digital cable and satellite television network that is owned by the NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group subsidiary of NBCUniversal, itself a division of Comcast. The network broadcasts children's programming, and takes the branding of the sister company, Universal Pictures. Its daytime lineup is heavily supplied by preschool-oriented programs, while its evening and primetime lineup are made up of programs aimed generally towards pre-teens and young teenagers.
The network was originally launched in 2005 as PBS Kids Sprout—a joint venture between PBS, Comcast, Sesame Workshop, and HiT Entertainment devoted to children's television programming aimed at a preschool audience. Following Comcast's purchase of NBC Universal, the company gradually bought out the remaining owners' shares in the channel, reaching full ownership in 2013. The channel's operations were subsequently relocated from Philadelphia to New York City, and the PBS Kids name was dropped from its branding. On September 9, 2017, the network re-branded as Universal Kids, expanding its primetime programming to focus on a wider youth audience. The re-branded network continues to broadcast preschool-oriented programming under the Universal Kids Preschool branding during daytime hours.
Universal Kids is available to approximately 56 million American pay television households (48.2% of households with television) in the United States as of January 2016 (when it was still primarily known as Sprout).
Universal Kids traces its origins to the PBS Kids network (referred to as PBS Kids Channel in press materials), which launched on September 6, 1999 coinciding with PBS Kids' rebrand that day. The PBS Kids feed was available on digital cable and satellite television, and was also offered to PBS member stations for use on a "cablecast" service (a cable-only local channel provided by the member station) or for use on the member station's over-the-air analog channel to provide a portion of the daytime PBS Kids programming on the station. Participating stations were required to pay an annual fee of $1,000 to use the feed. At launch, 32 PBS member stations had signed up to use the service. The channel was created, in part, to compete against Nick Jr. and its sister network Noggin (which now shares its name with the Nick Jr. block). Because the cable rights to the Children's Television Workshop's program library were owned by Noggin (which CTW owned a 50% interest in at the time), the channel did not broadcast any CTW programming, including Sesame Street, a long staple of PBS' children's programming lineup. The CTW-produced Dragon Tales, which premiered on the same day as the launch of the PBS Kids Channel, was the only exception to this.
The channel was not successful and had only reached 9 million households as of 2002, compared to Noggin's 23.3 million households at the time. Once the channel shut down, many member stations which had been using the PBS Kids channel on their cablecast channels or over-the-air digital subchannels continued to operate their children's channels as local services scheduled independently of a satellite feed, while other member stations shut down their kids channels entirely and redirected viewers of those channels to the newly launched PBS Kids Sprout. PBS later revived the PBS Kids Channel on January 16, 2017, this time with an online streaming option in addition to utilizing largely the same distribution methods that had been used for the original channel.
On October 20, 2004, PBS announced that it had entered into a joint partnership with cable provider Comcast, and production companies HIT Entertainment and Sesame Workshop to launch a then-unnamed cable and satellite television channel aimed at preschool children. On April 4, 2005, Comcast announced that the network would be known as PBS Kids Sprout, launching initially as a branded video on-demand service before launching as a linear television channel later in the year.
The linear network officially launched on September 26, 2005, with a reach of around 16 million viewers across Comcast and Insight cable. The multi-platform approach was designed to appeal to different viewing habits, with the linear channel focused on variety, and the on-demand services focused on instantaneous access to specific programs. The linear service was designed around dayparted programming blocks, featuring activities and other feature segments presented by on-air hosts. Some of these segments were designed to promote supplemental content (including activities and interactive features) on Sprout's website.
Sprout's scheduling also eschewed the practice of combining multiple episodes of short-form children's series into a single half-hour episode with interstitial segments for U.S. broadcast, electing to air such programs individually in their original format. Andrew Beecham, a former director of worldwide programming strategy for the Playhouse Disney brand, explained that with this practice, "you get to sample a huge variety of material. You'll get all these smaller shows that translate into something bigger." The network would be advertising-supported, but ads would only air between programs in small quantities, and would be aimed towards parents and caregivers.
Comcast acquired a 51% majority stake of NBC Universal in January 2011, and would assume full ownership of the company on March 19, 2013. As a result, Comcast's interest in Sprout was turned over to the company. When Apax Partners sold HIT Entertainment to Mattel on October 24, 2011, HIT's ownership interest in Sprout was not included in the deal and was retained by Apax Partners. In 2012, Sesame Workshop sold its interest in Sprout to NBCUniversal. On November 13, 2013, NBCUniversal acquired Apax and PBS's shares in the network, giving Comcast full ownership. Its operations were then merged into its NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group subsidiary, the "PBS Kids" branding was dropped from the network's name (leaving it as simply Sprout), and operations were moved from Philadelphia to New York City .
On July 7, 2012, Sprout began to produce a Saturday morning block for NBC aimed at preschoolers, NBC Kids, along with MiTelemundo, a Spanish-dubbed version of the block airing on sister network Telemundo that airs on both Saturdays and Sundays), which replaced Qubo (a previous joint venture between NBC Universal, Ion Media, Corus Entertainment, Scholastic, and Classic Media—the last of which was later acquired by DreamWorks Animation and is now, in turn, owned by NBCUniversal), which had been airing on NBC and Telemundo since September 2006. With NBC Kids being replaced with Litton Entertainment's The More You Know E/I block on NBC by September 25, 2016, MiTelemundo retained on television with the same programming from the former NBC Kids block.
Since NBCUniversal took over management of the network, Sprout evolved from its initial intent to serve as a home for archived content produced by the partners, and invested more heavily in original programming in order to better compete with fellow preschool-oriented cable networks, Nick Jr. and Disney Junior. Under NBCUniversal, programs seen on the network such as The Chica Show gained increased visibility airing on NBC as part of the NBC Kids block.
On May 1, 2017, it was announced that Sprout would be re-launched as Universal Kids on September 9, 2017. With the re-branding, the network revamped its evening and primetime programming to target pre-teens aged 8-12. Universal Kids continues to broadcast preschool programming under the Universal Kids Preschool brand, occupying 15 hours per-day of programming from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. ET.
Network president Deirdre Brennan explained that Universal Kids' new programming would be distinguished from its competitors, stating that "we're offering something to 2 to 12 year olds that has a slightly different purpose — widening their eyes, opening their minds and celebrating many aspects of being a kid. We have great [shows] for the preschoolers, which is important, but we needed to grow up with the rest of the family." Universal Kids will initially focus on acquired programs and unscripted series (such as a youth spin-off of the Bravo program Top Chef), with plans for scripted original programming in the future. NBCUniversal intended to make "significant" investments in original content for Universal Kids over the next three years. The launch lineup featured a large number of international acquisitions, particularly from Australia and Canada; Brennan acknowledged that since youth audiences had become "globally aware", the network wanted to showcase foreign series that had not yet aired in the U.S.
Universal Pictures' recent acquisition of DreamWorks Animation will also be leveraged by Universal Kids to bolster its programming; industry observers felt that the DWA purchase and the launch of Universal Kids were meant to help NBCUniversal establish a viable multi-platform presence in children's media, and give the company a competitor to other major children's brands such as Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon.
Original programs produced for the network include the Top Chef youth-oriented spin-off Top Chef Junior, a U.S. edition of the Japanese game show The Noise, and a revival of Beat the Clock. In addition, the channel currently airs at least four DreamWorks Animation programs; All Hail King Julien, DreamWorks Dragons: Riders of Berk, The Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show and Noddy, Toyland Detective with more of their shows being slated for 2018 and 2019.
The rest of the network's programming is comprised mainly of international imports. These include Matilda and the Ramsay Bunch, Guinness World Records: Officially Amazing, Big Star Little Star, Bear Grylls Survival School, The Deep, Hank Zipzer, Little Lunch, Masha and the Bear, Nowhere Boys, and The Next Step.
Universal Kids Preschool acts as the channel's current daytime block, which runs from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time (3:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekends). Up until January 2018, the block utilized the network's former name, Sprout. Deirdre Brennan emphasized that Universal Kids would continue to focus on its preschool programming, explaining that "the greatest thing is, there is nothing to fix there. Sprout is a beautiful brand. If anything, we want to invest more in original production. There is more we can explore there."
Prior to the Universal Kids re-branding, the network replaced its long-running morning block Sunny Side Up with Sprout House, which debuted on August 14, 2017 and is hosted by Carly Ciarrocchi and the new character Snug, a talking dog portrayed by puppeteer Chris Palmieri, through 90-second segments throughout the block. The program was designed to be more flexible to produce than its predecessor, with a varied "tiny house" set with additional areas and camera options. Unlike Sunny Side Up, its segments are pre-recorded rather than broadcast live; supervising producer Vinny Steves felt that the live format was too "limiting", and stated that the new format was also designed to enable the segments to be distributed on digital platforms such as social media. With the launch of Sprout House, the network began to downplay its long-time mascot, Chica, although she will continue to be featured in certain segments (such as Chica at School).