Thursday, March 21, 2002
New York When Tom Ascheim talks about Noggin, the cable network that he heads for youngsters, he sounds like a father (which he is, of children ages 9, 5 and 2) crossed with a child psychologist (which, it seems, he is steadily becoming).
"A developmental tumult permeates both tweens and preschoolers," he says. Among all child audiences, those two "felt like the richest ground to mine."
Noggin ï¿½ a 3-year-old, education-driven, commercial-free channel for kids ï¿½ is being relaunched with a new dual focus. As of April 1, it will concentrate on two oddly compatible audiences: As Noggin it will play to preschoolers, and as "The N," it will aim for the children known as tweens.
One channel, two constituencies, and even a new name.
Preschoolers are "kind of an obvious target when you want to do educational TV," Ascheim says. "They're already asking, Why? How much? How does that work?"
What of tweens? Their age range, roughly 9 to 14, may seem wide. Yet they share a common bond: If you're a tween, "everything is the most embarrassing ever ï¿½ and you're scared to ask anybody anything," says the 39-year-old Ascheim.
In some respects, Noggin hasn't changed since it began in 1999. It still aims to educate. And it still shuns commercials, with a business plan not unlike C-SPAN's ï¿½ it is paid for by the cable affiliates and satellite-TV providers that carry it. (Noggin is available in 22 million homes, including customers of DirecTV and Dish Network, with 30 million the year-end goal.)
It remains a co-venture of Nickelodeon (part of the Viacom empire) and Sesame Workshop, flush with its stable of Muppets and 30-year library of "Sesame Street."
But despite its financial success ï¿½ Ascheim says the network turned a profit last year ï¿½ Noggin's profile could be higher, its identity more sharply defined in a crowded kids-TV universe that includes Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, Kids' WB, HBO Family and PBS Kids.
Initially, Noggin tried to serve both preschoolers and beginning school kids. Now it's going to leapfrog those early grade-school viewers, "because a kids' show can't serve both audiences at the same time," Ascheim says, and on most schedules, preschoolers take a backseat to their elders. (Once you've graduated from Elmo to the Rugrats, in other words, there's no going back.)
So from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CST) every day, the rededicated Noggin airs preschooler favorites like "Sesame Street," "Blue's Clues," "Franklin," "Kipper," "Little Bear" and "Maisy" acquired from public television as well as from premium and ad-sponsored basic cable.
There's a short-form show called "Ubi," whose characters are, simply, human hands. Another interstitial series, "Tiny Planets," finds computer-generated fuzzy creatures solving basic problems ï¿½ and, for better or worse, it's as mesmerizing as PBS' notoriously spaced-out "Teletubbies."
The Muppet gang headlines a new, interactive spinoff of "Sesame Street" called "Play With Me Sesame." ("Ernie says, put your hands on your tippy-toes" ... "Dance like Elmo!" ... paint a picture of a cookie with Cookie Monster.)
"All the things kids do ï¿½ running around, coloring, playing computer games ï¿½ are funneled into the experience," Ascheim says.
Then, at 5 p.m., as preschoolers' bedtime looms (yeah, right), Noggin gives way to The N.
Of course, TV already caters to tweens with such programs as the live-action "Lizzie McGuire" on Disney Channel and ABC, the toon "As Told to Ginger" on Nick, and even the Fox network's prime-time hit "Malcolm in the Middle," whose title character is, in other words, a tween.
And it's not surprising that tweens watch such fare.
"Tweens are obsessed with who they are," says Rachel Geller, a partner of The Geppetto Group, a New York consulting firm that specializes in youth media. "They are sometimes children and sometimes trying very hard to be teen-agers, and it's a tumultuous time."
While the concept of "tweens" comes mainly from marketing circles, UCLA developmental psychologist Patricia M. Greenfield says they're more than a demographic.
"They used to be considered as just kids, but it's an age group with some homogeneity and real differences from the age groups below and above it," she says.
Ascheim says his network's research found tweens are united by low self-esteem and a rigid world view as they face the onset of puberty and hunker down to cope with perplexing life changes.
"They are uniquely ill-prepared to make good choices at a time when they're confronting huge life decisions like sex and drugs," he says. "We thought, 'That's a group we need to focus on."'