As the upfront season approaches, Adult Swim is prepping a new opportunity for advertisers, with plans to further expand its programming lineup deeper into prime time. Beginning January 2011, Turner Broadcasting System’s late-night animation property (on Cartoon Network) will make another incursion into TV’s most competitive daypart, pushing its starting time up one hour to 9 p.m.
After having shifted its nightly launch time from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. in January 2009, the network that introduced such fractured franchises as Robot Chicken, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law and Aqua Teen Hunger Force is looking to extend its reach into the highly competitive second hour of prime. In so doing, Adult Swim is positioning itself to pursue a much broader swath of advertisers, although buyers caution that the network will be in for something of a high-wire act if it’s to balance the content restrictions of the earlier hour with the signature lunacy that informs its brand.
Clearly, Adult Swim has the deliveries to back its move into the nine o’clock hour. Last year the channel averaged 1.1 million viewers from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., an increase of 9 percent versus 2008, according to Nielsen data. More tellingly, Adult Swim served up a cable-high 448,000 viewers 18-34 (up 8 percent); it also finished tops in total day among its other target demos (viewers 18-24, men 18-24, men 18-34). Only ESPN came close to its delivery of 18-34-year-old males in total day, and Adult Swim still managed to outdistance the sports giant by some 33,000 members of the demo.
Last year marked the fifth consecutive victory for Adult Swim among its core demos, although there was some slippage that coincided with the network’s first 365 days of leading off at 10 p.m. With the extra hour, Adult Swim saw its delivery of males 12-24 decline 6 percent to 151,000, while men 18-34 dipped 4 percent to 270,000.
Stu Snyder, president and COO of Turner Animation, Young Adults & Kids Media, characterized next year’s move to 9 p.m. as a chance to further develop the Adult Swim brand and audience. And while the shift necessarily removes an hour of prime from sibling Cartoon Network, the potential for growth in the young-adult space may be worth the sacrifice on the kids side of the business.
“Let’s be clear: The choice to go to 9 p.m. is 100 percent a reflection on the success of Adult Swim as a brand,” said Snyder, who added that any softness in the kids marketplace wasn’t a factor in his decision. “It’s clear that the kids business has been challenging, and much of that has to do with the recession and the resurgence of certain hot-topic discussions that are having an impact on key categories like food. But this is less about taking anything away from Cartoon Network than it is a matter of building up Adult Swim.”
(Food brands are anticipating a season of renewed scrutiny in Washington, following President Obama’s Feb. 9 executive order creating a national task force to stamp out childhood obesity. That said, the language of the proposal does not include any overt references to the role television advertising may––or may not––play in the health crisis.)
The state of the kids market also got some high-profile attention during fourth-quarter earnings season. On Feb. 3, John Martin, Time Warner executive vp and chief financial officer, told analysts the kids business is “one area that remains somewhat soft for us, which we think is more of an industry trend than company specific.” Martin went on to single out the nighttime skein, saying that “a growing percentage of the kids business is really coming from Adult Swim, where we’ve been very successful in ratings and are growing our advertising.”
Media buyers who have been apprised of the situation predict Adult Swim’s jump to 9 p.m. will be colored by a number of intriguing contingencies. “We’ve already seen an encouraging trend when they started programming King of the Hill at 10 p.m.,” said one national TV buyer. “That sort of middle-ground material still appeals to their core audience.
And yet it’s much ‘safer’ ground for advertisers who want to reach younger males but don’t really want all the fart and vomit jokes that are baked into some of their late-night content.”
And while the kiddie pool is getting crowded, as established ad-supported players like Nickelodeon are joined by upstarts like Disney XD and the Discovery-Hasbro venture Hub, ceding an hour to Adult Swim may only drive up Cartoon Net’s pricing at 8 p.m.
“It could prove to be a sound financial decision any way you look at it,” said Brad Adgate, svp, director of research at Horizon Media. “Opening up another hour of inventory gives them access to a larger pool of advertisers who are trying to reach that desirable male 18-34 demo. The question is, what do they program?”
Snyder candidly said he doesn’t have an answer as yet. “We’ll be spending 2010 reviewing our programming options, but the more adult content will continue to run at 11 p.m. and after.”