Advertisers and broadcasters customize their future in kids

Prime-time TV has traditionally been the preferred domain for car and electronics commercials, but more and more of this business seems to be migrating to catch a younger viewing audience. U.S. broadcasters report that kids media buys from tried-and-true categories such as home entertainment, toys and packaged goods are leveling off for the upcoming season, but at the same time, marketers of telecommunications, cars, fashion, furniture and travel products are increasingly kicking tires in the world of kids TV.
May 1, 2005

Prime-time TV has traditionally been the preferred domain for car and electronics commercials, but more and more of this business seems to be migrating to catch a younger viewing audience. U.S. broadcasters report that kids media buys from tried-and-true categories such as home entertainment, toys and packaged goods are leveling off for the upcoming season, but at the same time, marketers of telecommunications, cars, fashion, furniture and travel products are increasingly kicking tires in the world of kids TV.

Granted, the advertising industry has known for some time that kids are exerting a lot more influence on big-ticket household purchases like vehicles, electronics and travel, but marketers working in these fields have always been a little hesitant about targeting this demo directly in its own dedicated airspace. That seems to have changed over the past year, however, with execs from Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney all reporting a marked upswing in business from automotive companies in particular.

Chris McKee, chief creative director and co-founder of New York ad agency The Geppetto Group, thinks this shift is a direct and positive side effect of watchdogism. From his perspective, as more and more pundits talk up issues such as the media’s role in the childhood obesity epidemic, more advertisers are beginning to recognize kids TV as a powerful outlet for responsible messaging. ‘People in general are starting to pay more attention to marketing to kids, and they’re now becoming aware of the demographic as an important facet of their business,’ he says.

But rather than trying to get to parents through kids – or talking to moms watching along with their little ones – McKee says non-traditional children’s advertisers have begun to customize their spots to address kids directly. ‘It used to be teens, but now kids are seen as the harbingers of hip in our cultural lexicon,’ he says. If you’re having trouble believing this, consider that the number-one movie last year, The Incredibles, was targeted to kids, and that Harry Potter continues to break records for book sellers.

In the months ahead, McKee expects more ad spend to be concentrated on products specifically designed for kids, such as cell phones with less complex dialpads. ‘It’s about customization. Manufacturers are putting real thought into their kids products these days, as opposed to just making everything smaller,’ he says.

Customization is also spilling over into the TV viewing landscape, and the next few Upfronts will likely be shaped by how broadcasters and advertisers alike deal with the advent of video-on-demand. As more networks sign deals with cable operators to place their programming on the user-friendly service, the industry is scrutinizing the role of the advertiser in an environment where kids can skip commercials with the touch of a button.

Cartoon, Nick and Disney are in constant discussions with media buyers and their clients to identify and exploit opportunities in this new broadcasting landscape, but they have yet to come up with a solid business model that makes sense for all parties involved.

And Tim Hanlon, senior VP and MD at Publicis Groupe Media Ventures in Chicago, Illinois, says data issues must be resolved if advertisers are to start looking at VOD as a viable medium for their messages. ‘The type of measurement is different from what TV people are used to, such as Nielsen ratings or sample-based programming methodologies,’ he says.

Hanlon explains that ad agencies will need timely reports detailing when a show was called up, how long the viewer stayed tuned in, where the show was fast-forwarded, and so on. Right now, cable operators are providing reports to advertisers, but in some cases, this data may include more info than an advertiser is legally allowed to see (especially when it comes to kids programming). To start serving this need, Nielsen plans to roll out a VOD measurement device this summer in conjunction with cable operators in the U.S.

In the meantime, America’s kidnets have pulled out all the strategic stops to boost their ratings and rake in as much of the 2005 Kids Upfront spend as possible.

Nicktoons courts ad biz for late 2005

Following in the footsteps of The N, which shifted its revenue strategy by becoming an ad-supported channel last year, Nicktoons is making the same move in August. The channel launched as a commercial-free diginet on basic cable in May 2002, and has since evolved into a second-run stomping ground for Nickelodeon’s library of hit animation, including Rugrats and SpongeBob SquarePants. Although details are still being hammered out, Nicktoons could potentially offer 12.5 minutes of ad time per hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes on weekends, and it’s anticipated that most of Nick’s current advertisers will expand their contracts to include this new screen opportunity.

Although Nicktoons hasn’t made too much noise in the ratings race yet (posting an average 0.1 in Q4 2004 to kick off its first year of inclusion in MAGNA Global USA’s 4th Quarter Review), its core audience of six- to 12-year-old boys is slowly growing. And the programming team is hoping that exclusive acquisitions such as Skyland (Method Films/

Millimages) and Shuriken School (Xilam/Zinkia) will help speed this momentum up in 2006.

Flagship channel Nickelodeon, meanwhile, is planning to roll out two new toons and one live-actioner next season. ‘The tween audience, and even younger kids, have an appetite for live action because they connect emotionally to the stars of the show,’ says Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami. Nick’s latest attempt to reach out to its older viewers will come by way of Power Strikers, a 13 x half-hour series about the social relationships that bind a competitive group of girls soccer players.

The tween demo may also drive more movement in the consumer electronics and wireless ad categories this year, says senior VP of ad sales Jim Perry, thanks to the MP3 player’s status as a must-have youth accessory right now. ‘It’s just a matter of working with these categories when they’re ready to start marketing directly to the tween demographic,’ he says.

Little sister net Nick Jr.’s strong co-viewing performance (40% of adults ages 18 to 49 watch the net with a preschooler) will be the linchpin of Perry’s pitch to marketers interested in reaching moms with young kids, including some existing packaged goods and minivan automotive accounts. The sales team has been working hard to build up its non-kid business with companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Kimberly Clark and Unilever over the past three years, and the effort is starting to pay off. ‘We just did a deal with Dodge and Dora, for example,’ he says. The one-year, multi-platform contract includes television, print, on-line and Nick Recreation cross-promos involving a traveling Dora Live event and the Casa de Dora mall tour.

The channel’s programming lineup is due for a fall refresh with the launch of Dora spin-off Go Diego Go! in October, while Wubby Widget and Walden (a show about problem-solving, inflatable creatures) and Little Airplane’s The Wonder Pets (centering around three opera-singing pets that team up to save young animals in distress) will bow sometime in 2006.

Cartoon slides its focus down the age scale from adult to preschool

Now that last season’s goal to cement Adult Swim as a first-stop destination for 18- to 34-year-olds has been achieved (the evening block is currently beating out cable and some broadcast time slots), Cartoon is shifting gears to concentrate on its younger audiences.

August 22 will see the launch of the net’s first preschool block, Tickle U, which is set to run daily from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. The ad-supported programming initiative rests on a ground-breaking comedy-centric curriculum and features a live host rather than animated connecting tissue. Commercials will run every half hour or hour so as not to mess with the start times of shows such as Gordon the Garden Gnome (Collingwood O’Hare) and Gerald McBoingBoing (Cookie Jar).

Kim McQuilken, executive VP of ad sales, is still mapping out his strategy for Tickle U, but he may decide to play up the block’s co-viewing potential to the automotive, telecom and restaurant advertisers that Adult Swim enticed last year. He also sees promise in the emerging digital learning toy category.

Last year, Cartoon Network posted one of its best-ever performances with kids, averaging a 29.6 weekly rating with kids two to 11, according to MAGNA’s Q4 study. Jim Samples, executive VP and GM of Cartoon Network Worldwide, says girls drove this growth by flocking to estrogen-charged shows including Totally Spies! and Fosters Home For Imaginary Friends. This season, he expects even more of them to tune in for the June 5 premiere of The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, an animated comedy-adventure in the same vein as The PowerPuff Girls and Atomic Betty. The series centers on an 11-year-old trying to balance going to school by day with using her magical powers to fight monsters by night.

Toonami, Cartoon’s high-octane afternoon block for nine- to 14-year-olds, is launching its first original show in November. A joint project with Ghost in the Shell animators at Japan’s Production I.G., IGPX: The Immortal Grand Prix is set in a city that was built for the racing industry and explores the challenges a team of rookies faces against the world’s most skilled grand prix drivers.

Disney sticks with cross-platform sell

Last year, Disney’s sales team focused on presenting the channel family as a complete portfolio encompassing traditional media buys for ABC’s Saturday morning block, Jetix on ABC Family and 24-hour cablenet Toon Disney, and then sponsorships à la PBS for Disney Channel.

Kellogg is the most recent client to buy into the impressive reach this kind of buy offers. The cereal giant has purchased time on both the channels and Disney’s on-line platforms, as well as signing up to sponsor Disney’s Sports Dreams interstitials about real-life kids living out their athletic fantasies. QSR and packaged foods companies continue to make up a significant portion of Disney’s client base, and senior VP of ad sales and promotion Tricia Wilber says theatrical releases, DVDs and electronic gaming also remain strong ad categories. Despite less-than-stellar Q4 results at retail, the toy sector has also contributed steadily to Disney’s bottom line. ‘I doubt you’ll see it taper off,’ says Wilber, ‘because television is still a strong way to reach kids.’

This season, the sales team is looking for sponsors to support a Bear in the Big Blue House spin-off premiering in June. Breakfast with Bear is one of six new preschool shows debuting on Disney Channel in the Playhouse Disney block this year, and it follows along as Bear visits real U.S. preschoolers going about their daily routines at home.

Disney Channel also picked up Decode’s Naturally Sadie because Gary Marsh, executive VP of original programming and production, was drawn to the live-action show’s real-life approach and practical, ‘navigational tools with which kids can lead their lives.’

As planned, ABC Family’s yearling Jetix block is picking up a heavy boys audience, and Marsh expects the trend to continue this season when the block debuts cybercrime-fighting series Get Ed.

Kids’ WB! pilot-tests gender-neutrality on Saturdays

The U.S.’s number-one terrestrial kidnet is plotting to hang onto its key boy viewers while aiming to draw in more girls. (In fact, this strategy has become something of an annual Kids’ WB! mantra.) Betsy McGowen, senior VP and GM, says her audience gender split is sitting at roughly 70% and 30% now, but she’d like to even it out to 60/40 or even 50/50. ‘We’re trying to move away from boys action-adventure and get a little more variety in the schedule,’ she says.

The gender-neutral drive will primarily play out on Saturday mornings, with comedy toons Coconut Fred’s Fruit Salad Island and Loonatics Unleashed taking up residence at 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. respectively. From there, McGowen hopes to build a broad enough portfolio of cross-gender programming to migrate into weekdays. She reckons new action-adventure series Johnny Test fits the bill because its protagonist has two science-loving older sisters whose crazy experiments usually have very comical results (such as modifying the family dog so he can speak, or sending their little brother to Middle Earth to discover the mole people).

The Saturday shows stand to reach the most eyeballs Kids’ WB! has to offer, with the channel ending up third overall behind Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network on weekends in ’04. On weekdays, it dropped to fourth.

Discovery Kids leans hard on adventure

Hoping to build around the success of its homegrown reality series Endurance, which attracts about two million viewers each time out, Discovery Kids plans to buttress the show with a live-action drama about wilderness survival this season. Flight 20 Down explores the dynamics of friendship and conflict that come into play when a group of kid adventurers crash-land on an uncharted island. Senior VP and GM Marjorie Kaplan expects this show, plus additional episodes of Endurance and summer-launching Time Warp Trio (FUNimation/WGBH) to give the NBC morning block an action-adventure hook. ‘I hope it will hit boys, but the humor and texture of the story will be attractive to girls,’ she says.

The block’s focus on world adventure and the amount of influence kids wield over vacation planning these days make travel-based advertising a natural category for Discovery Kids, says ad sales VP Ken Ripley. And as family-targeted media buys occupy a bigger chunk of the channel’s sales portfolio, Ripley has noticed a decline in buys for commercials aimed at younger kids ages two to 11.

As far as the impact of childhood obesity is concerned, Ripley says the bulk of DK’s ad business comes from the food sector at large, be it QSRs, prepared foods or soft drinks. ‘We’ve always had programming that encourages activity, such as Endurance, which sets the kind of appropriate example food category clients are drawn to,’ he explains.

DKN adds girl powerhouse to its syndie block

To broaden the screen reach of hit girls franchise Strawberry Shortcake, DIC Entertainment plans to roll its direct-to-DVD series out on TV this season. Debuting in January 2006 on the DIC Kids Network, a three-hour syndicated programming block that airs on 450 U.S. stations, the Shortcake series consists of 10 half-hour episodes.

Tribune Broadcasting handles ad sales for the strand, and the team targets marketers in toys, QSRs and packaged foods interested in reaching six- to 11-year-olds with a slight girl skew.

4Kids stays the course for 2006

Coming off a year that was all about shaking things up – with the addition of girl-appealing programming, streaming shows on the Internet and a name change from Fox Box to 4Kids.TV – Al Kahn’s four-hour weekend block appears to be settling down somewhat. With the exception of G.I. Joe, the 4Kids lineup will remain the same as last year, targeting girls and boys ages six to 14.

And Dan Barnathan, executive VP of marketing and promotion, says the programming strategy is leading some advertisers to double up their buys to reach both demos in the block. Toys drive the girls business, followed closely by movies and DVDs. On the boys side, meanwhile, video games and toys lead the way, with packaged goods and fast-food posting strong results. And the block is also starting to attract retailers such as Walmart, Target and Toys ‘R’ Us. Cross-media buys are on the rise, playing into the launch last year of free streaming video episodes of the block’s shows on the 4Kids website.

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