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.
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