Media World: Can the Wiggles give Sprout a big share of small fans?

For many toddlers, the Wiggles are the Beatles, the Stones and the Who rolled up into one. Now Australia's richest entertainers are about to tackle their biggest challenge yet --- U.S. cable TV.

Starting next week, the smiling quartet with the colorful T-shirts will host The Wiggly Waffle, a block of programs that will run weekdays from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Sprout, a Philadelphia-based for-profit channel backed by PBS and Comcast Corp. (CMCSA). This is a new challenge for the Wiggles, who have been awarded with 17 gold, 12 platinum, three double-platinum and 10 multi-platinum awards for sales of more than 23 million DVDs and seven million CDs worldwide over 18 years.
The Wiggles, known for toddler anthems like "Hot Potato," "Toot Toot Chugga Chugga," and "Fruit Salad," left their former U.S. perch at Walt Disney Co. (DIS)'s Disney Channel earlier this year after the company focused its attention on Hannah Montana-loving tweens rather than preschoolers. The Wiggles will shoulder a bigger burden at Sprout.

"They are still relevant," says Courtney Eidam, news editor at Parents magazine. "They are definitely not as popular as they used to be, but Sprout might revive interest in them."' The Wiggles will square off against Playhouse Disney and Viacom Inc. (VIA)'s Nick Jr. channels.

Sprout chief Sandy Wax rejects any suggestions that fewer people might tune to see the Wiggles because of the departure of founding member Greg Page (the yellow Wiggle) in 2006. Page was the main songwriter for the group and has since been replaced by Sam Moran.

Page might have made hearts flutter among Wiggles fans' moms, but to the core toddler demographic, he's ancient history. "The move to Sprout has only increased their appeal," Wax says. "Every five years, you get a whole new audience."

The Wiggles bits will be programmed in five-to-10-minute blocks, Wax says, because "I have not met any five-year-old with a 30-minute attention span."

Even without the Wiggles, PBS Kids' Sprout is doing well. The channel is available in 47 million households and saw ldigita cable and satellite subscriber growth of 30 percent between last June and this June. Unique visits to SproutOnline.com have increased 35 percent over the last year. The site averages a half a million unique visitors per month, and the average time spent per visitor on the site is 41 minutes a month, with the average time per visit lasting 22 minutes.

Sprout only accepts limited ads, none of which can be directed at children. The channel prides itself of involving parents and its young audience. Every week, its morning show The Sunny Side Up receives 10,000 viewer submissions.

"We want the parent to be part of the television-viewing experience," Wax says. "We take a fair and responsible approach to advertising."

So far, Sprout's approach appears to be paying off. Geico and Garanimals are on board to advertise on the first Wiggles show. Without providing specifics, Wax says Sprout has met its quarterly advertising goals and is doing well with affiliate fees. This year's goals were "aggressive," she says.

Unlike its competitors, Sprout does not feel pressured to use shows like Sesame Street to push merchandise.

Joining Sprout is a reunion of sorts of the Wiggles and Barney, the purple dinosaur. The jolly Australians were the Barney's opening act on its first U.S. tour -- which took place so long ago, it's beyond the comprehension of their young audience.

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