Upfront ’09: Cartoon Net Changes Its Voice

NEW YORK For a network with the word “cartoon” in its name, there were an awful lot of real-life performers on hand during Wednesday’s upfront presentation.

On March 25 Cartoon Network presented an aggressive slate of new programming to advertisers and press at the Time Warner Center here. Of the 19 new series or movies that were announced, more than half were not animated projects. In fact, as if to drive the message home that the network was not just about cartoons anymore, today’s confab concluded with roughly 20 young actors gathering on the stage, including a foursome that will headline a new live-action version of Scooby Doo.

Scooby Doo! The Mystery Begins — which depicts the events that united Shaggy, Velma, Fred and Daphne in high school — is one of four original movies planned for the coming season, as the network looks to build its film library. Other full-length movies in development include the live-action projects Ben 10: Alien Swarm and Tiger’s Apprentice — based on a popular book by Lawrence Yep — and the CG-animated Firebreather, which is an adaptation of graphic novel.

Executives said that Cartoon Network’s move into live-action content is part of an ongoing “evolution” — a much-repeated word during Wednesday’s presentation. “Our voice is changing,” said Stuart Snyder, president and chief operating officer of Turner Broadcasting’s animation, young adults and kids media division, comparing the network to a young boy who wakes up one day with a deeper voice. “This is an evolution of our brand.”

Continuing that evolution, Cartoon Network has also commissioned two live-action scripted pilots: Unnatural History, which is about a teenage son of adventurous anthropologists, and Prepped, which chronicles the goings-on at a creepy prep school.

As it clearly pushes to be edgier and more boy-oriented, the network unveiled a spate of kid-centric reality shows, including the standout Destroy Build Destroy, in which teams of teens attempt to rebuild cars, trucks and the like that have been destroyed by demolition experts. Other reality projects scheduled for the coming season are of similar vein, including the wacky-experiment series Dude, What Would Happen, and Survive This — essentially a teenaged version of Discovery’s Survivorman. Cartoon Network has also tapped the rising kids star Bobb’e J. Thompson (30 Rock, Role Models) — known for his childish irreverence — to host his own series. (He is shown above at right.)

That sort of programming is part of Cartoon Network’s attempt at “casting a wider net,” said Brenda Freeman, CMO for Turner animation, young adults and kids media — and to distinguish itself from rivals Nickelodeon and Disney. Freeman spoke during the presentation about a new mission for the net to become “a dominant youth culture brand,” one that really understands the needs of high-energy teen boys. “We want to break out of that traditional, over-sanitized kids environment … [by creating] TV for kids, not kids TV,” she said.

Also following the reality trend is the in-development short-form series My Dad’s a Pro, which will feature 7-year-old Jaelen House, the son of Boston Celtic Eddie House. That project is the result of the recently announced partnership between the National Basketball Association and Cartoon Network. To promote their new relationship, the net arranged a brief appearance at today’s event by NBA commissioner David Stern, who joked, “If I were a buyer, I would buy.”

Though live action stood out during Cartoon Network’s upfront, animated series still captured a large share of attention. The net announced that it had renewed several of its hits, including Star Wars: The Clone Wars, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, Chowder, The Secret Saturdays and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. New projects on the horizon include Marvel Superhero Squad, which depicts the younger years of superheroes like Iron Man and The Hulk, and Generation Rex, about a 15-year-old kid whose body can sprout machines.

Also on the slate are the surfing-themed Stoked and Scooby-Doo-Mystery Inc., yet another animated version of the classic cartoon.