After two years of economic downturn, a more robust 2002 kids upfront has kidnets singing an optimistic tune as they head into the fall season launch. The consensus among both media buyers and network ad sales execs is that the overall market is up over last year by as much as 5%, putting the total take at around US$800 million.
There had initially been concern that the market would remain soft, but some unexpected advertising players stepped up to help spur a turnaround. ‘Toy manufacturers and packaged goods came back very strong, and they still remain our largest categories,’ says Kim McQuilken, executive VP of sales for Cartoon Network. ‘Video gaming and software games are emerging categories where we are seeing some nice growth,’ he adds, fueled in part by third-party licensees that make games for all platforms. Money from theatricals also increased significantly, as did the retail, snack food and beverage categories.
While everyone agrees that revenue was up, the reasons for the surge are open to some debate. McQuilken believes Cartoon Network benefited from better distribution and ratings growth. ‘And I think another factor is that some of our franchises are becoming more evergreen,’ he adds. ‘It takes a while for markets–and viewers–to accept the value of franchises. We are at the stage now where franchises such as Cartoon Cartoon and Toonami have reached that real equity stage of on-air sponsorship.’
Laura Nathanson, executive VP of sales for ABC/Disney, says the increases might be more reflective of changing sales strategies. ‘My gut is telling me that revenue was up partially because scatter advertisers who had trouble with pricing and avails last year moved some money upfront.’
CPMs also increased, but only modestly. As Starcom Worldwide kids media buyer John Wagner notes, ‘There are two sides to the equation: the demand side and the supply side. If demand is up 5% but the supply is up 10%, you are going to have a hard time getting CPM increases. I think what most people saw was a more moderate marketplace that was neither a seller’s market nor the buyer’s market that we’ve seen for the last couple of years.’
One ongoing point of contention during recent upfronts has been the disparity between how buyers view the value of cable nets’ ratings points versus those of broadcasters. Although the cable nets have carved out the lion’s share of kid eyeballs, CPMs have not risen proportionately. ‘There was no reward for the cable channels’ increase in ratings because all it gave them was more inventory to sell, and they were already not getting their share of the dollars,’ says Wagner. ‘Most kids advertisers were slow to react to the viewership shift, so broadcast has carried a premium that, quite frankly, really isn’t justified. But this year, it looks like the marketplace is starting to wake up and smell the coffee as cable players actually fared a little better, eking out some small gains.’
Not surprisingly, broadcasters disagree with Wagner’s assessment. Dan Barnathan, executive VP of sales, marketing and promotion for Fox Box, counters: ‘Let’s not confuse gross rating points with reach potential. The way you branch out and reach a new audience is through broadcast. That’s one advantage we have over cable, and that’s why broadcast is still an integral part of any kids advertiser’s plans.’
CPM disparity aside, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network still led the pack in terms of overall revenue, with McQuilken reporting ‘mid to high single-digit CPM increases.’ Kids’ WB! remained the broadcast leader, but new entry Discovery Kids on NBC surprised some media buyers with a stronger-than-expected showing, and Fox Box met its sales goals.
Although Wagner says advertisers will ‘at least investigate the opportunity to set a good base with these new kids block players’ in case they really take off, their true impact on the marketplace has yet to be determined. ‘Advertisers are taking a long look at the new kids blocks,’ says Bill Morningstar, senior VP of media sales for Kids’ WB! ‘There is more to being a kids network than to go in once a week and out.’
The proof, as they say, is ultimately in the programming pudding, and each kidnet is hoping it has the right creative recipe this fall.
Nickelodeon–Historically, Nick has shied away from fall-launch fever, preferring to premiere its new shows more gradually and quietly. But this September, the network will be trumpeting the virtues of its new boy-targeted action block Nick Slam, which launched into its 4 p.m. Sunday slot on August 25 with Invader Zim, Butt-Ugly Martians and a kid version of Robot Wars powering up its lineup. At press time, Nick was also closing in on a deal to acquire high-adrenaline Flash-animated shorts that could be sprinkled throughout the block.
VP of programming Peter Danielsen explains the net’s decision to stray from its long-standing commitment to gender neutrality: ‘We want to expand our appeal. Our research shows that we can target a segment of our audience that has more exclusive tastes, and we know that some advertisers want to target boys more exclusively.’ (Search under ‘Slam’ at www.kidscreen.com for more info.)
Nick’s other big-ticket fall entry is The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, which stars the net’s first 3-D CGI animated character. A Nickelodeon production in conjunction with DNA Productions and O Entertainment, Jimmy Neutron’s debut has been pumped up by a year-long property launch campaign including on-air teasers, a dedicated website, in-store and on-line sweepstakes with Radio Shack and Trident, and an in-theater promotion for this summer’s feature film Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius–The Movie.
Cartoon Network–Like Nick, Cartoon Network has tended to downplay the fall season in recent years, preferring to position itself as a year-round programmer. ‘We do have a fall season, but we don’t really talk about it,’ says VP of programming Terry Kalagian. ‘What we do is switch up the lineup to match kid viewing levels.’ For example, at press time in August, Scooby-Doo Where Are You? was airing in the 11 a.m. slot. But now that school has begun and taken away the show’s older-kid audience, Cartoon has switched to running Tom & Jerry in that slot to appeal to the younger demo left at home. The idea is to match the schedule to when kids of varying ages are most likely to be watching.
A similar thought process is behind the strategy to air anime newbie Hamtaro both in the after-school Toonami block and at 8:30 a.m., a slot that Kalagian likens to twilight: ‘You get both older and younger kids there, and even though the show is a bit softer, some initial testing that we did last year with the trailer showed that a lot of older kids love it.’ The morning edition of Hamtaro is also the linchpin in Cartoon’s entry into the preschool game, along with the mid-September debut of Baby Looney Tunes in the 9 a.m. weekday slot.
Despite the softer side demonstrated by these two new shows, boy-skewing toons are still Cartoon Net’s primary focus, as evidenced by the addition of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Transformers: Armada to the Toonami action block.
ABC/Disney–The key 2002 catchphrase for the ABC/Disney nets is ‘corporate synergy.’ According to Jonathan Barzilay, senior VP for ABC Kids and Toon Disney, ‘this year, there is very close coordination between the broadcast network and Disney’s cable platforms. We look at ABC Saturday morning as a showcase for the strongest kid properties throughout our company.’
As a result, the ABC Saturday schedule underwent a major overhaul, gaining Disney Channel hits The Proud Family and Kim Possible, both of which will continue their cable runs. Original episodes of ABC Family’s Power Rangers Wild Force will also premiere on ABC, as will original animated series Fillmore from Disney Television Animation, a play-along mystery set in middle school that Barzilay believes will be equally appealing to boys and girls.
The Saturday morning lineup at ABC Family will feature the first two kid offerings from Miramax Television–NASCAR Racers, a toon about the trials and tribulations of first-timers on the racing circuit, and an anime comedy called Tokyo Pig that stars a young boy and his magical pet hog.
Shooting into 35 million homes, Toon Disney is making a push for the elite kids broadcasting league by adding eight new shows, including original episodes of Teamo Supremo and Teacher’s Pet. ‘Original episodes are reflective of our commitment to the network, and they are going to help Toon Disney punch through the clutter and create an identity with consumers,’ says Barzilay.
Over at Disney Channel, entertainment president Rich Ross says now that Playhouse Disney is solidly established, the net’s next focus will be the kid and tween audience. ‘We’re now aggressively going after the six- to 11-year-olds,’ as reflected by recent entry Kim Possible. ‘We’re already seeing a lot of traction with boys and girls, which is great in this market.’
Fox Box–Presented by 4Kids Entertainment, Fox Box is seeking to be the Sex and the City for the younger set, says president Norman Grossfeld. ‘In the same way that that show is the next day’s water cooler talk, we want our shows to be the lunchroom talk at school. I think that’s kind of the defining theme of our network–characters and stories that stay with the kids on- and off-screen.’
Because Fox Box only airs on Saturday mornings, Grossfeld says there’s a very limited window to get kids hooked, which is why the block will initially rely on programming based on familiar characters like Nintendo video game superstar Kirby and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which will reappear in a new television vehicle this spring.
Rounding out the action-oriented lineup for boys six to 11 will be Stargate Infinity (DIC Entertainment/MGM), Fighting Foodons (Enoki Films), Ultraman Tiga (Tsuburaya Productions) and Kinnikuman: Ultimate Muscle (Toei Animation). (Search under ‘Fox Box’ at www.kidscreen.com for more info.)
CBS/Nick–CBS’s Saturday morning strategy will grow up this fall, with the Nick Jr. block being replaced by an older-skewing lineup of Nick shows. Although two Nick Jr. series–Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues–will kick off the morning, the rest of the block will be filled with Nick’s greatest hits, including Hey Arnold!, The Wild Thornberrys, As Told By Ginger and Pelswick. ‘We want to expand our audience and appeal to the six to 11 crowd,’ says Nick’s Danielsen. ‘And CBS is an unbelievable platform from which to do that.’
PBS–Now firmly established as a destination for preschoolers, PBS is looking to broaden its reach by targeting the highly competitive six to 11 demo. The cornerstone of this strategy will be the launch of Liberty’s Kids, DIC’s animated series about American history, which PBS is providing to affiliates as a twice-daily strip from Monday to Friday. ‘The story lines have more complexity to them, and I think at that age, kids are able to process more when the curriculum is slightly more in the foreground,’ says senior VP of programming John Wilson. ‘It will also be a nice companion for Cyberchase in terms of age range.’
Wilson says targeting an older demo is proactive, not reactive. ‘We want to give kids a place to grow into our schedule,’ he explains. ‘It’s less about keeping them from going somewhere else as it is about giving them something to move on to here.’
Kids’ WB!–If it ain’t broke, Kids’ WB! executive VP Donna Friedman sees no reason to fix it. ‘We are absolutely staying the course with our core strategy of focusing on kids six to 11, with boys first and girls right there.’
The most interesting new show in a fall lineup that includes What’s New Scooby-Doo? and Ozzy and Drix is Mucha Lucha. Produced by Warner Bros. Animation, the Latin-themed show uses the colorful world of Mexican masked wrestling (called Mucha Libre) as its backdrop. Three main characters work towards their dreams of becoming famous wrestlers, and they learn many life lessons along the way.
Mucha Lucha is the net’s first all-Flash animated series, and it also helps fulfill Friedman’s diversity mandate. ‘We want to reflect our audience, so one of the things that was appealing to us about Mucha Lucha was that it celebrates Latino culture in general and hones in on a very specific part of Mexican culture as well.’
Discovery Kids on NBC–Another new caster with a clear sense of its identity, Discovery Kids won’t be pulling any punches this fall. ‘We are real-world entertainment for kids,’ says Discovery Kids VP and GM Marjorie Kaplan. ‘And in order to do that, we have to meet the price of entry for kids TV entertainment, which is humor and adventure and excitement and gutsy stuff.’
Figuring into the programming mix for the six to 15 range (with a core target of eight- to 12-year-olds) will be TLC’s Operation Junkyard, a kid version of RDF Productions’ Junkyard Wars; and Croc Files, featuring the ever-popular Steve Irwin.
For the 12 to 15 set, DK has tapped L.A.-based 3Ball Productions to create a 13 x half-hour reality series called Endurance. Twenty kids are stranded on an island with none of life’s usual amenities, and they must compete in team activities like rock-climbing, rope-racing and swimming in order to advance. Endurance will debut in the U.S. this October, and it will likely air on some of Discovery’s international channels as well.
DK has also mined the Discovery vault to create a kids version of Walking with Dinosaurs that will be called Prehistoric Planet. ‘We’re using material kids have responded to already,’ says Kaplan, ‘but we’re making sure to do it right with revoicing and renarration, so it’s not just about cutting it fast and setting it to music.’