The laws of physics that govern the cartoon universe may not jibe with those set down by Newton, but they are immutable nonetheless. Rule No. 1, as defined by generations of Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner shorts, asserts that a body suspended in space will remain impervious to gravitational forces until the moment it becomes fully aware of its situation. In hot pursuit of the scrawny, flightless bird, the coyote’s momentum takes him over the edge of a cliff. He keeps churning his legs like furry brown pistons until he happens to look down, whereupon the time-honored formula of 32 feet per second per second kicks in.
Before gravity does its dirty work, the doomed beast will take a moment to produce a tiny sign that reads something along the lines of “Eep!” or “Yipes!”
In a sense, the kids upfront abides by similar principles, inasmuch as it follows a distinct internal logic that doesn’t necessarily apply to the general-entertainment upfront. In the Looney Tunes cosmos, characters may create replicas of themselves if they attain a certain velocity (usually this happens in the context of some sort of dog-vs.-cat melee). A similar principle has taken hold in the kids TV space, where the emergence of new networks has sent some established players back to the drafting table.
On April 21, Cartoon Network made its annual springtime pitch to media buyers, unveiling a slate of 25 new series and specials that includes no fewer than four live-action efforts and a handful of sports-related projects. The realization of a strategy Turner first began tinkering with more than a year ago, the new-look Cartoon Net aims to differentiate itself from its established rivals (Nickelodeon, Disney Channel) and a pair of up-and-comers (Disney XD and The Hub, the joint venture from Discovery Communications and toy giant Hasbro).
While the prospect of seeing GRPs fall to the upstarts has Cartoon Net fighting a battle on multiple fronts — the channel ranks third in the core demos behind Nick and Disney; depending on the daypart, relative newcomer Disney XD vacillates between No. 6 and 7 among kids 2-11 — ‘Toon brass say the drive to program more diverse fare is motivated by internal factors.
“Last spring we made a promise to deliver an ambitious lineup of compelling content, the sort of shows our audience won’t see anywhere else,” says Stu Snyder, president and COO of Turner Broadcasting’s Animation, Young Adults and Kids Media division. “We’re delivering on that promise. We’re adding some new series that may be a bit of a departure from our traditional animation-driven fare, but everything we’re doing matches the tone and spirit of our brand.”
Among the shows that made the most noise (literally and figuratively) at Cartoon’s upfront presentation were the two live-action adventure strips. A hypercaffeinated blend of Harry Potter mysticism and X-Files paranoia, the one-hour Tower Prep features a fetching group of young paranormals who begin to suspect that their exclusive private school is actually a training facility for some sort of sinister government agency. The more comic Unnatural History is a fish-out-of-water mystery series about a globetrotting teen who gets shipped off to finish his studies at a high school affiliated with The National Museum in Washington, D.C. Unnatural History will anchor Cartoon’s Sunday 8 p.m. slot beginning June 13.
While both shows seem poised to draw a broad audience, it’s impossible to overlook the inherent dissonance of running live-action programming on a network whose very name implies animated content. That said, Snyder insists Cartoon won’t have any trouble finding a fan base for Tower and History. “We spend a lot of time with kids and one thing that’s always been clear to us is that they just want to watch great entertainment,” Snyder says. “Our job is to offer as many great shows as we can; the biggest challenge then is to make sure that kids know these shows are on our network.”
In addition to the scripted meat-space efforts, Cartoon is amping up its sports programming. Building off Turner’s long-standing partnership with the National Basketball Association, Cartoon is suiting up for the premiere of Run It Back Sunday, a funky kid-centric edit of TNT’s Thursday night game of the week. Each NBA game getting the RIBS treatment will be distilled to an hour of dunks, steals and buckets, and fortified with trivia and humorous pop-up graphics.
The most overt pitch of the morning came as John O’Hara introduced Cartoon’s new awards show initiative, Hall of Game. The evp and general manager of ad sales and marketing advised buyers to hop on board the new franchise, which is set to premiere in early 2011. A kid-friendly gloss on the ESPY Awards, Hall of Game lets viewers vote on their favorite athletes from around the world of sports. As it plans the first Hall of Game telecast, Turner will look to book a starting lineup of bold-face superstars like Shaq, Kobe, Derek and Serena as well as a celebrity host.
None of which is to suggest that Cartoon has turned its back on animation. Along with returning series like Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the Turner net is prepping a brace of fresh ‘toons for 2010-11. Joining newcomers Generator Rex, Adventure Time and Sym-Bionic Titan are a few familiar faces (Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated and The Looney Tunes Show).
Cartoon Network closed out Q1 2010 ranked third in total day among kids 2-11 and 6-11, behind Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Perhaps more importantly, scatter has been improving steadily over the last three quarters, and O’Hara expects a much stronger upfront market this time around. (Industry sources pegged last year’s kids upfront haul at around $825 million, down 18 percent from the ’08 take.)
“This is a very different market from last year,” O’Hara says. “Scatter is certainly stronger than it was 12 months ago and some of the food brands that reduced their marketing activity last year are coming back. So we anticipate significant demand for the back-to-school period straight through the hard ten.”
Cartoon physics tells us also that gravity is often negated by fear, especially in felines. The approach of a marauding bulldog or an amorous skunk is enough to propel a body straight into the ether, coming to rest usually in the crook of a chandelier. Substitute blood pressure for altitude and you have a pretty clear picture of the impact last year’s food flap had on the kids marketplace. “The good news is, we don’t expect to see further cuts from the food guys,” says Dan Barnathan, president of 4Kids ad sales. “I’d estimate that $100 million came out of the market last year, but if anything, the food marketers are coming back. They’re reapportioning their spend back into TV.”
While 4Kids doesn’t compete on the same playing field as the Big Three, the program block does reach a unique audience of some 15 million TV households that don’t subscribe to a multichannel service.
The five-hour Saturday morning CW 4Kids block runs on The CW each week from 7 a.m. to noon. Heading into the 2010-11 upfront, 4Kids will begin walking clients through its upcoming rebranding effort, in which it will adopt a new handle, tentatively called Toonzai, and add a selection of edgier Japanese animé strips to its lineup of familiar offerings like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spider-Man and Sonic X.
Along with a healthier outlook for food-related business, the kids market should get a lift from a strong toys and entertainment base. Per market research firm NPD Group, U.S. retail toy sales totaled $21.47 billion in 2009, more or less flat from the previous year. “Last year was remarkably uneventful for the toy industry, but in a good way,” says NPD Group analyst Anita Frazier. “The uptick in unit sales in the fourth quarter is a very positive sign.”
Barnathan is encouraged by the slate of kid- and family-friendly theatricals set to unspool in 2010. “The biggest thing that will positively impact the kids marketplace is Hollywood,” he says. “Based on my analysis, the number of titles geared toward families is up 20-30 percent this year, and attached to each movie [is] a video game tie-in, or a QSR promotion.”
If the kids space is generally perceived as a three-way battle among Viacom, Turner and Disney, no one is discounting the market’s newest entity. The Hub, a double-barreled network backed by Discovery and Hasbro, bows Oct. 10, and while details about the content remain sketchy, the channel is expected to feature shows based on the toy brands Transformers and My Little Pony, as well as Discovery Kids franchises like Adventure Camp and Flight 29 Down.
Along with the legacy brands, The Hub enjoys a storied pedigree courtesy of CEO Margaret Loesch. The founder of Fox Kids Network also served as an evp at Hanna-Barbera Productions. The Hub will target kids 2-12, a demo that Loesch believes has been underserved, such has been the rush to reach older children and ‘tweens.
“Our competition has carved out the space for us,” explains Loesch. “In the case of Nickelodeon and Disney, they’ve bifurcated their appeal. There’s some very good programming out there for very young children and ‘tweens, but less and less suitable for kids 6-12 or 8-12. So we see a big opportunity there.”
If The Hub remains something of an enigma — Discovery did not showcase the network’s wares during its April 8 upfront presentation — buyers are always happy to have more options. “We always love to see more variety,” says one national TV buyer. “We welcome the development of more places to spread our dollars out, because it gives us a little more leverage. It’s not ideal that three places control 95 percent of the market.”