Cartoon Network is losing the 8 p.m. hour to Adult Swim, the edgy sister network that shares its space on the dial. Adult Swim has been one of Turner's most significant success stories in recent years, with consistently high ratings among its hard-to-reach target demo, while Cartoon has struggled against competitors Nickelodeon and Disney.
If this sounds familiar, it ought to: Adult Swim last encroached on Cartoon's airtime in 2010, when its 10 p.m. startup was moved up an hour. It should also sound familiar to people who follow the network professionally and not just in the press: sources tell Adweek that Adult Swim gave up an hour to Cartoon in December because the former was making its deliveries and Cartoon needed a helping hand.
Adult Swim takes at 8 o'clock hour on March 31st, while Cartoon Network will try making more inroads online. Boomerang, the company's smaller, higher-tier classic-cartoon network (basically, where you go if you want to see Bugs Bunny) will become ad-supported as of this upfront season and be marketed internationally as well.
The expansion comes not a moment too soon for the market Adult Swim wants to reach. As far millennials and other young adults are concerned, primetime television is a wasteland of procedurals, dramas about dudes having midlife crises, and comedies with laugh tracks. Television is a medium that, more and more, is overt about its lack of interest in younger viewers—Adult Swim and a few others (such as FX) are the last holdouts.
How distinctive is the advantage Adult Swim holds over the rest of the young adult market? In 2013, Adult Swim finished in first place among adults 18-34 in total day and came in only second to TBS in prime time, despite not actually airing during the 8 p.m. hour (and, as noted, occasionally ceding high-value primetime real estate to Cartoon). The network was up 14 percent in that demographic—the same percentage ESPN (#4 in the demo) dropped.
Adult Swim's ratings dominance in that young male niche is a function of both an extremely conservative—and effective—syndication strategy (the network's reruns of Family Guy are evergreen ratings-getters) and a wildly experimental slate of originals. For every five episodes of a Seth MacFarlane project, of which the network airs several, there's a season's worth of an extremely dark claymation religious satire or a fluorescent workplace sitcom set in the fiery bowels of Hell.
Of course, the news doesn't bode particularly well for Cartoon, which will lose that valuable hour, but it's not unheard-of, either—Nick at Nite's start time fluctuates similarly, though its originals are less interesting to an underserved demo. For Adult Swim, this may be the beginning of a new era.