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In our crunch-stricken climate, the glib mantra of the moment in media circles seems to be 'flat is the new boom.' And there couldn't be a more apt description of the 2009 US kids upfront, which is expected to just squeak past last year's US$850-million take, thanks in large part to some comparatively resilient advertising categories.
May 8, 2009

In our crunch-stricken climate, the glib mantra of the moment in media circles seems to be ‘flat is the new boom.’ And there couldn’t be a more apt description of the 2009 US kids upfront, which is expected to just squeak past last year’s US$850-million take, thanks in large part to some comparatively resilient advertising categories.

Several US kidcasters say they’re going to be turning their attentions away from some previously high-priority non-endemic sectors – particularly financial institutions and automotive, which are now in full-on crisis mode – and spend more effort courting core kid categories like theatrical and video games. Nintendo’s ad spending, for example, jumped from US$13 million in 2006 to US$57 million in 2007, clocking in last year at a still impressive US$41 million as of November, according to TNS Media Intelligence’s last tally.

And though much of Nintendo’s spending had to do with touting Wii technology to all demos, boys remain a key target for video game hardware and software manufacturers. At least that’s what Disney is banking on as it attempts to give established boy net Cartoon Network a run for its money with Disney XD, which replaced the low-rating Toon Disney net last October. Cartoon’s not one to roll over in the face of new competition, however, and has significantly ramped up its action-adventure and live-action slates to make sure its core viewers don’t stray on the dial. Both channels are also teaming up with sports nets to incorporate kid-friendly sports programming that will hopefully entice more apparel and packaged goods clients into their respective folds.

‘It doesn’t seem that there are very many specific gender-targeted advertisers, so Disney XD will be a nice complement when buying in other places,’ says Jackie Kulesza, SVP and broadcast activation director at Starcom USA. Overall, though, Starcom associate activation director Darcy Bowe says the supply in the marketplace is consistent, and she doesn’t expect the demand for ad space will be as strong as last year.

Following a trend set in motion a few years ago, the upfront season continues to move further into spring, with broadcasters and media buyers alike waiting for seasonal demand periods like back-to-school and Christmas to negotiate ad deals. This year, Disney chose to not put on an upfront presentation at all, and is holding back its new programming announcements until later in the year.

Beacon Media’s Shelly Hirsch, a media buyer with 40 years experience, says when the deals finally start closing, he expects significant rollbacks in pricing. ‘Everything is shrinking, and it starts at retail,’ he says. ‘There is less shelf space, so there will be fewer orders for fewer brands, and therefore less advertised products.’

Hirsch adds that new types of ads are popping into the kids media space, particularly direct response spots like those made famous in adult-viewing circles by the ShamWow! guy. He points to toyco Spin Master’s Spin Direct ads as an example. The spots are quietly selling product directly to consumers and side-stepping retailers reluctant to take on new and unproven toy products in a shaky economy. ‘If the demand is not there, that’s how you fill up the supply, with direct response,’ says Hirsch. ‘At least these ads pay something, and they’re better than running Smokey the Bear PSAs.’

Disney to grow boy audience
In lieu of a glitzy upfront show, the Disney media advertising sales and marketing group has been meeting directly with clients to personally bring them up to speed on the latest programming developments in the pipe for boy-focused Disney XD. And they’ve logged more than 100 face-to-face confabs so far.

SVP of TV sales Michelle Scarola says the channel will roll out several new shows over the next year, and she’s quite bullish on the multi-platform event potential of Next X, a project in production with XD sister channel ESPN. The short-form series features five professional athletes mentoring kids nine to 12 on their technical skills in various sports. It will debut in June on Disney XD, DisneyXD.com and DisneyXD mobile platforms, culminating in August with a TV and online special showcasing the kids’ experiences at X Games 15. XD also has a second live-action series on deck for Q4, but isn’t ready to discuss it at all yet.

As for the core Disney Channel, it’s gearing up for the early summer launch of Jonas, a tween-skewing sitcom starring heartthrob triple-threats the Jonas Brothers. And the net will also be rolling out a new slate of original movies, including the first spin-off from series Wizards of Waverly Place and sequels to High School Musical and Camp Rock.

Scarola says the ad sales team is going after apparel companies, and will be taking advantage of the opportunity Disney XD has created for gaming advertisers to reach boys. She’ll also be looking at ways to offer cross-channel packages similar to last year’s Lego promotion in which the toyco sponsored the debut of Aaron Stone on Disney Channel and then followed the series over to Disney XD with traditional TV spots.

As for Disney’s online efforts, Scarola notes that Disney.go.com/games is number one in the online gaming category with kids two to 14, according to comScore’s Media Metrix, and it’s setting up original content and gaming opps for kids that will let them do things like create their own personality-infused avatars that react to winning or losing whatever Disney game they’re played in.

As for non-endemic advertising, Scarola sees potential in this year’s rather soft financial category. ‘We feel these companies could help influence kids to better understand the importance of financial responsibility and saving,’ she says.

Nick forges stronger cross-channel connection
Just prior to its upfront pitch, Nickelodeon announced plans to rebrand Noggin and The N as Nick Jr. and TEENick to foster stronger brand awareness with consumers and to create a more cohesive cross-channel connection for advertisers.

The rebranding will also help sell the network’s new property package ad buys, in which advertisers will be able to buy into specific brands across all platforms. So, for example, advertisers who want to reach tween girls can set up marketing around iCarly across Nickelodeon, TEENick and Nick.com.

The network has seven new series in the works for the upcoming 2009 season. It’s keeping several under wraps, but was pleased to unveil a brand-new show from Disney alumnus Michael Eisner’s Tornante Animation as the centerpiece of its upfront presentation. Glenn Martin, DDS is a half-hour stop-motion comedy about a dentist and his family who travel the country in a mobile-home dental office. Slated to air this fall on teen-targeted Nick at Nite, it’s meant to be family-friendly and mesh with one of the network’s main goals in 2009 – taking co-viewing to the next level.

For example, says EVP of 360 brand sales Jim Perry, Nickelodeon will be looking to emulate the success of last year’s made-for-TV movie, Merry Christmas, Drake & Josh, to help bring in non-endemic advertisers such as travel, technology and wireless companies that are looking to talk to families as a whole.

Nick has also launched The Penguins of Madagascar, and the network is close to announcing the first major series to come out of its new partnership with Marvel, which Perry says will move Nicktoons deeper into the boys’ space.

TV event formats, led by Nick’s Kids’ Choice Awards, is another business stream that’s been earmarked for expansion. KCA upped its online interactive component this past March and pulled in big-ticket sponsors including Hasbro, General Mills and DelMonte. Nick plans to build on this momentum with a new event called the Halo Awards, which will center around celebrities giving kudos to regular kids across the US for undertaking positive change projects in their communities. The awards were initiated by R&B recording artist Nick Cannon, who was recently tapped as an honorary chairperson by Nick in the hopes that he’ll forge a deeper connection with teen audiences. He’s also an executive producer on an upcoming two-hour TV movie for Nickelodeon.

Bumper crop of new shows harvested at Cartoon Network
Cartoon Network sprang out of the gate at this year’s upfront presentation with 19 new series in tow – its largest commitment ever to new programming hours. EVP and GM of CN’s ad sales and marketing, John O’Hara, says after picking itself up out of a ratings slump last year, the network is still in transition towards evolving into a destination for a wider array of programming that appeals to a broader and perhaps slightly older audience.

The new 2009 lineup expands on last year’s genre-focused programming strategy that established Thursday as a go-to night for comedy and Fridays and Sundays as family movie nights. Additional signature nights are in the works, and the network is infusing its lineup with tons more scripted live-action and alternative content, including six reality/gameshow entries, three original live-action movies and two hour-long scripted live-action pilots, as well as seven new animated series and a CGI movie special.

Not to be outdone by Disney XD on the sports front, CN has announced a partnership with the NBA to develop both long- and short-form programming. The first CN/NBA yield is My Dad’s a Pro, which is slated to bow this fall. The short-form series follows the offspring of NBA players, exploring the challenges and thrills that come with that exciting lifestyle. Coinciding with the launch of the series is a new basketball section on CartoonNetwork.com.

O’Hara says this varied programming approach will open up new opportunities for partnerships, especially around some of the reality-themed programming that’s on deck such as 9 Story Entertainment’s Survive This. He adds that the live-action and sports-oriented content will allow the network to expand into more non-endemic advertising in the packaged goods and wireless spaces, and even categories that other broadcasters aren’t putting as much muscle into this year, like insurance and automotive.

O’Hara and his team will also be talking to clients about working with different buckets of budgets and how the net’s programming variety can work to target demos beyond Cartoon’s core boy audience, one good example being shows that are proven draws for families and moms.

qubo sticks to co-viewing tack
With the transition to digital broadcast looming, the kid channel newcomer says its reach has tripled from five million homes last year to 15 million in 2008, and it expects that by year’s end, it will have doubled that household penetration.

In addition to its main feed, qubo runs a Saturday morning block on NBC and a Spanish-language feed on Saturdays and Sundays on Telemundo. And its three-hour Friday afternoon block on Ion Network has been reconfigured to run an hour each day from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Friday. The intent is to foster an after-school appointment viewing pattern, says Kerry Hughes, SVP of ad sales and partnerships at the channel.

Hughes says the channel aims to fill 40% of its terrestrial space with new acquisitions, and has started with Shelldon from Entertainment Rights, one of the channel’s investing partners. The 26 x half-hour series is about a mollusk who, through adventures with other aquatic friends, teaches viewers about life in the ocean and how to take care of the aquatic environment. Over the last year, qubo has also picked up Sammy’s Story Shop (Scholastic Media), The Adventures of the Book of Virtues (PorchLight Entertainment) and Maisy (PolyGram Television).

According to Hughes, the channel is also aggressively expanding its digital reach and has tripled page views on qubo.com since last spring, when its video player launched.

As for sales strategy, the net is still focusing on touting its family viewership, and it will continue to court family-friendly travel companies and advertisers of all-family products and activities such as board games, theatrical movies and video games. Mattel remains on-board as a major partner in 2009 and into 2010.

Video portal moves 4Kids beyond Saturday mornings
Though the final sked for the fall lineup is still being ironed out, 4Kids has its pick of newly acquired shows and new episodes of returning shows to add to its Saturday morning terrestrial block, The CW4Kids, and its new 24/7 online video portal.

New highlights include Gogoriki, a 105 x seven-minute series that originally aired in Russia that president of 4Kids Production Norman Grossfeld describes as Friends for under 12s. The channel has also picked up the 26 x half-hour CGI animated series RollBots from Canada’s Amberwood Entertainment. And it recently launched Adness Entertainment’s Kamen Rider, its sole live-action acquisition, which Grossfeld says has the appeal of Power Rangers with very high production values.

In the meantime, 4Kids has lined up new seasons of returning series Chaotic and Dinosaur King, which will both expand on their creative storylines with elements of time travel. Additionally, Biker Mike from Mars, a short-lived show Grossfeld says was popular with viewers in the former Fox days, returns with 27 new eps.

4Kids is also planning on making the most of the 25th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with worldwide celebrations and promotions, including an on-air campaign in which fans (adults and kids alike) can vote for their favorite episodes of all time. The winning eps will be aired in an official countdown event this fall, with TMNT festivities culminating in the November broadcast of a new 90-minute made-for-TV movie featuring the Turtles in both their retro and modern iterations.

The channel also recently launched www.4Kidstv.com, a new kids video portal that’s offering most of the 4Kids library now and building up to adding third-party programming later this year. ‘Since we’re only on the air on Saturday mornings,’ notes Grossfeld, ‘this is one of the ways in which we can be present in kids’ lives 24/7; it also helps level the playing field with our cable competition.’

As for sales revenue, Grossfeld admits the toy category has been challenging. But like other kidcasters, 4Kids is expecting to see increased traction from packaged goods companies, as well movie studios and video game companies looking to promote new titles to create consumer buzz and sell product through at retail.

Grossfeld and his team will be pushing integrated multi-platform buys, and to that end, he’s set up an umbrella guarantee for clients offering a certain number of impressions across all platforms. He’s hoping the guarantee will eliminate make-goods on slots that fall short on ratings.

PBS Kids Sprout goes with grassroots promotion
Now in its fourth upfront season, Sprout reaches more than 45 million US homes and is continuing to push for wider distribution. The channel has also evolved its consumer marketing campaign ‘We Share’ to ‘Sprout Please’ in order to reinforce parental trust in its kid-safe programming and also to amp up the channel’s word-of-mouth cred through local community events across the country, social networking sites and blogs.

Sandy Wax, president and GM of PBS Kids Sprout, says fresh programming will be rolling out throughout the year in the form of new seasons of existing series and brand-new acquisitions like Halifax Film’s The Mighty Jungle. This show revolves around a troupe of puppets re-enacting stories conceived by actual preschool kids, and Wax says it fits nicely with the made-for-kids-by-kids theme that runs through much of the channel’s programming. Epitomizing this thread is The Sharing Show. Now in its second season, the series has puppet hosts share viewer-created fare on air.

Incorporating kid-driven and initiated content into the schedule is a major strategy for not only making a seamless connection between Sprout’s online and on-air platforms, but also for getting families as a whole involved with the channel. To that end, the ad sales mandate remains directed at adults. New clients this year include Clorox and insurance cos Statefarm and Geico. Wax adds she’s seen an increase in interest from personal travel and packaged goods companies, as well as movie studios.

Wax is aiming to grow sales revenue on the 24-hour digital cable channel and VOD net (which has garnered half a billion orders since its 2005 launch). On the online side, her team will be pushing www.sproutonline.com, which currently welcomes about half a million unique visitors a month. They’ve also been experimenting in the digital media space. For example, Sprout recently launched iPhone application Dress Chica (see ‘iPhone therefore iApp’ on page 15), which plays off one of its existing website games inviting kids to dress Chica the Chicken from The Sunny Side Up Show in costumes such as a feather boa or fireman’s hat. Wax says incorporating the iPhone offering also reinforces the child/caregiver interaction Sprout strives to foster.

Cookie Jar TV launches
Cookie Jar’s buyout of DIC Entertainment (and its Kewlopolis Saturday morning block on CBS) last year not only significantly expanded the broadcast service’s library of programming; it also spurred a complete re-branding as Cookie Jar TV, says SVP of ad sales and television marketing Dave Danowski.

‘DIC never promoted its name in the channel packaging; it was more about the brands,’ Danowski explains. ‘We want to make sure viewers know who we are because we’re going to be in a lot of different places.’ Besides the CBS block, these places include digital broadcast networks and CJ TV’s newly rebranded website.

Danowski says Cookie Jar will also have the unique advantage of programming and developing shows to suit its needs and complement existing shows in its three-hour block. He says the lineup will continue to skew slightly girl, but CJ TV hopes to achieve a more gender-neutral balance and maybe even add some original live-action fare to the mix to help age the audience up a bit.

CJ TV will also be embarking soon on a consumer awareness campaign across television, online and print. And Danowski says there’s the possibility of using retail relationships to create in-store marketing for the newly branded channel, as well as tapping the company’s extensive home entertainment library as a promotional conduit.

The kid-focused ad sales strategy will remain the same, according to Danowski, with toys and movie studios as top targets. He adds that the channel has a strong mom audience that tunes in with their kids, so he’s eager to talk about opportunities for companies looking to reach that tag-along demographic.

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