LOS ANGELES — A cat in a pink cowboy hat is leading Disney’s television operation deeper into the Wild West of mobile viewing, where it hopes to connect with the company’s core audience.
Noting that tablet computers like the iPad are increasingly the “first screen” for preschool-age viewers, Disney executives said they would make the first nine episodes of a new series available on mobile devices first. The series, “Sheriff Callie’s Wild West,” will arrive on the Watch Disney Junior app and a related website Nov. 24. Then, early next year, the series will have its debut on two traditional TV networks, Disney Channel and Disney Junior.
“This is an entirely new approach for us,” said Nancy Kanter, executive vice president and general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide, for children ages 2 to 7. “We have been amazed at how quickly kids have embraced this new technology. We’re talking billions of minutes spent watching.”
Disney is in some ways racing to keep up with its tiniest viewers. More than half of households with children own a tablet, a 40 percent increase from last year, according to the company’s research. The devices are perfect for small hands, and parents have quickly become comfortable with iPads and similar devices as a form of entertainment.
“We get a lot of e-mails from dads saying, ‘Thanks for giving me back my TV,’ ” said Albert Cheng, Disney-ABC Television Group’s digital media chief, referring to the Watch Disney Junior app, which the company says has been downloaded 5 million times and has generated more than 650 million video views since June 2012.
A cartoon cat who swings a noodle lasso may sound silly, but apps like Watch Disney Junior are serious business for Disney and the broader television distribution industry. Many executives hope that the technology, sometimes referred to as TV Everywhere, will help keep viewers tied to their cable and satellite contracts. To see live streaming and special offerings like “Sheriff Callie” using the app, users must enter their subscriber information.
Referring to the decision to introduce “Sheriff Callie” via app, Cheng said, “It’s important that we offer something real there to reinforce the value.”
Disney this month redesigned DisneyJunior.com 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 added activities that encourage children to tap and swipe their tablet screen and talk as they watch.
Disney has competitive reasons for promoting its Watch Disney Junior app with “Sheriff Callie,” which has been given a robust 24-episode order. Nickelodeon, a division of Viacom, in February introduced an app meant as a noisy, colorful smorgasbord 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 spring, to coincide with a cluster of new programming. (The Nick Jr. app was initially scheduled to arrive this fall.)
Kanter said “Sheriff Callie,” with its large number of characters and unusual Old West setting, may benefit from children being able to binge-watch a clump of episodes at once. The competition for itty bitty eyeballs is growing, upending the traditional slow unspooling of episodes, and the success of the series is important to Disney. Some executives there see the Callie character as their answer to Hello Kitty, a merchandise star owned by Sanrio.
“This will bring kids into the show in a way we think will be very effective,” Kanter said.