Universal Kids Acquires Bear Grylls Series Ahead of Relaunch (Exclusive)

"We have great [shows] for the preschoolers, which is important, but we needed to grow up with the rest of the family," says GM Deirdre Brennan of rebranding Sprout.
Courtesy of Universal Kids
'All Hail King Julien'; inset, Deirdre Brennan

Sprout has a new name — and a broader focus.

The preschool-targeted network is being relaunched as Universal Kids on Saturday, expanding its target audience to kids 2-12 and ramping up its slate consisting of animated shows from DreamWorks, unscripted originals and international hits.

The new schedule features content that is "unique and distinct in the market," general manager Deirdre Brennan says, noting the company did a great deal of research on kids and their interests. "We're not really offering the same choices. 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."

The launch lineup includes several international acquisitions, including the series The Next StepNowhere BoysThe DeepMasha & the BearHank Zipzer and Little Lunch. Additionally, the channel has just confirmed two new series that will debut Saturday — Guinness World Records: Officially Amazing and Bear Grylls: Survival School.

Initially, the plan is to launch a schedule will include a mix of original unscripted series as well as acquisitions, with an eye toward premiering a scripted comedy or drama in about a year's time. (Brennan says the support of the various NBCUniversal divisions, from broadcast to cable to branding to news to film, has been "strong.")

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"It's definitely something we want to move into, making great scripted content for kids, both comedy and drama," Brennan says. "But we want to take our time and work out what to do. We have at least 10 projects in development with partners in the U.S. and around the world."

Brennan says it was important that the schedule feature programming from around the world, hence the acquisitions from other territories like the United Kingdom and Australia.

"Children are increasingly becoming globally aware," she says. "We don't have borders like we did growing up. We can bring kids the best of [global content] that hasn't been seen on any channel in the U.S."

As for plans to add more original programming, "we're really ramping up production and making a significant investment in content over the next three years, but we need some time to make it," Brennan says. "We want to create new content that's specifically relevant to kids."

The relaunch doesn't mean that current Sprout programming is going away. Sprout is being programmed as a 15-hour block from 3 a.m.-6 p.m., which is 60 percent of Universal Kids' total schedule. Familiar series like Nina's World, Floogals and Dot, the latter of which was adapted from Randi Zuckerberg's children's book, will be on the schedule.

"I can't emphasize enough how important the preschool audience is to us," Brennan says. "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."

The schedule will be "aging up" and skewing more toward the higher end of the kids demo starting at 6 p.m. every night.

"We've very much curated our series to match the viewing patterns of kids and their parents," Brennan says.

Universal Kids also is set to launch a spinoff of Top Chef with kids, dubbed Top Chef Jr., on Oct. 13. The spinoff of Bravo's long-running cooking competition featuring Vanessa Lachey and Curtis Stone will see 12 young chefs competing for the title.

Brennan notes that America's Got Talent is another NBCUniversal series that would be a good fit for Universal Kids, but doesn't see an America's Got Talent Jr. in the network's future. Why not? "Why would you mess with perfection?" she says. "It's got everything."  

Still, she leaves open the possibility for other NBC shows to make their way to Universal Kids in some form.

Asked if she sees Disney Channel and Nickelodeon as the network's competitors, Brennan demurs.

"The world of competing with another linear channel in the kids [space] disappeared five years ago," she says, noting all the various options for entertainment that kids nowadays have at their disposal. "You have to be so aware of what's happening in their universe. We're not looking over our shoulder; we're creating our own space in the market by reflecting what kids want today. This is not us talking to kids, but kids talking to kids [through the programming] and having a direct connection with those kids. I don't think I could be happier with the programming lineup that we've pulled together."

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