Tom Ascheim took on his role as president of global kids, young adults and classics for WarnerMedia less than a year ago. And in this time, the former Freeform president and Nickelodeon EVP has made big moves that have changed the way the channels are run, how shows are created, and who is actually making (and buying) the company’s kids content. Ascheim doesn’t want to take credit for a lot of what has happened at the recently merged media giant, and the team around him has changed noticeably. First, Sam Register took over Cartoon Network Studios, while maintaining his leadership of Warner Bros. Animation Studios.
Then, Ascheim brought on his former Nickelodeon colleague Amy Friedman to head up the channel side of Cartoon Network. And shortly after HBO Max launched, the kids division for the streamer was brought under Ascheim’s umbrella.
Keeping these changes going, Ascheim is about to orchestrate Cartoon Network’s biggest shake-up ever—turning the male-skewing brand for six to 11s into one that also has specific programming and blocks for preschoolers, families, and for the first time—girls.
Kidscreen: A lot has happened in a short period of time. Sam Register is overseeing two studios, Amy Friedman joined your team, and you took over all of the HBO Max kids programming. Why was speed so important in these decisions?
Tom Ascheim: I love that you give me credit for everything that happened, but it didn’t quite work that way. Part of the reason that I joined the group was the desire by Ann Sarnoff and WarnerMedia overall to make a really big and thriving kids and family group. We know how important doing a good job with kids and family is to the future of WarnerMedia—it’s essential to make our channels work. I think a lot of the changes that have happened since I’ve arrived have all been [explored] through the shared goal of making WarnerMedia a modern media powerhouse.
We’re still in the midst of bringing Cartoon [Network] forward to be an even bigger player in the kids and family universe. We’re going to be launching a preschool [element] of the Cartoon Network life, a family part of our life, and extending [CN] from the strength that it has to an even wider part of the audience both on the channel and on HBO Max around the world.
KS: Cartoon Network has always been a brand for six to 11s—why is it important to expand into preschool and family?
TA: Cartoon Network has decades of loyalty and viewership around the world. We could ignore all of that and try to start a new thing, or use the strength that we have. Common sense would suggest that we should use the strength that we have. As we connect to HBO Max, the needs of the moment are less focused on a tight six-to-11 male skew, and instead on the broader targeting that comes to those streaming services.
One of the things we knew we needed to do at Cartoon was be more girl-inclusive, so we’re going to work hard on making that happen. In the US at least, about one-third of all kid viewers are preschoolers, and we weren’t playing in that domain—which seems a little silly.
During COVID, we’re all spending time together in tiny little pods, and we need stuff that lets us enjoy each other while we’re watching TV. We felt like there was a real opportunity to make content that was genuinely appealing to kids and parents.
KS: What are your plans for HBO Max?
TA: It’s super-important that everyone realizes we’re working in partnership with HBO Max. A lot of what we’ve talked about with our col- leagues at HBO Max is around broadening what it means to have our content on the air—that’s why preschool, girls and family programming are very important. That’s why different formats are important.
So we’re going to do a little bit of live action, and we’re going to do movies. We’re going to harness the IPs that are a big part of this com- pany and make sure that we are a full-service kids and family player for HBO Max and, frankly, competitive. We need to be as strong as anybody else out there.
KS: Why did you put Sam Register in charge of Cartoon Network Studios in addition to Warner Bros. Animation Studios?
TA: I think a couple of reasons—one is that he is super-talented. One of his pitches for putting these two studios together was that we need three cultures: a Cartoon Network studios culture, a Warner Bros. Animation culture, and a deep culture of collaboration.
We’ve had the first two, but we [didn't have] the third, which is where we get the chance to help both studios learn from each other. Talent can get passed back and forth, and whenever they get bored, they can go try something different.
There’s a term in early childhood development called parallel play, where kids know how to play next to each other, but they don’t know how to play together. It’s time for our two studios to enter their elementary school years and play together.
KS: Why was Amy Friedman someone you wanted on the team?
TA: I have had the privilege of working with Amy before at Nickelodeon. She’s really smart and she’s been in this business a long time, so she has incredible relationships in the creative community. They’re already bringing us so many projects because they like working with her. Creatives have many places to bring their work, and part of our [mission] is to make them feel like they’re going to have a chance to do their best. Amy will ensure that’s true.
KS: Several of Cartoon Network’s kids shows, like Infinity Train and Summer Camp Island, are going straight to streaming—is that going to be more common with Warner’s kids content now?
TA: I don’t know that windowing is tremendously important to children. I don’t think they care so much about what is going where. Part of our organizational design is that our business rules should not be visible to the audience. What we need to do is focus on the audience first, and if we’re audience-first, then we’re going to make sure that our content is easy to watch wherever.
KS: Disney rolled out Disney+ internationally, and then shortly after channels in Australia and the UK closed. Would you consider emulating that strategy?
TA: We’re really excited about our international channels. They’re not going anywhere. It’s actually a great opportunity with Disney going all-streaming. We’re seeing upticks for our ratings in those markets where it has closed channels. We welcome Disney’s decisions, because it’s good for our business.
KS: You have so much in-house capability, are you looking at out- side companies in terms of acquiring content or partnering?
TA: We are open for business, and everyone should call Amy, who is already in conversations with many outside folks. And Sam’s studios are charged with bringing an enormous range of IPs to Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and HBO Max.
But they also continue to sell to the outside, which is incredibly important for us to keep the artists engaged [because we] know there are opportunities beyond in-house. We favor the inside, but we definitely do not just do the inside.
KS: Something that brings a lot of viewers to the Cartoon Network platforms is their focus on social issues like LGBTQ+ representation, racism and diversity. How are you planning on incorporating some of these themes in the future, especially as you expand into different age groups?
TA: We’re all intersectional creatures who deserve to be seen for all of our complexity. That human need for individuality is what unites us, and that is what we seek to put forward under Cartoon Network’s banner.
For preschoolers, it’s about relieving parents of the pressure that their kid needs to be the best, and instead help them just be the best they can be. For older kids, it’s about understanding the weirdness of your own identity. For families, it’s remembering that we all have weird families.
KS: What’s next?
TA: We will be rolling out a new brand name for the preschool and family block. We’ll unveil some programming, a new tagline and a big pipeline, and we’ll explain how it moves forward between the network and HBO Max. We’re going to reimagine the network within a year of when I started, and I feel very proud of that accomplishment.
KS: What is the goal for five years from now?
TA: World domination.