LOS ANGELES — A cat wearing a pink cowboy hat is leading Disney’s television operations deeper into the Wild West of mobile viewing, where he hopes to connect with the company’s core audience.
Noting that tablets like the iPad are increasingly the “first screen” for preschool-aged viewers, Disney executives said they would make the first nine episodes of a top-tier new series available on mobile devices first. The series, “Sheriff Callie’s Wild West,” will arrive on the Watch Disney Junior app and related website on November 24. Then, early next year, the series will debut on two traditional television channels, Disney Channel and Disney. Junior.
“It’s an entirely new approach for us,” said Nancy Kanter, executive vice president and general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide, which caters to kids ages 2 to 7. “We’ve been amazed at how quickly kids have embraced this new technology. . We’re talking billions of minutes spent watching.
Disney is kind of racing to keep up with its smaller viewers. More than half of households with children now own a tablet, a 40% increase from last year, according to research conducted by the company. The devices are great for little hands, and parents have quickly become familiar with iPads and similar devices as a form of entertainment.
“We get a lot of emails from dads saying, ‘Thank you for giving me my TV back,'” Albert Cheng, Disney-ABC Television Group’s digital media chief, said, referring to the Watch Disney app. Junior, which the company says has been downloaded five million times and generated more than 650 million video views since its introduction in June 2012.
A cartoon cat swinging a lasso of noodles might sound awfully silly, but apps like Watch Disney Junior are serious business for Disney and the TV distribution industry at large. Many executives hope the technology, sometimes called TV Everywhere, will help keep viewers tied to their cable and satellite contracts. To view the live stream and specials like “Sheriff Callie” using the app, users must enter their subscriber information.
Referring to the decision to introduce “Sheriff Callie” through the app, Mr. Cheng said, “It’s important that we offer something real there to build value.”
Disney redesigned DisneyJunior.com this month to reflect a “tablet-first” mentality, Cheng said. Disney also offers a growing number of interactive “appisodes” – episodes of hit Disney Junior shows like “Sofia the First” and “Doc McStuffins” with additional activities that encourage kids to tap and swipe the screen their tablet and talk while they watch.
Disney has competitive reasons to promote its Watch Disney Junior app with “Sheriff Callie,” which received a strong 24-episode order. Nickelodeon, a division of Viacom, launched an app in February designed as a loud and colorful assortment of cartoon clips, irreverent games and program episodes; it has since won an Interactive Media Emmy Award. Nickelodeon plans to introduce a Nick Jr. app for preschoolers in the spring, timed to coincide with a bunch of new programming. (The Nick Jr. app was originally supposed to arrive this fall.)
Ms Kanter said ‘Sheriff Callie’, with its large cast of characters and unusual Wild West setting, could also benefit from children being able to watch a group of episodes at a time. The competition for tiny eyeballs continues to grow, disrupting the traditional slow flow of episodes, and the success of the series is important to Disney. Some execs see Callie’s character in it as their answer to Hello Kitty, a Sanrio-owned merchandise star.
“It will bring kids into the show in a way that we think is very effective,” Ms. Kanter said.