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Monday, December 17, 2012

Apps Give Preschoolers a First Look at TV Shows

Apps Give Preschoolers a First Look at TV Shows

Susanna Martin/Nickelodeon

Eliya Gyob-Serrette playing with Bubble Guppies: Animal School Day, an educational mobile app from Nickelodeon.

In 2014, the preschool cable network Nick Jr. plans to introduce a television show featuring a little boy, his miniature pet dragon and a magic stick.

But the show, “Wallykazam,” will not be new to users of smartphones and tablets. Educational applications built around it will start appearing in app stores late next year, making “Wallykazam” Nickelodeon's first major show to be introduced as a mobile product first, said Steve Youngwood, Nickelodeon's executive vice president and general manager for digital media.

Driving the change, at Nickelodeon and other preschool television brands, are parents who are increasingly putting mobile devices into preschoolers' hands and laps.

According to new research commissioned by Sesame Workshop, producer of PBS's “Sesame Street,” mobile device ownership is booming as TV set ownership declines. Eighty-eight percent of the parents surveyed said they owned a television, down from 95 percent in 2010.

Twenty-one percent said their children first interacted with “Sesame Street” someplace other than television, with YouTube and PBS.org the top alternative sources. (PBS said separately that its free PBS Kids Video app, which has been downloaded 2.4 million times, reached 120 million streams of PBS Kids shows in November, surpassing 100 million for the first time.)

“On-air does still drive digital,” said Diana Polvere, Sesame Workshop's vice president for market research, citing the 79 percent of viewers who still come to television first. But given the rapid changes, she said, Sesame's research will now be conducted every six months instead of every two years.

Nickelodeon's research, done in April and updated in October, shows striking growth in educational app use. In October, 27 percent of United States households with children ages 3 to 5 had an iPad, up from 22 percent in April. In those households, 40 percent of preschoolers used the iPad for educational apps, up from 27 percent in April.

The study also found that Apple device users were willing to pay 15 to 23 percent more for educational apps than for general apps.

“Parents want to feel good about what they are purchasing and downloading for their kids,” said Scott Chambers, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president for digital worldwide distribution. Adding an educational element to an entertaining app, he said, “makes everybody feel better.”

Parents' feelings aside, apps are strong educational tools, said Lesli Rotenberg, who oversees PBS's children's programming, including its more than two dozen apps.

While television “is somewhat of a passive experience” for children, she said, interactive apps give them immediate feedback and tailored experiences that become more difficult as they gain skills.

Though numerous producers are entering the app business, three of the top 10 paid educational apps in the iTunes store last week were Nickelodeon's. They included the $1.99 Bubble Guppies: Animal School Day, already profitable six weeks after its introduction, Nickelodeon said. A Team Umizoomi math app was still in the top 10 after a year on the market.

Originally scheduled for August release, the Bubble Guppies app, filled with the same silly jokes as the show, was revised after focus group testing with preschoolers showed, among other things, that their small fingers had a hard time maneuvering a virtual latch and that the children wanted more control over their exploration.

“We were hearing kids say in testing: ‘I want to play with the dolphin. I want to play with the penguin,' ” said Jordana Drell, Nickelodeon's senior director of preschool games.

Nickelodeon's educational apps normally take six to eight months to create and, even with lush graphics like the shimmery underwater background in Bubble Guppies, cost about half as much as a single episode of one of the company's preschool shows, officials said.

The Bubble Guppies creators, Jonny Belt and Robert Scull, said they approached the app as they would a television episode, reading the 90-page game document aloud, technical material and all. “That really brings it to life, and you know what you're getting,” Mr. Scull said.

A Nickelodeon rival, Disney Junior, has taken a less integrated approach to apps, developing television shows first and apps later to expand on the content, said Albert Cheng, executive vice president for digital media at the Disney/ABC Television Group.

The free Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Road Rally Appisode, released in May, is a repurposed version of an episode of the “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” television program, reconfigured to be highly interactive.

It proved so popular that “we definitely feel there's something here we want to invest in,” Mr. Cheng said.

Although the app had educational elements, it was not intended as such. The sprawling Walt Disney Company has published educational apps through other units, however.

Since releasing its first app three years ago, Sesame Workshop has added more than three dozen, including Elmo Loves 123s, which was introduced Dec. 10 and draws on new research for developers and parents that Sesame plans to release this week. App users, Mr. Chambers said, tend to come back regularly, a loyalty that executives have noted as they consider future expansion in the category.

The rush to apps is changing the development process for PBS, which will no longer develop television-only shows, Ms. Rotenberg said. PBS's newest property, “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood,” came out as an app - already the company's third best-selling - the day of the television premiere in September.

Ms. Rotenberg said her team had “sent away” a number of producers who came to PBS with ideas for television shows with no thought-out mobile component, telling them, “ ‘Come back when you have a plan.' ”

A version of this article appeared in print on December 17, 2012, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Apps Give Preschoolers A First Look At TV Shows.