But ultimately Nielsen numbers are currency, accurate or not. And while cable executives are loathe to admit it, their business may become less about fighting for a slice of a shrinking TV pie than about amortizing lost viewership via other uses of valuable intellectual property.
Cartoon Network continues to push for multiplatform penetration, but without putting any TV shows online. The Turner kids net is firmly opposed to subscription-based streaming services that cut out either the MSO or the advertiser, and with good reason. “We have shows up through VOD, through our MSOs and so forth,” says Stu Snyder, president and COO of Cartoon Network. When asked about the possibility of streaming on Netflix or Hulu, he replies, “We have no plans to do that, no.”
Cartoon’s policy more or less mirrors that of parent Time Warner, which is leading the charge for the cable-authenticated streaming TV Everywhere initiative. The basic idea seems sound—provide streaming to cable subscribers only—but it requires complicated authentication protocols that even grown-ups struggle to understand. It’s also worth noting that, though ad-supported, Cartoon does not deliver the 2-11 demo nearly as reliably as Nick—roughly half as much, in fact. Nick pulled down some $1.15 billion in net ad sales last year, while Cartoon came in at under $400 million. Still, of the big three —Disney, Nick and Cartoon—only Cartoon grew year-on-year in total day viewers this quarter.
It’s one thing to try to habituate NCAA fans or viewers of TNT’s The Closer via the authentication process, and quite another to cut off your brand from young—and on-demand nativist—kids on the Web. Credit Disney for at least trying to branch out. It is one of some 100 brands launching new channels on YouTube, where it will feature original content based on Where’s My Water?, a breakout app.
It will be interesting to see whether Disney’s YouTube channel catches fire. Despite anecdotal evidence that kids are heavy YouTube viewers, neither Nick nor Cartoon seem interested in the platform. Nick, at least, has obvious reasons for resisting: parent company Viacom is suing YouTube owner Google for copyright infringement. Most surprisingly, kids nets have virtually no presence on Hulu, which would seem ideal for long-form children’s content.
And for all the hype, there’s not much innovation on the iPad, and networks are approaching the device cautiously. Nick, for instance, features several educational apps tied to shows like Dora the Explorer, as well as SpongeBob games, but there’s no full-fledged Nick app for watching full-length series. Cartoon does have a viewing app, but requires users to authenticate—and Time Warner Cable subscribers are out of luck. Disney, as noted, has several popular iPad and iPhone games, as well as a comics app. And while it’s possible to buy Disney movies for the iPad, when it comes to watching shows, no such luck.
Still, brand extensions don’t always hit. Cartoon’s 28 branded games based on Ben 10, one of its most successful franchises, moved a total of 10.26 million units—compare that to Activision’s Call of Duty games, selling upwards of 131 million units. Disney’s much-hyped Epic Mickey, which was exclusive to the Wii, sold just 2.5 million copies.
But there are successes, too. Last August, the Disney Channel’s TV movie Phineas and Ferb: Across the Second Dimension impressively scored an average of 7.6 million viewers. When Disney included seven-day DVR in its numbers, the audience grew to 10.7 million, evidence of what every parent already knows: When a kid likes something on TV, he or she watches it over and over—and over and over.
In that is a lesson for the whole industry: Multiplatform entertainment is increasingly what not just kids but all consumers want. If they can’t get it from the networks, they will get it elsewhere.
Illustration: Yasmeen Ismail