Sensitive post- 9/11 programming strategies trigger ratings boom for U.S. kidcasters

As the U.S. embraced an anti-violence, family-centric values system in the wake of September 11, even the most family-oriented of kids programmers took stock of their portfolios, making nearly imperceptible shifts and tweaks in programming lineups and strategy. The reward? A ratings upswing that, for some nets, shows no signs of abating.
January 3, 2002

As the U.S. embraced an anti-violence, family-centric values system in the wake of September 11, even the most family-oriented of kids programmers took stock of their portfolios, making nearly imperceptible shifts and tweaks in programming lineups and strategy. The reward? A ratings upswing that, for some nets, shows no signs of abating.

‘Kids flocked to kids channels in the week or two post-September 11 to escape the excessive and extensive [news] coverage,’ says Disney Channel GM Rich Ross. ‘We went up–and stayed up–in every demo that we measure.’ Animated series The Proud Family led the post-9/11 pack, earning a 6.5 rating among tweens and a 4.4 with boys nine to 14 for the week of September 17. Compared to the same times slots (Friday to Sunday at 6 p.m.) a year ago, Disney Channel was up 152% with kids six to 14, 125% with kids six to 11, and 150% with tweens nine to 14. Although the September spike has receded, ratings leveled off significantly higher than last year’s figures. Through November, for example, Lizzie McGuire increased delivery among kids six to 11 by 11%, while Even Stevens is maintaining a 12% increase in its Friday to Sunday 7 p.m. timeslot.

And Disney Channel isn’t alone. For the week of September 17, Cartoon Network posted triple-digit ratings increases over the same period for 2000 among all demos: tweens nine to 14 (+259%), kids six to 11 (+239%), kids two to 11 (+127%) and boys nine to 14 (+317%). Ratings remained high in October, enjoying double-digit growth over 2000, with kids two to 11 up 25% and kids six to 11 up 32%. The net’s Toonami block–home to action-adventure offerings such as Dragon Ball Z and Samurai Jack–showed a 19% increase for the month over the same period in 2000. And the trend continued into November, with tweens nine to 14, kids six to 11 and kids two to 11 all earning their highest November total-day ratings ever.

Kids’ WB! ratings for the week following September 11 also displayed increases across the board: kids two to 11 (+30%); kids six to 11 (+21%); boys two to 11 (+55%) and boys six to 11 (+51%). Nickelodeon recorded 19% increases during the dinner hour between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. (when there is the most joint child-parent viewing), with ratings for its kids block up 2% for the year as a whole.

Examining the tweaks behind the spikes

Disney Channel tinkered with airdates for issues-related and action-adventure programming in the weeks following the September 11 attacks, delaying rebroadcasts of My Date With the President’s Daughter, a comedy about a first daughter who gives the Secret Service agents guarding her the slip while on a date; and Jett Jackson: The Movie, in which Jett must save the world from an evil doctor. Neither movie has yet been rescheduled for broadcast due to programming window issues.

Disney Channel affiliates ABC Kids and Toon Disney put programming lineups to the comfort-level test: ‘As a precautionary measure, we asked a number of our educational consultants to take a look at our programming and reassure us that our messages were on target and appropriate,’ says Jonathan Barzilay, senior VP and GM for ABC Kids and Toon Disney.

Even programmers known for action-adventure and tween fare are turning a sharper eye to the programming they have on-air and on the acquisitions shelf, with Kids’ WB! senior VP Donna Friedman noting increased attention to specific content, ‘such as anything that might contain images of a building collapsing or explosions.’ Midge Pierce, VP of programming for WAM!, has observed a subtle shift towards kid-empowering ‘inspirational programming,’ and claims recent events influenced the channel’s acquisition of Decode Entertainment series Our Hero (26 x 30 minutes), slated to begin airing this month.

Although Pierce believes programmers will be even more accepting of projects with an inspirational message, she doesn’t expect an immediate onslaught of new pitches along these lines. ‘I suspect there are producers out there trying to develop projects that are sensitive to the new reality. I also think there are an equal number of producers out there scratching their heads. While programmers had no choice but to be immediately responsive, I think producers have to take a long review and see where the chips fall.’

Yet working within the new entertainment dynamic is more of a TV biz reality than a challenge for programmers; it’s the looming economic market that poses a more immediate threat to long-term strategies. John Morris, VP of international television and video for HIT Entertainment, notes that even before the current downturn, ‘U.S. acquisition rates and co-production rates for animation were decreasing. So if the business model starts changing and financing becomes even more fragmented, the question becomes, how do we finance the production of TV shows that cost US$500,000 a half hour? It’s not easy.’

ABC’s Barzilay agrees. ‘Obviously, the key advertisers in the kids market are companies that are part of the larger economy, and their own advertising budgets are under pressure. So the kids marketplace is reflective of the overall economic situation.’

The ever-shifting kids dial

Because of these financial challenges, both Fox and NBC recently announced that they are looking to significantly change their Saturday morning strategies, with NBC selling its three-hour Saturday morning block to Discovery Networks in an US$18-million, three-year deal. Starting this fall, a new co-branded block will air Discovery Kids programming on NBC, with Discovery taking over all ad sales responsibilities and reaping 100% of the revenues (see ‘Space For Rent,’ page 20).

Options available to Fox include leasing the time to an established kids producer that would pay a license fee to take over creating programming for the block, or dipping into the programming library of corporate cable sister FX. Whatever scenario ultimately plays out with Fox, the sale of Fox Family Worldwide and Fox Kids Europe undoubtedly contributed to the demise of the current Saturday Morning Fox Kids block. (Tellingly, Fox Kids was down a staggering 40% across all key demos in the weeks following September 11.)

Adding to the uncertainty generated by the economy is the ongoing consolidation that continues to reshape the industry, making sometimes uneasy bedfellows out of former competitors. First, it was Cartoon Network and Kids’ WB! cohabitating under the same corporate roof. Then, the acquisition of Fox Family by Disney added another forced marriage to the mix.

After a month of vigorous speculation about what form the remodeled ABC Family channel will take, Disney announced at press time that its initial lineup will be a balance between original and repurposed series and movies, with kids programming limited to a two- to three-hour morning block featuring Power Rangers and other shows from the bolstered Disney library.

Disney Channel’s Ross sees these kinds of mergers as marriages of potential convenience. ‘I think you have to see it as an opportunity–it’s not so much consolidation as strategic thinking. For example, Disney Channel has been operating side by side with One Saturday Morning on ABC for at least five years. But it is only this fall that Lizzy McGuire and Even Stevens joined the Saturday morning lineup, which is bringing in great numbers for ABC.’ Season-to-date, Even Stevens is up 80% with teens and 35% among tweens nine to 14, with Lizzie McGuire up 36% with tweens.

What’s more, Ross says consolidation offers programmers a chance to be more opportunistic with their properties. ‘When we launched The Proud Family, one of the strategic moves we made was to bring in Destiny’s Child. That gave us an opportunity to work with our partner Radio Disney. It was a strategic partnership that got attention for a show that has become one of our highest-rated series at mach speed [enjoying a 5.0 rating among tweens nine to 14 at press time].’

‘We’re in what I call a new world reality,’ says WAM!’s Pierce. ‘There’s a new economic reality kids are going to have to face in terms of things like the allowance they receive from their parents, money their parents are willing or able to spend on them. And I think trying to prepare kids for this reality–which is both social and economic–is going to be a reality in all programmers’ lives.’

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