State-side kids channels are basking in the glow of a rosier 2003 upfront that saw sales jump by an estimated 10% over last year, culminating in a total take pegged at US$9.4 billion.
Leading the pack again this year were Nick and Cartoon Network, which benefited from being perceived as the market’s most solid prospects. According to Starcom Worldwide kids media buyer John Wagner, ‘When there is a lot of instability in the market and a reduction in platforms, people gravitate to the things they know are stable.’ But when a market is up 10%, almost everybody does well.
While programmers may want to take credit for the buying frenzy, industry experts say the drivers that fueled spending this year are much more complex. Wagner notes, ‘There are just a lot more products out there – and a lot of licensed products, which you are typically going to be contractually bound to support.’ He also adds that in the post-Enron and WorldCom business environment, quality of earnings and long-term focus have become the pivotal measurements of financial success, and companies are all too aware that cutting their marketing spend to hit quarterly numbers may cause them to be perceived as short-sighted and shaky by investors.
Whatever the causes, the jump in spending has triggered much jubilation among network sales forces. But some experts warn that the windfall may be short-lived. ‘Do I think these increases will continue over the long term? Absolutely not,’ says Robert Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers, ‘because marketers have very little ability to raise their own respective prices and enhance their own respective margins.’ And although Liodice acknowledges that the upward trend may continue for another year or two, he cautions that a mixed-media marketing approach may soon become the industry norm, potentially eating away at some of TV’s sway over advertisers.
Some experts were also concerned by the failure of CPMs to rise significantly – a result of supply side growth. According to Wagner, ‘Some reduced hours are being felt in the marketplace – ABC Family has cut back its kids offering to just [weekend] mornings – and there are also fewer kids watching television.’ And more of them are tuning into commercial-free platforms like Disney Channel and PBS, taking commercial ratings points and making them non-commercial or un-buyable, observes Wagner.
One aspect of the upfront that hasn’t changed and shouldn’t change any time soon is the premium placed on broadcast ratings points, which Wagner says can be chalked up to basic economics. ‘People can moan about what things should be, but the market will dictate price. At the end of the day, there are a lot more cable ratings points to be had. So if I am an advertiser and I want 20% of my mix to come from the broadcast side, but they only represent 10% of the ratings points, that creates a premium.’ Things typically sell at the price they should, and that price is representative of where demand intersects supply. The ratings points in cable aren’t necessarily lower-quality or less impactful; but the reality is that until more advertisers decide they want as much cable as exists, there is always going to be cable that isn’t sold. And as long as you have inventory that is not sold, you’re going to have a hard time commanding a premium, says Wagner.
Economics may drive the upfront market, but content is still what drives the networks, and the new fall schedule is full of fresh offerings that programmers hope will do their channels proud.
Disney looks to relive its toon glory days
Disney Channel is making a strategic shift back to its cartoon roots. According to Jill Casagrande, senior VP of programming for ABC Cable Networks Group, ‘one trend you will see for us is an increased number of hours devoted to animation. While we have done a great job with tweens – initially with our Disney Channel [live-action] series and movies – we knew we had to make the network more appealing to the six to 11 demo.’
To hit that audience and bank more boy eyeballs in particular, Disney Channel is adding Walt Disney Television toons Lilo & Stitch, a 36 x half-hour series based on last year’s feature film that grossed US$250 million at the box office; and Recess, which was previously committed to terrestrial via a deal with ABC. But the return to toons doesn’t come close to spelling the end of live action on the channel. ‘We find that kids move in a pretty facile way between live action and animation,’ says Casagrande, so Disney will be holding onto its current live-action lineup, which includes Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens.
Joining the channel’s learning-based Playhouse Disney preschool block is Jojo’s Circus, an original 26 x half-hour, stop-motion series from New York’s Cartoon Pizza and Toronto, Canada-based Cuppa Coffee Animation. The series invites young viewers to interact with a curious six-year-old circus clown let loose in Circustown. ‘The piece of curriculum the show is based on is movement,’ says Casagrande. ‘It has a lot of music and encourages kids to literally get up and move with the characters.’
ABC Family is staying on its boy-oriented action path with Daigunder, a sci-fi/action-adventure anime import from Japan’s NAS about a giant transforming robot. Set to air later this fall, Daigunder should complement Nelvana’s Medabots and Village Roadshow KP Productions’ Power Rangers Ninja Storm. Casagrande says roping in boys at a younger age is the first step to keeping them hooked on the Disney family of channels as they age into the 18 to 34 demo.
Cartoon Network replays its ‘spread the excitement’ year-round launch strategy
Rather than unleashing a full-on fall launch, Cartoon Network’s commitment to spreading out its new series over the season endures. ‘We’re going to continue to focus on Friday nights as our premier block for comedy, Saturday nights for action, and Toonami in the afternoons with new shows and new episodes of popular shows,’ says VP of programming Terry Kalagian.
This summer, Cartoon Network debuted Warner Bros. Animation shows Teen Titans, an action-adventure series about a group of teenage superheroes led by Robin the Boy Wonder; and Duck Dodgers, which showcases Daffy Duck and Porky Pig in the 24th century as they attempt to protect the planet Earth from its enemies. Duck Dodgers anchors the channel’s Looney Tunes block at 11:30 a.m. and should help strengthen a whole-family viewing trend building in that daypart. Last year, the channel scheduled Baby Looney Tunes for that purpose, and the move had many pundits holding their breath. But the show did well and continues to do well. For July 2003, Baby Looney Tunes posted a 1.9% rating, up 12% over the same time period in July 2002 with kids two to 11.
In September, Toonami adds Bandai’s SD, a new Gundum saga that will be joined in Q4 by Dragonball GT, also from Bandai. Kalagian says both shows fit the Cartoon Network mainstay strategy of programming action shows that appeal to boys. ‘Gundam is already popular with boys who like the robots, but SD will go a little bit softer, younger [seven to nine] and more comedic.’
Interactivity’s a winning strategy for Nickelodeon
For the sixth season in a row, Nick is king of Saturday mornings among all cable and network kidnets, posting a steady 3.1 rating. And the cabler is taking an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach to programming this year. Returning in September will be the reality-esque series U-Pick Live. Nick’s first full-length show programmed entirely by viewers boosted its daypart by 15% after debuting in the 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. block last October. In between cartoons, the show’s hosts interview guests, give away prizes, take calls from at-home viewers, interact with the studio audience, and accept outrageous challenges from both.
Bolstering the Saturday lineup is My Life as a Teenage Robot, which debuted in its Friday 8:30 p.m. slot in August. The 13 x 30-minute series stars a six-foot robot named XJ9, or ‘Jenny’ for short. Says Zarghami: ‘She’s metal on the outside and teenager on the inside. Although she’s charged with saving the world from destruction, all she really wants to do is hang out with the kids from school and listen to boy bands.’ Teenage Robot is the third of four Oh Yeah! Cartoons spin-offs created and produced by Rob Renzetti and Fred Seibert.
The channel’s Sunday night TEENick block has been infused with programming from sister Viacom channel The N, with Degrassi: The Next Generation (Epitome Pictures), Girls v. Boys (Bullfrog Productions) and Radio Free Roscoe (Decode) having joined the lineup last month.
Nick is also strengthening its live-action Snick lineup with Romeo!, starring hip-hop impresario Master P and his platinum-selling son Lil’ Romeo. The show debuts September 13 and has been described as a hip-hop version of The Partridge Family; Zarghami expects Romeo! to reach a wide audience with its family-based story and inherent music elements.
For preschoolers, Nick Jr. has added an international touch to its Monday to Friday schedule. BBC series Tweenies joined the sked in July after its run on Noggin, and HIT Entertainment’s 20 x half-hour stop-motion series Rubbadubbers debuted in August.
Fox Box dusts off its launch strategy in hopes of a stronger second year
After a difficult first year, 4Kids Entertainment president Norman Grossfeld says the block’s strategy remains the same, but adds that the team is in a better position to implement it this year. ‘Last year, we really did not have enough programming ready for launch,’ he explains, ‘so we were double-running a lot of shows.’
The block has beefed up its programming portfolio with: Funky Cops, a 2-D/3-D hybrid from Paris, France’s Antefilms modeled after 1970s cop shows à la Starsky & Hutch; TMC Entertainment’s Sonic X, based on Sega’s long-running video game series; and Cinepix’s Cubix, a pick-up from Kids’ WB!
Another challenge is that the block is competing against 4Kids’ own hits on Kids’ WB! – Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon. To offset this problem, 4Kids has repartnered with Shueisha, the team that helped it bring Yu-Gi-Oh! to the U.S., on a fantasy-adventure anime series called Shaman King. Debuting on September 6, the toon stars a 13-year-old boy who can see into the spirit world.
Returning to the Fox Box this season are: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Cramp Twins, Kirby: Right Back at Ya! and Ultimate Muscle: The Kinnikuman Legacy.
Kids’ WB! tries resurrection tactic to keep its sked fresh
Constant refreshment is afoot at Kids’ WB!, which has developed a strategy of temporarily retiring shows and then bringing them back in throughout the year. This season, X-Men: Evolution is coming back from a mini-hiatus in Q1 2004, along with the fourth run of Static Shock and series two of MegaMan: NT Warrior. Also joining the schedule in the spring are new series Astro Boy and Teen Titans.
In keeping with the constant refreshment theme, Kids’ WB! doesn’t concentrate its debuts in the fall. ‘Over the past four years, we have successfully launched new series in eight of the 12 months of the year,’ says senior VP John Hardman, including Pokémon (February 1999), Max Steel (March 2000), Cardcaptors (June 2000), X-Men: Evolution (November 2000), Rescue Heroes (July 2001), Cubix (August 2001) and MegaMan: NT Warrior (May 2003).’
PBS looks to liven up its sked
Although the only new shows premiering this fall are Scholastic Entertainment’s animated prequel series Clifford’s Puppy Days and Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks, a 26 x half-hour 3D CGI show from Mike Young Productions that’s the channel’s first high-definition kids series, the pubcaster is looking to include more live action in its lineup down the road. ‘While I don’t see us having a live-action block, I do want to find ways to incorporate live action as another way to reach kids and tell stories,’ explains senior VP of programming John Wilson. In Q1 2004, the net will debut Ragdoll’s 104 x 20-minute series Boobah, which incorporates live-action elements in an interactive format that aims to get kids off the couch.
Discovery Kids toons up for fall
Like Disney Channel, Discovery Kids is broadening its reach into the animation realm this year, replacing Croc Files in November with a one-hour block called Real Toons that will house two 13 x half-hour animated series – Phase Four’s Kenny the Shark and Porchlight Entertainment’s Tutenstein.
‘When we first signed our deal with NBC, we intended to get into animation because it’s kids’ preferred viewing genre on Saturday mornings – and it was a real opportunity to do something uniquely Discovery,’ says GM Marjorie Kaplan, adding that there was simply not enough time to get the shows ready for debut last fall. ‘Even though these series are very funny and entertaining, they are part of our commitment to education,’ she says. ‘Kenny the Shark weaves in info about sharks, just as Tutenstein is filled with interesting facts about ancient Egyptians.’
Although Discovery Kids was intended to be gender-neutral, Kaplan says the block does very well with girls, particularly Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls, Strange Days at Blake Holsey High, Scout’s Safari and Adventure Camp. ‘Our goal is to reach boys and girls equally, but I think we’ve become a really good alternative destination for girls in a landscape that doesn’t have a whole lot of alternatives [for them].’