Could NBCUniversal's Sprout network provide a theme for new kids' attractions at Universal theme parks?

September 10, 2013, 11:01 AM · Last week, we looked at Universal Orlando's owned and licensed IP for clues where the theme park resort would make changes next. One of the areas we identified as a candidate for replacement or refurbishment was Universal Studios Florida's Woody Woodpecker's Kidzone. Obviously, a theme park that wants to appeal to families with small children, as Universal Orlando does, will need to offer attractions that appeal to pre-schoolers. Islands of Adventure does this with Seuss Landing. It's hard to imagine that Universal would take out the Kidzone without replacing it with a similarly-targeted land.

But what would that be? Readers have suggested that Universal could focus on reintroducing characters such as Woody Woodpecker and ET to today's kids, thus increasing the appeal of the existing land. Would Universal do that? Let's look at what corporate parent NBCUniversal is doing to appeal to the pre-school family market, for clues as to what its theme park strategy toward those potential visitors might be.

Barney the Dinosaur
Barney the Dinosaur is one of the franchises that NBCUniversal has brought to its kids channel and its theme parks.

Disclosure time: My children are in their teens now, so we've moved out of this target market. And we don't subscribe to cable TV in our household, so I had to do some extra research on available channels targeted to little kids. Disney Junior and Viacom's Nick Jr. are the leaders in this space, but NBCUniversal has a pre-schooler channel, too: Sprout.

Although NBCUniversal manages the channel, it does not own it outright. Sprout is a joint venture with partners PBS and Sesame Workshop, and that complicates matters should NBCUniversal want to build a Sprout-themed kiddie land in its U.S. theme parks. (Here's some background on Sprout, from the New York Times.)

Sprout's programming includes shows for PBS and Sesame Workshop, as well as independent productions licensed for U.S. viewers from children's TV production companies around the world. But domestic broadcast and cable distribution rights do not necessarily include the rights to develop related theme park attractions. While Universal holds the theme park rights to Sesame Workshop characters in Japan and Singapore, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment owns those rights in the United States. That means no Sesame Street characters in a Sprout theme park land, even though they're prominent on the Sprout channel.

For what it's worth, SeaWorld's license with Sesame Workshop expires on December 31, 2021, according to its Prospectus filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, so if Universal wants to get those theme park rights within the next eight years, it's going to need to buy out SeaWorld.

There's plenty else on Sprout, of course, which could provide Universal Creative enough material to fashion an impressive kids' land. Barney's already in the Kidzone. The NBC Kids block, which broadcasts Sprout programming on the NBC broadcast network on Saturday mornings, includes potential theme park franchises in The Chica Show, Pajanimals and Justin Time.

Illustrating the complicated business relationships involved in independently produced entertainment, Justin Time, which is production of Canada's Guru Studios, airs on Disney Junior in its home nation. Pajanimals is a production of The Jim Henson Company, which has spawned or sold properties to multiple partners and competitors of Universal's.

(Side note: Let's review just how influential Henson has been in children's entertainment. Henson created the Muppets, which provided much of the cast of Sesame Street, the foundation upon which the company Sesame Workshop was built. Sesame Workshop also has produced The Electric Company and Dragon Tales, among other children's franchises. When Henson considered selling out to Disney, just before his death, the international division of Henson's company split, creating HIT [Henson International Television] Entertainment, which created Bob the Builder and Kipper the Dog before acquiring Barney and Thomas the Tank Engine, among other properties. After Jim Henson's death, his heirs decided not to sell the company to Disney, but they did finally sell the rights to the Muppets to Disney in 2004. The Jim Henson Company, minus the Muppets, remains independent, producing Pajanimals for NBCUniversal's Sprout and movies such as Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day for… Walt Disney Pictures. Personal note: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day just wrapped filming at my son's school in Pasadena. That same school also served as the filming site for Sam Witwicky's high school in the first Transformers movie, which, of course, inspired Universal's hit new theme park attractions. I swear, sometimes I feel like James Burke, writing this stuff.)

Ultimately, if Universal wants complete control of the properties on Sprout, it's going to need to create a children's television production division within Universal Studios and start creating its own kids TV properties. A couple of recent personnel moves at NBCUniversal have placed individuals with TV development and licensing experience into key positions with the company, however.

This week, Universal announced that Jeff Shell, who formerly oversaw NBCUniversal owner Comcast's cable TV networks, will succeed Ron Meyer as the head of Universal Studios. (Meyer, 69, will remain with NBCUniversal in a "senior statesman role," according to the New York Times.)

Earlier this year, NBCUniversal hired executive Russell Hampton from Disney to handle "franchise management" for Universal. Here's a key quote from The Hollywood Reporter:

"NBCUniversal has an amazing collection of assets," Hampton tells THR, citing properties like Top Chef, preschool channel Sprout and the Despicable Me franchise as prime examples. "The best way to monetize IP is creating mega-franchises, properties that can span multiple demographics."

Obviously, Universal Creative and the Universal theme parks already have started developing Despicable Me and its Minions as a major theme park franchise. Hampton's quote suggests that Universal is considering Sprout in that same context.

Universal doesn't need to create its own children's television entertainment to bring Sprout to its theme parks, of course. Universal could opt to negotiate and sign licensing deals with the various producers of Sprout's TV shows, instead. However, at some point, Universal management will need to confront the question of which is the more affordable option -- license for TV and theme parks, or just create and produce the characters itself.

What would like to see Universal do with kid-focused attractions at its theme parks?

Replies (7)

September 10, 2013 at 1:37 PM · Kids attractions are so impossibly difficult to keep current. There are very few franchises that have been able to last the test of time. The core Disney characters have lasted primarily because they have been driven into our skull by not only the parks, but the proliferation of the Disney Channel. However, even Disney is smart enough to know that you can't build multi-million dollar attractions around a relatively new franchise like Phineas and Ferb or Jake and the Neverland Pirates or Doc McStuffins. It's got to be something big that appeals to kids of today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

Honestly, I think this franchise is already in Universal's parks...Curious George. The program currently airs on PBS, and while the most recent big screen treatment didn't blow the doors off the box office, it's a long-lasting franchise that's still in the public conciousness. The way Universal currently treats this franchise is a travesty with a couple of play areas. Even something as simple as a Cat in the Hat-style ride would be a dramatic improvement.

The other franchise that is kinda overlooked here is Transformers. While Universal has invested millions into turning the Michael Bay movies into amazing rides, there are many cartoon incarnations of the "robots in disguise" that are specifically geared towards kids. There's really nothing preventing Universal from using those versions of the Transformers and creating kid-centric attractions. As a counterpoint, Universal could persue a deal with Mattel for the rights to Barbie that would satisfy the girl audience.

Another idea could be the various anime properties of the past 30+ years. While Disney owns the distribution rights to Miyazaki films, I don't think they actually own the IP or any other Japanese anime properties. There are hundreds of different anime franchises that don't necessarily have huge followings individually, but combined, they are very popular, especially overseas. NBC/Universal is already peripherily invested in this space through SyFy's "Heroes of CosPlay" show. Not only does the anime space include TV shows, but it extends into video games, which is a severely undertapped space in theme parks. Disney is trying to go backwards by developing games based on their theme parks, but adapting video game franchises along with other anime properties into a theme park could be very lucrative.

September 10, 2013 at 4:13 PM · I think the previous reply got it half right.


The other half is Super Mario & Friends.

Make it happen...

September 10, 2013 at 7:05 PM · I think the bigger shock is that Robert Niles doesn't have cable....

Anyway, I find it interesting that Universal seems to need something that Disney has in spades. Also, it works the other way (with thrill rides and "edgier characters").

Thats why I think Universal and Disney greatly compliment each other in the Orlando market. They both are in the Theme Park business, but their target audience seems to be a little spread out.

I think Sprout is the way to go or Nick Jr (if that is still viable)

September 10, 2013 at 8:30 PM · I have two boys (DS9 and DS12) and about a half dozen nieces and nephews (ages 3 to 15). I also have some siblings who are quite younger than me (14 year age gap between me and my youngest sister) and I remember the things that I loved when I was a child (I am 39 now).

The "timeless" franchises that would be relevant and fun for kids for many decades to come seem to be:

* Dr. Seuss...which will always be cool and fun, no matter what year it is.

* Curious George...because every generation loves that little monkey's antics.

* Gnomes/Fairies...because you can always have an area with oversized flowers and leaves with a little village for gnomes, elves etc. and kids will love it.

When I was a kid, I loved Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony, The Smurfs, and Care Bears. But those went away in the 90s. Some of them came back to some extent, but they aren't as big as they used to be. They will go away again, then come back again, but for whatever reason these brands do not have "evergreen" staying power.

If I was Universal, the smartest investment that could be made would be to theme the children's area to Curious George and Friends...and develop different cute animal buddies for him. They could then have a children's area that's themed to a jungle camp, with lots of fun things to do. It would be like Disney's Adventureland and could use lots of real plants and trees (which saves a lot of money because the Dr. Seuss style buildings and fake trees eat up a lot of cash considering how much repainting they constantly need).

The more visually stunning thing to do would be to make a big Dr. Seuss children's area that's separate from Seuss Landing, but thematically related. I'd make this "WhoVille", and have all the buildings have a child-size kind of feel for them (since the Whos are little guys). All this could be built in the shadow of Mount Crumpet, where there could be a Grinch Saved Christmas ride.

But, the maintenance cost of anything "Seuss" is probably outrageous, considering how quickly paint fades in Orlando's sun.

September 10, 2013 at 8:48 PM · I have a young kid and we don't have cable, we have Netflix. The options for kids' programming on Netflix are nearly limitless. As a parent, having access to quality shows without ads is awesome. Netflix knows this, and I swear they invest more heavily in deals for kids programming than anything else. It's a smart move, my son doesn't even know what cable is, but he does know Netflix, and someday he will be a paying customer.

Even without the trend away from cable, I don't think NBCUniversal can create theme park-level kids franchises through a cable network. The Disney Channel acts to support or reinforce brands created by blockbuster films, but as another commenter noted, original programming, even a show as successful as Phineas and Ferb, just does not create big enough properties to commit to a bricks-and-mortar attraction.

Sprout may grow some big-league kids properties, ones that jump to film, but not before they redo kidszone. One property that kids LOVE right now, and I don't know about the theme park rights, is Kung Fu Panda. Anyone know? And yes, the Curious George brand is alive and well.

September 11, 2013 at 6:52 AM · A Scooby Doo dark ride seems like it would be the perfect replacement for E.T. Scooby Doo is still on the air in some format and is appealing to multiple generations. I can see traveling in a "Mystery Machine" convertable van on a dark ride that shows the chaos with Scooby and the gang. This could be Universal's answer to Disney's Haunted Mansion. Scooby Doo's Mystery Mansion.....There would be alot of things to buy. Action figures, playsets, plush toys, t-shirts, even Scooby snacks for a treats, witches brew, and a Shaggy's sandwitch stand.
September 12, 2013 at 9:03 AM · I think the smarter way to go here is two things.
First, stick to what you know. Universal is NOT Disney. They shouldn't try to be Disney. They should try and meet or exceed Disney's quality and theming, but Universal has always skewed a little older than Disney. I'm not saying that they should ignore the younger kids altogether, but that is not their "bread and butter".
Second, theming is important, BUT the theme itself is not THAT important. Think of ALL of the things at Disney that the actual theme doesn't matter (or that most people don't know is tied to an IP). Mr. Toads Wild Ride, Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribean (pre movies), Haunted Mansion, etc. Make a good attraction that is highly themed and the theme itself doesn't matter that much. If Transformers was themed to "space travel" or generic robot battles, would it make the attraction any less good? My kids had fun at the recently closed Curious George area at Uni Hollywood, not because it was Curious George but because it was fun. Plus, it's the same EXACT area when it was themed to Nickoledeon. They only changed the cutouts.

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