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."