Facing the challenge of staying alive and relevant with kids in an ever-broadening multi-screen universe has put U.S. kidnets in a bit of an expansionist frame of mind this season. And the drive to claim new territory seems to be centered around two goals – offering services on new delivery platforms and tapping into ever-younger viewing demographics.
It’s no coincidence that so many nets have zeroed in on the preschool set in their attempts to build channel loyalty with the next generation of viewers as early as possible. As PBS senior VP John Wilson notes, ‘Whether they can put words to it or not, kids learn brands before they learn words. Iconography is a form of literacy, and we want kids to be media-literate.’ But while the primary goal may indeed be to educate kids socially and stimulate them intellectually, the added bonus is that brand awareness helps groom viewers for the future.
But how do you make brand connections when more households are opting to watch their shows on-demand? Comcast, for one, racked up 10 million more views of its VOD programming in Q2 2005, compared to Q1, and its PBS Sprout channel has been viewed six million times a month since launching this spring.
Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Discovery and Nick have already implemented on-demand strategies, and Coleman Breland, Turner Networks executive VP of sales and marketing, says Cartoon’s VOD service has performed so far beyond expectations that the company recently expanded the offering from six to 20 hours a month. ‘It’s an opportunity to reach viewers with a complimentary service,’ he says, so as opposed to approaching VOD as a separate business, kidcasters see it as a programming extension of their linear brand that doubles as a promotional and marketing platform.
The Disney On-Demand service has been up and running since June 2003 and is currently available to subscribers on Cablevision, Lodgenet and (thanks to a just-inked deal) Verizon. Scott Garner, VP of program planning and scheduling, takes care of finding content for the Disney Channel, ABC Family and Toon Disney VOD offerings, and exclusives are what he’s after. The Disney Channel on-demand channel streams its programming into two packages: ‘Only On,’ which features episodes, series and movies not airing on the linear channel; and ‘First On,’ centered around premieres of new series or movies.
Garner says windowing is his biggest challenge when it comes to on-demand scheduling, not content availability. And in terms of refreshing the VOD lineups, more than half of the programming is replaced each month, with a small percentage getting updated weekly.
With VOD penetration pegged to hit 36.5 million U.S. homes by 2008, according to media research firm The Yankee Group, Disney is exploring the viability of expanding its services. Garner says a Jetix channel serving up action-adventure fare for boys six to 14 may be an option down the road.
But the ultimate value of any new technology remains dependent on the programming that’s nurtured on linear channels. So no matter how much time they spend looking into the crystal ball of future delivery systems, programming executives are still focusing on strategies to keep kids engaged today.
PBS splits preschool in two
Like many other kidcasters, the mighty U.S. pubnet is grappling with the impact of age compression, which has carved up one of its traditional kid demographics into two. Wilson says most preschool programming used to serve kids ages zero to five pretty effectively. But now, specific developmental needs have evolved for the zero to three set.
To address the schism, Wilson has cherry-picked 40 half hours of It’s a Big Big World (produced by Bear in the Big Blue House creator Mitchell Kriegman) especially for younger preschoolers. Set in a lush rainforest, the show is designed to teach two-year-olds about science and geography by bringing the rainforest characters alive. ‘Even if the viewers can’t articulate geo-science, they’ll clearly know it’s about the natural world with a really good social, emotional foundation,’ he says.
Wilson also feels it may be necessary to make a brand distinction down the road. Although he’s not sure what shape that move might take, he thinks the six-year-old branding for PBS Kids might soon be in need of a tuneup. ‘Frankly, the PBS Kids Go brand (which is designed to appeal to six- to nine-year-olds) has been so strong, we don’t want the mother brand to look tired and faded by comparison,’ he says.
Cartoon ages down and out to serve a wider kids cadre
New branding is certainly the name of the game at Cartoon Network this season, starting with the introduction in August of Tickle U, a new weekday morning block sporting a humor-based theme and gunning hard for two- to seven-year-olds.
Responding to criticism from the Coalition for a Commerical-Free Childhood about its decision to sell advertising time in the two-hour block, the network takes issue with being singled out from similarly commercial competitors such as Nick Jr. In addition to consulting with developmental experts to uphold age-appropriate pacing and content, the network is diligently limiting the number of ads running in Tickle U and relegating them to airing in between shows so as not to blur the line between programming and commercial messages in the minds of the block’s young viewers.
Elsewhere on the cablenet, the team is still working hard to even out a slight gender imbalance that sees 65% to 70% of its six- to 11-year-old audience comprised of boys. And plugging Naruto into the schedule last month may prove to be a good first step – although its girl appeal isn’t immediately obvious. Studio Pierrot’s 52 x half-hour adaptation of the best-selling graphic book series from manga artist Masahi Kishimoto tells the story of a rebellious teenage boy attending ninja school and merges elements of action, magic and comedy. But the show also features several female characters and proved to be just as popular with girl viewers as boys when it debuted in Japan on TV Tokyo in 2002.
Cartoon’s in-house production arm has also turned out a new toon that should straddle the gender divide when it launches in Q1 ’06. My Gym Partner’s a Monkey is a 26 x half-hour comedy about a 12-year-old boy who’s accidentally sent to an all-animal middle school. ‘Comedy transcends gender,’ says Bob Higgins, senior VP of programming and development. ‘Plus this particular show takes place in a school setting, which girls will relate to.’
But to keep its core boy audience entertained, the network has come up with sci-fi action-adventure romp Ben 10, created by L.A.’s Man Of Action. Debuting in May, the 26 x half-hour show stars a kid who finds a watch that gives him the power to turn into any one of 10 alien superheroes.
Michael Ouleween, senior VP of development and creative direction, says spreading the launch of new shows throughout the broadcast season has proven to be a successful strategy, especially given that many advertisers don’t see fall as their most important messaging window. ‘We’re going to have a bunch of holiday one-offs to create a new canon of Christmas specials,’ he hints.
Nick test-drives a next-gen launch strategy
The kids TV titan put a lot of promotional muscle behind the September launch of Dora spin-off Go, Diego, Go! on Nick Jr., testing a new strategy that involved more of Viacom’s broadcast platforms. The idea was to offer viewers a sneak-peek of the new series on video-on-demand (through cable platforms and on-line) and short-form video clips on Verizon Wireless before it settled into its regular time slot. On the web, the full-episode preview on Nickjr.com spiked the site’s unique visitor draw by 100,000 during its 10-day appearance, as well as upping overall traffic by about 30%.
Hoping for continued success with interactive preschool formats, Nick Jr. and Noggin have launched a new 13-ep live-action series called Jack’s Big Music Show, which is hosted by a music-loving puppet and features children’s recording artist Laurie Berkner. It seeks to promote music appreciation and its integration into everyday life, says Brown Johnson, Nick Jr.’s executive VP. The show will also be peppered with drop-ins by popular children’s songsters.
On tap to join Nick Jr.’s schedule in Q1 2006 is live-action/animation hybrid The Wonder Pets from New York’s Little Airplane Productions and Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, an animated series from Fairly OddParents art director Bob Boyle featuring creatures of unspecified origin that each take a different approach to problem-solving. It’s been given an order for 26 episodes and is expected to debut in the latter half of 2006. These two shows both deal with protagonists who cleverly solve problems through fun and active play, which is right in line with Nick Jr.’s mandates, says Nick president Cyma Zarghami: ‘Kids don’t passively sit in front of the television; preschoolers view television with an active mind, and their minds work best through play,’ she says.
Nick is also rejuvenating its big kids lineup for six- to 11-year-olds with three new shows that toe the gender-neutral line. Catscratch, a toon about three felines who inherit their late owner’s fortune, is meant to appeal to girls’ love of humor and boys’ propensity for silly adventures. Just For Kicks, a live-actioner produced by Whoopie Goldberg, should draw a significant number of female eyeballs since it’s about four adolescent girls pursuing their dreams to one day play professional soccer. And following up in November will be The X’s, a 13 x half-hour animated series starring an undercover family of spies fighting crime in suburbia, again with a comedy skew to attract girls, and action to lure boys.
Disney builds on Jetix success and tries after-school movies
According to Garner, building on gains made by the Jetix action-adventure block last year is the biggest goal this season. ABC Family scored big with boys when it brought in Jetix on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and weekends from 7 a.m. to noon in February 2004. The destination has since become a bona fide boys hub, delivering a 72% testosterone-charged audience on average. And over on Toon Disney, where Jetix airs from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekdays and from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekends, season-to-date ratings for the block are up 20% with kids six to 11 and 75% with tween boys.
Garner has again chosen to stake out a less crowded summer canvas for his launches this year, which is why new Jetix gems Get Ed (Walt Disney Television Animation) and Kong (BKN International) joined the lineup last month. While both new series play on Jetix’s high-octane adventure mandate, Garner anticipates Kong will gain some additional traction on the back of Peter Jackson’s big-screen remake, which Universal is rolling out in December.
In terms of new landmarks, Garner is introducing a 5 p.m. weekday block called The Big Movie Show on Toon Disney that will screen animated features from the Mouse House catalogue. Since most of the channel’s competitors air animated series in this daypart, Garner is hoping the big-screen block will help Toon Disney stand out from the crowd.
Over on the broadcast side of the dial, Garner is using ABC’s Saturday morning block as a showcase to window its properties. ‘There are still between 15 million and 20 million U.S. homes that don’t have cable, and we use this as an opportunity to broaden the exposure and the reach of our programs,’ he says. The Buzz on Maggie exercised the strategy this year, debuting in June on the Disney Channel, and then migrating to ABC Saturday mornings in September. The linear channel skews girl already with shows such as That’s So Raven and Kim Possible, so Garner reckons the 21 x half-hour series produced by Walt Disney Animation in association with Dave Polsky and Laura Perkins Brittan will prove to be a perfect complement.
Preschool block Playhouse Disney, meanwhile, welcomes Little Einsteins, which was developed in conjunction with the creators behind the Baby Einstein franchise. Launching this month, the interactive series features a unique aesthetic that combines real photo backgrounds and 2-D animated characters to teach children about music, art and nature. Given its US$170-million retail pedigree, Garner is confident that the property’s built-in brand awareness will help drive eyeballs to the show.
Kids’ WB! loads up on laughs to get more girls
According to senior VP and GM Betsy McGowen, the decision to scrap the two-hour Kids’ WB! weekday afternoon block at the end of this year is a seesaw proposition. On the downside, the kidnet will lose an important promotional platform. But on the upside, the Saturday morning block is set to expand by an extra hour. ‘With two more time slots available, we will actually need more original programming, so that gives us a chance to develop more shows,’ she says.
Over the past year, Kids’ WB! has struggled to reorient its identity and airspace along less boy-dependent lines. ‘This fall we should see the fruits of our efforts,’ says McGowen. ‘The goal was to keep our core boy audience, but introduce more comedy-based shows to bring girls back. And now we’re finally getting programs on that are not just boys action.’
Kicking off the refresh is the block’s first pure comedy in many years. Coconut Fred’s Fruit Salad Island, a 13 x half-hour show from Warner Bros. Animation, is about a walking, talking coconut who lives on an island with equally surreal characters. Echoing Cartoon’s Higgins, McGowen says comedy is the great gender equalizer when it comes to kids audiences.
In addition to attracting more girls, McGowen is aiming to pick up viewers on the younger side of the net’s six to 11 target. ‘Our median age was inching up to the higher end of the demo,’ she says. ‘We want to bring it back down to around eight.’ The action-adventure shows that previously dominated the Kids’ WB! schedule pigeon-holed the block to a tween audience, and McGowen believes that by injecting a little more humor, she’ll attract a broader age range and increase ratings.
Discovery Kids builds show profile with promos and consumer products
While the Discovery Kids block on NBC still lags behind in the ratings race, GM Marjorie Kaplan says it’s finally starting to gain some profile, thanks in part to taking reality show Endurance on the road this past spring and summer. The Discovery Kids Endurance Experience tour made 14 stops at fairs and other public events across the U.S. and spurred thousands of local kids in each host city to face off in competitions that mirror the obstacle races and mental challenges kid contestants face on the show.
The block is also benefiting from increased exposure for Darcy’s Wild Life star Sara Paxton, who Kaplan says is the net’s first break-out celebrity. With a movie called Aqua Marine coming out next spring, a first music CD in stores and a book series launching this month, Paxton’s star is certainly rising. And Discovery is planning to cash in on her popularity by rolling out a country-chic clothing line based on the show in Kmart stores next spring. The next goal will be to sign home décor and accessories licensees, and explore the possibility of imbedding merch cues into new episodes of the show.
The three-hour block’s new entry for the season is Flight 29 Down, a 13 x half-hour live-action drama series from Darcy creator Stan Rogow. Premiering this month, the show was shot on location in Hawaii and is about a group of teens who get stranded on a remote island after their plane goes down. Sound familiar? ‘I know nobody will believe it,’ sighs Kaplan, ‘but we had this show ordered before Lost ever came on the air.’
Overall, Kaplan doesn’t plan to stray far from Discovery’s focus on older kids ages six to 11 and eight to 14 this year because one of the block’s goals is to create a front door into the Discovery Kids digital and VOD services. According to the network, the kids programming service is Discovery’s most popular VOD destination, and the plan is to use it to preview upcoming originals and specials.
4Kids.TV gives equal weight to boys and girls
Al Kahn’s TV philosophy remains as simple as when he bought the Fox block in January 2002: Programming and licensing are irrevocably intertwined. So the continuing effort to attract more girls is less about building ratings and more about broadening the company’s merch opportunities. ‘That’s the whole game for us, the whole premise of our positioning,’ Kahn readily acknowledges. ‘We want to have programming that spearheads licensing. And to do licensing that’s driven by play patterns, you have to segment programs to either boys or girls.’
So this season, the 4Kids.TV weekend morning block will devote two hours to each gender. New girl-skewing fare includes Bratz, a 26 x half-hour 4Kids/MGA co-pro featuring characters based on the hugely popular doll line. And joining the lineup in November is anime metaseries (which is characterized by overlapping characters and stories) Magical DoReMi from Toei and Asahi TV.
DIC’s branding strategy is Berry good news for affiliates
The biggest change on the DIC Kid’s Network this year will take place in January 2006, when Strawberry Shortcake replaces Captain Planet in the three-hour syndicated block that airs on more than 450 U.S. affiliates.
According to Noel Fogelson, VP and co-general counsel at DIC, input from licensees including Fox and American Greetings has a big impact on programming choices since DKN is an important tool in the company’s brand-building arsenal. The next big brand in the pipeline is, of course, Trollz. But so far, DIC’s merch partners seem happy with the slow-build course to exposure the company has charted.
A 65-minute special based on the brand scored a 4.0 rating on Disney Channel earlier this year, and an animated TV series is in production. It’s possible that this toon will join DKN’s lineup next June. But Angela Rodgers, director of domestic television, says it’s just as likely that DIC will mine its 1,500-hour catalogue or sign an acquisitions deal to refresh the schedule.