Scales even out at the Kids upfront

The kids upfront is all about buzz - generating it on one side, and getting past it to strike the balance between intuition and information on the other. Call it the I-Ching of upfront; for every yin, there's a yang. And this year, it seems that just about every prognosis for the marketplace is conceivable, from jubilant optimism to eyebrow-raising skepticism.
May 1, 2004

The kids upfront is all about buzz – generating it on one side, and getting past it to strike the balance between intuition and information on the other. Call it the I-Ching of upfront; for every yin, there’s a yang. And this year, it seems that just about every prognosis for the marketplace is conceivable, from jubilant optimism to eyebrow-raising skepticism.

While the home entertainment category is experiencing unprecedented growth, the toy sector remains flat. And just as marketers from another strong category, packaged goods, could swarm the marketplace, they might just as soon choose to hang back in light of the U.S. government’s promise to deal with childhood obesity.

Even the news that kids TV viewing in Q4 reached its highest point in five years is counterbalanced by the fact that two of the most critical dayparts (Saturday mornings and after school from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.) dipped, the latter hitting its lowest point in five years. And while pre-recorded video spending grew 56% in 2003 at Cartoon and Nick combined, according to figures provided by ad spend tracking company TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, motion picture advertising dropped by about 22% during the same period.

But if these yin-yang conditions illustrate anything, it’s that the marketplace might finally be finding some sort of balance. ‘It’s leaning back to normalcy,’ says John Muszynski, executive VP and managing director of investment and operations at Starcom Worldwide in Chicago. ‘It’s not as strong a buyer’s market as it has been, but it’s not a seller’s market either.’

The unprecedented surge of entertainment and ‘non-toy’ money from packaged goods companies and QSRs into kids TV last year was a surprise to industry insiders, says Muszynski. Though reluctant to quantify any of this growth, he says that most of this year’s buzz is emanating from these same non-toy categories.

The 2003 upfront was a seller’s market for the eight weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and the five weeks before Easter, says Patty Norway, senior VP and director of children’s media for Active International in Pearl River, New York. In fact, she suspects that some buyers weren’t prepared for the resurgence in upfront buying as there were sell-outs for certain dayparts.

This year’s upfront environment presents a unique twist because there are so many huge theatrical releases (The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Shark Tale, The Polar Express and The Incredibles are just a few) and home entertainment releases (notably Spider-Man 2 and Shrek 2) on the roster for the October to November pre-Christmas season traditionally dominated by toy companies. Because it’s a relatively young category that has never had this much blockbuster action, it’s impossible to guess how much of an impact theatrical and DVD will have on the upfront buying psyche. Plus, tentative release dates and inventive promotional programs that may include little TV advertising make for unpredictable spending patterns, says Norway. A move to a late November release date – or a marketing program that only uses TV post-launch – ups the demand for December inventory, which is not as desirable for manufacturers.

Norway also points to the sheer amount of inventory held by top-two suppliers Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. Move outside the pre-Thanksgiving and pre-Easter rush, and it’s a buyers’ market again, she says.

Muszynski agrees that it’s not quite the upfront environment network sellers may be hyping. Yes, there was a 10% jump in the 2003 upfront, and that may signal an improvement on the soft market of the past three years. But he says there are still supply-side economics at play. And having two top players – together responsible for a good 90% of the inventory – competing for ad dollars translates into more leverage on the buying side. ‘It’s our job to sift through it all and figure out what’s real and what’s not.’

Most buyers will admit that the current environment demands a spreading-the-wealth strategy. ‘You look at everybody,’ says Muszynski. Unlike the adult TV marketplace, where it’s possible to compare apples to apples, the kids TV landscape is dotted with incomparable channels. ‘With the exception of some time on Nickelodeon and Cartoon, the rest of the guys have all carved out their own little niches,’ he says, which means you can’t sink everything into just one or two favorites. Predicting where the kids are going, rather than simply reacting to the audience, is key.

Active International’s Norway agrees that covering one’s bases is the only way to play in this tight-knit environment. ‘All you need in this industry is one big hit to turn everything around,’ she says.

So who’s got the potential to send one out of the park this year? Here’s a taste of what’s up at the major kidnets.

Cartoon goes after girls

Cartoon is continuing the aggressive ‘more is more’ strategy it adopted last year, and has upped the ante in an effort to maintain its strong boy audience while increasing its girls share. The channel is introducing five new shows this year, along with 300 new episodes of existing hit series, more than doubling last year’s level of re-ups.

While Cartoon had a respectable Q4, with weekday ratings up 23% from the previous year, its overall share of the pie has slipped by 6%, thanks in large part to Disney’s 7% growth in kids rating points.

There’s little doubt that Cartoon has a solid boy audience – boys two to 11 were up 24% weekdays and 9% weekends, while its six to 11 male ratings jumped 28% on weekdays and 18% on weekends. In fact, in Q4, it managed to snatch the number-two position on weekdays with boys two to 11 back from Kids’ WB! But just as Disney made the move to attract more boys last year (growing its weekday share of boys two to 11 by 70%), executive VP and GM of Cartoon Jim Samples says his net is aiming to draw more girls into its fold this year.

The channel is also looking to build better flow between its blocks. The successful Toonami block, which boasts a strong following of boys nine to 14 (pulling in an average of 399,000 throughout Q1 2004, according to a company spokesperson), has been moved from after-school weekdays to Saturday evenings, leading into the Adult Swim block. This switch makes sense, says Samples, given that the original afternoon block lead-in is aimed at the six to 11 set, and Toonami has developed an edgy feel more appropriate for Saturday evening. New shows like Megas XLR, about a 20-something who happens upon a giant fighting robot from the future, will debut in Toonami this year.

The after-school weekday block, meanwhile, has been re-launched as Miguzi. While still maintaining an adventure stance, Miguzi will offer more gender-balanced fare. The block’s anchor is Teen Titans (which netted a 2.4 rating in Q4 with kids two to 11) along with Codename: Kids Next Door (2.47), both of which will strip daily. New episodes of The Powerpuff Girls and Totally Spies! (Marathon) will also run in Miguzi.

Other new shows for the network include Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (22 x 26 minutes), a Flash animated series that will premiere this summer. Created by Craig McCracken, the man behind The Powerpuff Girls, Foster’s is about a shy eight-year-old boy who is forced to send his imaginary friend to a special home, but makes a promise to visit everyday. Another departure for the network in terms of style, look and content is Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, produced by Renegade Studios in Glendale, California. The Flash toon will debut in December and follows the fictional adventures of two real Tokyo-based pop stars, featuring live-action segments and the band’s J-pop music.

Also part of the Q4 girls lineup is Atomic Betty, a 2-D animated co-pro from Toronto, Canada’s Breakthrough Entertainment and Tele Images in Paris about an ‘average’ little girl defending the galaxy. And The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, which will air in February, is about another ‘everygirl’ who happens to be responsible for controlling otherworldly mischief made by gnomes, leprechauns and the like.

Kim McQuilken, executive VP of ad sales, says the big spenders have been pretty consistent over the last four or five years. Packaged goods and toy companies have come out on top, but emerging as an extension of toys is gaming, he says. The entertainment category (movies and home videos) has also been strong.

But new shows and blocks are broadening demos, he says. ‘We’ve had a nice influx of automotive, computer and telecommunications coming into Cartoon.’ Some advertisers dip their toes in Cartoon through the Adult Swim block, and ‘end up spending in both.’ Automotive companies Honda and Toyota both bought space in this manner, while Dell Computer has also been a big spender on the net.

Kids’ WB! achieves tonal balance and tries flicks

With both Fox and UPN having abandoned the weekday kids landscape (Fox’s last season was 2001, UPN’s a year later), Kids’ WB! is on its own in this space on the broadcast side. The net couldn’t sustain the increases it boasted last year, though, and Q4 weekday ratings fell by 25%. But if Kids’ WB! has proved anything, it’s that it has a good nose for hits – just look at its roster of top-10 Saturday morning shows.

Two new, but very different, additions this fall indicate the direction Kids’ WB! is taking for the new season. First up is The Batman (Warner Bros. Animation), featuring the hero in his younger years meeting the infamous cast of villains for the first time. The second new show, Da Boom Crew (produced by Jambalaya Studio and Berliner Film Companie), is a sci-fi animated comedy series about four orphans who have developed a hip-hop video game that transports them into a parallel universe. Their task is to collect every lost game cartridge before they fall into the hands of villains.

The network has long used a ‘broad slate’ strategy, pairing darker, more sophisticated programming with lighter, comedic fare. ‘That has been one of the strengths of the network,’ says John Hardman, senior VP of Kids’ WB! ‘For every Yu-Gi-Oh!, there’s a Mucha Lucha.’

The net is diversifying the lineup this year with the introduction of its first movie. Zolar is a two-hour live-actioner from Insight Film & Television that revolves around a team of three athletes who discover their newest team member is an alien being hunted down by intergalactic hitmen. In addition, the net is launching a live-action Punk’d-like series called Gagsters from New York-based Gotcha Entertainment in which a team of kid pranksters target adults who have slighted or embarrassed kids. (Gag possibilities and targets are suggested by letters from kid viewers.) Meanwhile, Megaman NT Warrior, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokémon, Xiaolin Showdown, Jackie Chan Adventures, Teen Titans, Mucha Lucha and What’s New Scooby-Doo? will all be returning with new episodes throughout the year. By launching something fresh every couple of months, Kids’ WB! can ensure that its ratings don’t simply reflect the newness of Q4 programming and then dip when repeats take over.

Advertisers seem happy to be dealing with one sales team for both Cartoon and Kids’ WB! under the new structure that was in place by Q4 2003. ‘It gives us a better feel for types of shows that both are going to have,’ says Starcom’s Muszynski. ‘They’re able to maximize their hits better this way.’

Nickelodeon’s The N is open for advertising business

Probably the biggest news for market leader Nick and its advertisers going into this year’s upfront is the decision to introduce advertising to The N – the tween- and teen-oriented nighttime companion to Nick’s ad-free Noggin network.

According to Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Television, the move has been part of the game plan since The N’s launch in April 2002, but the timing is particularly right in terms of penetration. Expected to reach more than 41 million households by Q4 2004, The N has the highest concentration of nine- to 17-year-olds in broadcast and cable TV and is the only basic cable network with a median age of 14.5 – a big draw for advertisers.

According to Jim Perry, senior VP of ad sales, marketers dealing with movies, video games, fashion/apparel, retail and wireless technologies are all interested in reaching this demo and should step up quickly to buy the six minutes per hour that will be available on The N.

The mothership, meanwhile, is introducing a record nine new live-action and animated series this season, including its first anime-style cartoon. Avatar is a 13-ep series about a 12-year-old boy who must restore world order using the four elements.

Nick is drawing on star power to generate buzz around several new live-action comedy series, including one starring Jamie Spears (Britney’s little sister) as a teenager in a newly co-ed boarding school. Unfabulous stars Julia Roberts’ niece Emma as a girl who writes songs to get through her awkward junior-high life. And still on the Hollywood bandwagon, The Power Strikers (working title), created by Whoopi Goldberg, will focus on a junior high soccer team.

Nick Jr., meanwhile, will refresh its sked with Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends (20 episodes and two specials from Nelvana); The Backyardigans (20 episodes, also from Nelvana), an animated musical adventure series originally planned for last year; and 40 episodes of Lazy Town, created by Magnus Scheving in Iceland. This last series is about a little girl who’s caught between a health-conscious superhero and the world’s laziest villain, whose mission is to maintain the slothful status quo so he can get his beauty rest.

For the younger end of its demo, Nick Jr. is introducing spin-off play-along series Go, Diego, Go (starring a core character from Dora the Explorer) and five specials of Blue’s Room (where the blue puppy from Blue’s Clues will actually speak).

Perry is optimistic about the coming season, thanks in large part to Nick’s strong position in the marketplace and a resurgence in demand from the advertising community. He agrees that movies will be a key category, and points out that the toy category has managed to rebound, thanks to the introduction of new electronics products (LeapFrog, for example) and dolls that target older girls. Perry says that more non-endemic advertisers interested in reaching families, including several automotive companies – the latest of which is Mitsubishi – are also coming aboard.

Although there is industry-wide concern that food marketers might back off a little from kids advertising now that the obesity flag has been raised, Perry sees it going in the opposite direction. He says that many snack food companies are coming up with healthier products and are eager to get the positive message out. ‘A lot of companies are talking about developing and creating new ‘good for you’ products for kids,’ he says. ‘It could actually be a plus to the market.’

Fox Box also gets in touch with its feminine side

Citing an 8% Q4 ratings growth with kids two to 11 on Saturdays, Fox Box is positioning itself as the only traditional broadcaster worth its weight in ad money for Saturday mornings. ‘If you look at the broadcast landscape, the only network to show growth on the key kid and boy demographics is Fox Box,’ says Dan Barnathan, executive VP of marketing and promotion. Fox Box’s average weekend rating with boys two to 11 was 1.7 in Q4, compared to ABC and CBS, which both scored 1.3.

Barnathan’s message to advertisers this year: While Cartoon and Nick may appear to have the kids market wrapped up, together they only reach about 70% of U.S. homes. ‘Whether you’re advertising a packaged good, QSR, toy or movie, you really want to reach all the kids,’ he says. In other words, broadcast is still necessary.

Fox Box’s strategy this year is to maintain its action-adventure stance, while trying to entice more girls to join in the fun, says Al Khan, CEO of 4Kids Entertainment. To that end, at least three (and possibly four) new shows are premiering, including Winx Club (produced by Rainbow Animation in Italy and localized by 4Kids), which centers around a group of stylish young fairies. A companion show from Japan, Mew Mews features five high school girls who transform into heroines based on the traits of endangered species. In the meantime, Fox is going to hold onto strong boy properties Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2.14 with boys two to 11 in Q4), Kirby (1.83), Shaman King (1.96) and Sonic X (2.38).

Discovery Kids maintains the status quo

Coasting might best describe Discovery Kids’ plan for its NBC block this coming season. ‘We have stuff in development, but what we have is working,’ says Marjorie Kaplan, senior VP and GM for Discovery Kids. The NBC block grew by 17% in Q4 2003, compared to Q4 2002, with Trading Spaces: Boys vs Girls leading the way with a 0.78 among kids two to 11.

The Real Toons block, introduced last fall to draw in a younger audience, is performing well, with Porchlight’s Tutenstein rating the highest with kids two to 11 at 0.72. Real Toons is followed by live-action block Real World, which is getting mileage out of shows like Scout’s Safari (The Tom Lynch Company), Strange Days at Blake Holsey High (Blake Holsey Productions and Fireworks Entertainment) and Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls.

While Kaplan says the net has several shows in development, including two new reality series, she doesn’t expect to make any changes to the schedule until mid-season. For now, the strategy is to hold fast to what seems to be a winning formula and test with pilots as soon as shows come off the belt to determine how things resonate with kids before making further commitments.

Disney/ABC makes hay with its boy gains

Disney Channel is doing everything it can to maintain the growth it’s been enjoying (up 38% weekdays and 25% weekends in Q4 with kids two to 11), and it’s launching several original series that meet the net’s gender-neutral and diverse programming mandate. Kicking off the new sked is Phil of the Future, a live-action comedy about a teenager from the future and his eccentric family. And joining the lineup mid-season will be 2-D toon Disney’s American Dragon: Jake Long, an action/comedy about a New York boy who plays guardian to a number of magical creatures. Meanwhile, Disney’s Brandy & Mr. Whiskers, a 2-D animated comedy about a pampered poodle and silly rabbit who are lost in the Amazon, should draw in more preschoolers when it launches this summer. ‘We are focused on continuing to increase our ratings among preschoolers, where, thanks to JoJo’s Circus (which scored a 1.29 in Q4 with kids two to 11), we are already seeing an uptick,’ says Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide.

ABC Kids, meanwhile, is losing an hour from its weekend sked to make room for a weekend edition of Good Morning America. Jonathan Barzilay, senior VP and GM of ABC Kids and Toon Disney, says it’s challenging to be an ‘island of kids’ amongst adult programming, particularly when competing with 24-hour kids specialties. The net is sticking with its ‘best of’ strategy, cherry-picking from Disney’s output to add Phil of the Future to the morning block, which already includes staples Lizzie McGuire (2.42 with kids six to 11), The Proud Family (2.31) and That’s So Raven (2.11).

On Toon Disney, the daily Jetix action-adventure block is so far doing exactly what was intended – drawing in boys. ‘The initial results have been staggering,’ says Barzilay of Disney’s first foray into action-adventure. In its first month, Jetix saw a 33% increase in total kid viewers over the previous month, up 36% with boys two to 11 and 56% with boys six to 11.

Including boy-friendly powerhouses like Digimon, Power Rangers: DinoThunder and Beyblade VForce, Jetix will expand to 19 hours in the fall with the addition of four new programs, including Beyblade G-Revolution and new series Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go, an anime-style show from Walt Disney Television Animation that pits monkey warriors led by a 13-year-old boy against evil villains.

Rounding out the slate is Dragon Booster, a CGI series from AAC Kids and The Story Hat that’s set in a mythical world where humans and dragons co-exist; and mid-seasoner W.I.T.C.H., based on Disney Publishing’s comic magazine series about five teen girls with magical powers. The Jetix block also airs on ABC Family weekdays (from

7 a.m. to 9 a.m.) and weekend mornings (from 7 a.m. to noon).

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