U.S. programmers start painting in broader strokes to widen their reach

In the annals of the upfront, 2004 should go down in history as the year the kids market stole the show. While prime-time broadcast networks finished flat over last year, U.S. kidcasters enjoyed higher-than-anticipated revenue growth. 'In talking to vendors, everyone was up double digits in demand periods,' says Dan Kopec, assistant media director at Starcom Worldwide. Harry Keeshan, executive VP of national broadcast for PHD, agrees. 'There's a very big push these days for entry-level marketing - that is, targeting kids and teens - based on both demand and ratings points.'
October 1, 2004

In the annals of the upfront, 2004 should go down in history as the year the kids market stole the show. While prime-time broadcast networks finished flat over last year, U.S. kidcasters enjoyed higher-than-anticipated revenue growth. ‘In talking to vendors, everyone was up double digits in demand periods,’ says Dan Kopec, assistant media director at Starcom Worldwide. Harry Keeshan, executive VP of national broadcast for PHD, agrees. ‘There’s a very big push these days for entry-level marketing – that is, targeting kids and teens – based on both demand and ratings points.’

Cable brought in more money than broadcast again this year as the great eyeball migration continues to give the cablers more weight to sell. ‘Broadcast kids channels were constricted in terms of what they could sell thanks to a ratings erosion of as much as 20% to 30%,’ says Kopec, adding that this drop drove broadcast CPMs up. ‘CPMs are a reflection of supply and demand, and the fewer broadcast commercial ratings points there are, the more valuable they become,’ he explains. ‘But even though CPMs were up, the restricted supply meant less revenue.’

In addition, more kids are tuning in to commercial-free or advertising-light options such as Noggin and Disney Channel, in effect taking away advertising points from ad-supported TV platforms.

On an individual basis, ‘Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon combine to corner roughly 88% of all kid impressions,’ says Kopec. ‘Kids’ WB! is by far the biggest broadcast player with around 7%, which leaves only about 5% for the other guys.’ Given their monopoly on eyeballs, Nick and Cartoon naturally play far ahead in the race for upfront dollars, with ABC’s properties – Disney Channel, Toon Disney, ABC Saturday Morning and ABC Family’s Jetix – occupying a strong third place. According to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, Nickelodeon pulled in US$844.1 million in advertising revenue in 2003, and an anticipated 10% increase should net the channel in excess of US$900 million this year. Cartoon Network is pegged to grab upwards of US$250 million.

But even the low men on the upfront totem pole, Discovery Kids and Fox Box, experienced revenue gains this year. In fact, Fox Box, which wasn’t grappling with ratings erosion, finished slightly up against last year’s numbers, so its ratings points look very impressive. 4Kids Entertainment CEO Al Kahn puts the analysis in perspective. ‘Yes, it was a good upfront for us. But our problem is that our ratings are just not good. So while we can sell it, we can’t necessarily keep it.’ Fox Box’s ratings dropped as low as 0.7 during the 2003/2004 season.

Kopec and other media buyers agree that 2004′s revenue gains are the result of an increased demand in key consumer categories like entertainment (which includes films and DVDs) and toys. Electronic gaming also grew, but at a slower rate than two years ago. Kim McQuilkin, Cartoon Network’s executive VP of sales and marketing, reports that his team did a surprising amount of business in nontraditional categories such as computers and automotive. ‘That has been a big breakthrough for us,’ he says, crediting the ongoing success of Cartoon’s Adult Swim block with attracting new advertisers.

Reviewing the upfront, McQuilkin says, ‘All the networks sold out their two prime advertising periods – holiday/Q4 and pre-Easter. The out quarters (Q1 and Q3) were equally strong, posting 8%-plus increases industry-wide. But when you have a robust upfront, what’s telling is how active the scatter market is. We’ll know by Q4 whether business is going to continue to grow, and right now as we enter Q3, we have reason to be optimistic.’

However, PHD’s Keeshan observes that while the future looks rosy right now, the market can be fragile. ‘Continued growth all depends on consolidation and a number of other factors you can’t always anticipate. For example, if Toys ‘R’ Us really does get out of the toy market, will that have a ripple effect?’

While the ad biz waits (perhaps in vain) for the other shoe to drop, the new mantra on the programming side is ‘gender-neutral.’ Niche may not exactly be a dirty word yet, but broadening one’s reach seems to be the overriding goal this fall for most networks.

Major Nick refresh hinges on tween live action

Aiming for the demographic middle is the name of the game over at Nickelodeon, which is making gender-neutrality a primary goal for this season, as well as focusing on its tween live-action slate. The lineup includes three new 13-ep shows Nick believes will help it maintain its current lead over Cartoon Network and Disney in tweens. (From May 31 to August 29, Nick averaged a daily draw of 553,000 nine- to 14-year-olds, compared to 386,000 for Cartoon and 353,000 for Disney).

Unfabulous debuted in August and stars Julia Roberts’ niece Emma Roberts as a young girl who uses music to help understand life. All That alumnus Jamie Lynn Spears stars in Dan Schneider’s Zoey 101, which joins the schedule in January ’05. Despite having two high-profile stars joining the network, programming VP Pete Danielsen says Nick didn’t consciously set out to use celebrity to draw in viewers. ‘Jamie Lynn’s show was developed after she was already a cast member on Nickelodeon’s All That for two successful seasons – kids loved her and wanted more. And Emma Roberts went through the regular casting process and auditions for Unfabulous and was cast because she was the best for the role.’

Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide, which began last month, is the net’s first live-action series that carts two stories in each of its half-hour eps. This unique dramedy format was upheld at the request of creator Scott Fellows, who wanted to tell two distinct stories per episode.

For preschoolers, Danielsen says Nick’s Jr.’s branded Saturday morning block on CBS was in need of some change. Its average Q4 ratings slipped from 1.6 in 2002 to 1.4 in 2003. Danielsen says that while ‘Dora the Explorer is still the number-one preschool show on commercial television and Blue’s Clues also continues to be a top show, we were really in development mode last year and have an unprecedented three new Nick Jr. shows debuting this fall’ to refresh the schedule.

The newbies are being rolled out sequentially, with live-action comedy Lazytown (40 x half hours) kicking things off with a bang in August. Created in Iceland by aerobics champion Magnus Scheving, the series posted an unbelievable average rating of 9.56 with kids two to five in its debut week of August 16 (airing at 10:30 a.m. from Monday to Friday). Lazytown addresses the child obesity issue in a fun way and has become a cult hit in its native country.

A co-pro with Nelvana, CGI musical adventure The Backyardigans (20 x half hours) debuts in the middle of this month and stars five preschool-aged friends who explore the world through their imaginations. Also from Nelvana (in association with Callaway Arts & Entertainment) is Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends, a 20 x half-hour CGI extension of a book-based TV special that delivered 1.1 million preschool viewers (43% more than its time slot’s average preschool audience) when it first aired on Nick in March 2003.

Cartoon speeds up its action-oriented girls plan

The mighty cabler is accelerating its strategic plan to bring in more girl viewers this season in order to correct a slight ratings fall-off with the fairer sex. ‘We are still action-oriented, but we’ve added more comedic elements to become better gender-balanced,’ says Jim Samples, executive VP and GM of Cartoon Network Worldwide. ‘As a result, we have increased girls.’ The Miguzi block’s Q2 ratings with girls six to 11 versus the same airspace (weekdays 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.) in Q1 were up 100% (from 0.7 to 1.4).

Samples says The Powerpuff Girls proved that girls shows shouldn’t be as girly as they often are. ‘It’s possible to reach both boys and girls by finding the right mix of action and character relationships.’ As testament to Cartoon’s strong belief in this theory, Atomic Betty (26 x half hours, Breakthrough Animation, Atomic Cartoons and Tele Images Kids) – starring a girl next door by day who defends the universe by night – debuted last month and is one of the net’s brightest hopes this season. Music may be another good way to straddle the gender divide. Renegade Studios’ Flash-animated musical adventure series Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi (which Samples describes as a cross between Hello Kitty and Led Zeppelin) will take a stab at drawing equal parts boys and girls starting in December. Both shows underscore Cartoon’s increased commitment to original programming, as well as its ongoing efforts to rely less heavily on library fare and internally developed projects.

Aiming for a gender-neutral six to 11 crowd, Craig McCracken’s Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (26 x half hours) debuted last month and uses a digital/2-D hybrid production process that enables its animation team to efficiently reuse material that gets socked away in its shot library. McCracken also infused the characters with a more organic look by working in texture and letting the occasional brush stroke or loose brush line stay in.

Eight-year-old Mac decides he’s outgrown his imaginary friend Bloo, so he finds him a new home in an imaginary friend retirement home. The stories revolve around the eccentric inhabitants of the house and their interaction with Mac, who promises to visit Bloo everyday. To help build awareness for this new entry, Cartoon teased Foster’s on August 13 in a special 90-minute movie.

In spring 2005, Cartoon Network will broaden its demo reach by adding a weekday block aimed at the preschool set in conjunction with Warner Bros. Animation. The new block will air both acquired and original programming, and its first show is Krypto, which follows the adventures of Superman’s pet pooch. Krypto comes to Earth and befriends a young boy, who helps him protect the people – and animals – of Metropolis.

Mouse nets trade girl power for more action

Once a mecca for tween dramedies with girl appeal, Disney Channel is making a concentrated effort to attract the younger end of its six to 14 demo this year with more animation, more action and a better gender balance, says Disney Channel’s programming VP Scott Garner, who adds that heightened competition for tween girl viewers has spawned the strategic shift.

Walt Disney Television Animation’s Brandy & Mr. Whiskers (13 x half hours), a buddy comedy toon for kids six to 11 about a cat and rabbit that get stranded in the Amazon, debuted in August. And looking ahead, Disney will continue to reach out to boys with Walt Disney Television Animation’s American Dragon: Jake Long (24 x half hours), which joins the schedule in January to build Disney’s growing audience of boys. Year on year, the net saw its share of boys six to 11 increase by 38% in 2003, and that take has improved by another 11% so far this year.

Preschool block Playhouse Disney is betting on Wild Brain’s Flash/CGI series Higglytown Heroes (26 x half hours) to steal the show. The 26 x half-hour offering, which features preschoolers who are saved from their misadventures by a local resident who becomes that day’s Higglytown hero, is the first long-form project to be developed from the ‘Mini Show & Tell’ series of interstitial shorts that launched in spring 2003. ‘The direct response from parents via the Internet was so positive,’ says Garner, that it led to the show being picked up for a full series. Another new schedule feature is Lunch Time, a block airing daily from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. that invites kids to lunch with show hosts Clay and Marly and learn about healthy eating and lifestyles.

Having built up its action-adventure content, ABC Family is now openly going after boys with its newly rebranded Jetix programming block, which also airs on Toon Disney at night. On ABC Family, Jetix posted a 27% ratings gain in total viewers during its first four weeks on air from February 14 to March 18. And the block is up by 29% with kids six to 11 on Toon Disney compared to this time last year.

Up until this season, Jetix has primarily featured programs from the Fox Kids library, but the first Jetix original – Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go from Walt Disney Television Animation – premiered last month. Created in an anime-style of 2-D animation, the show is set in the future and stars a 13-year-old boy who fights evil with the help of monkey warriors. This month, the action continues to heat up with the addition of AAC Kids’ Dragon Booster.

Acknowledging that Jetix’s programming is notably edgier than traditional Disney fare, Garner says, ‘The Jetix brand can go places the Disney Channel brand doesn’t always go because it represents more action and zany comedy. It’s definitely complimentary, and neither brand cannibalizes the other.’

The strategy of using Saturday morning block ABC Kids as a second window for Disney Channel properties after they premiere is also alive and well this season. ‘The block allows our shows to be embraced by a new audience,’ says Jonathan Barzilay, GM and senior VP of ABC Kids and Toon Disney. ‘But it’s also a place where advertisers can buy spots for shows that have previously only aired on our commercial-free channels.’

Barzilay has high hopes for live-action comedy Phil of the Future (21 x half hours, 2121 Productions in association with Disney Channel). The show, which first debuted in June on the Disney Channel, joined the ABC Kids lineup last month. ‘Phil is pretty balanced in its appeal, but the presence of a boy as the title character will help us achieve gender balance,’ notes Barzilay.

This fall ABC Kids has been shortened by one hour (starting at 9 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. and running until 1 p.m.) in order to make room for a new weekend edition of Good Morning America.

Kids’ WB! aims younger and wider

Boys action home base Kids’ WB! is also looking to get in touch with its feminine side this fall. ‘I’m guessing we’re 80% to 85% boy right now, and we’d like to be 60% boy and 40% girl,’ says the channel’s new senior VP and GM, Betsy McGowen. ‘The programming for fall is already in place, so we obviously aren’t changing any of that. But we have changed what we’re looking for in development – in the past, anything that came in the door that wasn’t action-adventure wasn’t looked at. But we’ve added a little humor to the scripts that have been put in motion since I’ve come on-board, and we’ll continue to look for things’ that will better attract girls, including live action and even game shows. ‘By having more variety on the schedule, we hope to attract girls and make our core audience of boys six to 11 bigger as well. We’re also hoping to age down a little bit.’

McGowen says Da Boom Crew (26 x 30 half hours), which debuted in September, should appeal to both genders with an equal emphasis on action and character relationships. Produced by Jambalaya Studio and BFC Berliner Film Companie, the series is described as a hip-hop, sci-fi animated adventure about four orphans who are transported into an alternate world. Also joining the lineup is The Batman (26 x half hours) from Warner Bros. Animation. McGowen says that while The Batman will obviously appeal to the net’s core boy demo, its lighter tone and elements of humor should also attract more girls to the viewing table. Shot in 2-D, the series stars the superhero in his early ’20s.

Kids’ WB! is also planning to stick with the new weekday block branding that it’s been testing on-air this summer. Although the lead-in and lead-out shows vary from affiliate to affiliate, the frog net’s after-school kids programming is nestled in between decidedly adult fare. So heavy branding is required to make the oasis a kids destination. The ‘Kids’ WB! Ooh Ooh, Ahh Ahh Just For Kids Island’ concept is centered around a daily interactive contest in which kids send in photos of themselves making funny faces in the hopes of being crowned King of Monkey Island for having the goofiest mug.

PBS Kids stretches up to its nine-year-old ceiling

Looking to expand its reach, PBS Kids is introducing a new afternoon block for early elementary school kids called PBS Kids Go! ‘We wanted kids to find this programming without having to bump into Teletubbies or Barney,’ says John Wilson, the pubcaster’s senior VP of programming. ‘Kids this age don’t want to be defined by little kid stuff, and they identify PBS Kids with preschool. We needed a place for them to grow into and call their own.’

Joining Arthur and Cyberchase in the new block, which premieres October 11, will be two long-running 2-D animated series: Scholastic Entertainment’s Maya & Miguel (65 x half hours), which centers around 10-year-old Latino twins; and Arthur spin-off Postcards from Buster (65 x half hours), which combines live action with animation and is produced by WGBH Boston and The Cookie Jar Entertainment Company, in association with Marc Brown Studios. The premise of this last show sees Buster traveling the country with his pilot father, and in each city, he creates live-action video postcards for his friends at home.

Wilson says for the foreseeable future, PBS will not target kids beyond nine. ‘We have to fit our kids programming in between sun-up and the news hour, and as kids get older…they are a hard target to hit in those hours. With our limited resources of schedule and dollars, we think it’s smarter to aim where we know we have some traction.’

Fox Box hones in on girls to boost ratings

When 4Kids took over Fox’s Saturday morning block two years ago, the plan of attack was boys, boys, boys. But the ratings-challenged block has now switched gears and invited girls into the clubhouse by adding two new femme-powered anime shows to its lineup – Italian studio Rainbow’s Winx Club (26 x half hours) in June and Hollywood Mew Mew (52 x half hours) from Japan’s Pierrot Studios in September.

‘We had a lot of tweaking to do,’ admits Kahn. ‘Our road is toward marketing concepts we believe have ancillary value off-network because we do a lot of licensing. So from that perspective, we were only servicing half the kids population [by targeting boys only].’

Toei Animation’s One Piece (which has spawned a billion-dollar licensing business in Japan) also joined the anime action mix in September, along with Nintendo’s F-Zero GP Legend, based on a video game that launches in the U.S. this month.

‘By debuting four new shows, we’re adding a higher level of kid-friendly programming that will hopefully have a positive effect on the ratings,’ says Kahn. ‘But we also have to get more aggressive in off-network advertising, so we’re working on developing promotional campaigns that are deeper and broader in order to drive kids to the Saturday block.’

Discovery Kids in a holding pattern

Entering its third season on the air, Discovery Kids is not planning any major strategy shifts. ‘We launched animation last November and it has helped increase the number of kids watching us,’ says Marjorie Kaplan, senior VP and GM. NBC increased its Q4 Saturday morning ratings with kids two to 11 by 17%, from 0.6% in 2002 to 0.7 in 2003. ‘Coming out of NBC’s adult programming on Saturday mornings, it’s a big enough job to let kids know we are there,’ says Kaplan. ‘So we’re staying the course. It’s now about taking something that is working and building on it, and continuing to develop new ideas.’

There will be one new addition, with Temple Street Productions’ live-action comedy Darcy’s Wild Life debuting this month. Aimed at tweens, the series stars a girl born and raised in Beverly Hills who suddenly finds herself living in the countryside.

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