Analyst: Netflix Deal Is Cannibalizing Cartoon Network’s Linear TV Ratings

But licensing revenue may outweigh the loss of GRPs

The post-Netflix results are in and they ain’t pretty for Cartoon Network, according to analysts at Bernstein Research Group. Since the network put up programs on the over-the-top streaming service in March, Cartoon has lost one-quarter of its target demos.

Per Nielsen ratings data, Cartoon Net’s kids 2-11 deliveries in the period spanning April 1-August 25 fell 25 percent versus the same period a year ago. Overall total-day ratings were a bit more stable, dropping 15 percent.

Cartoon Net first made its content available to Netflix subscribers on March 31. Since then, the network’s linear TV deliveries have fallen 10 percent in Netflix households, said Bernstein senior analyst Todd Juenger.

“Until recently, Cartoon Network was the only major kids network with no content on SVOD, and Cartoon Network was the only kids network whose ratings were [trending] up in Netflix homes,” Juenger wrote Thursday in a note to investors. “If there was anybody out there who still didn’t believe that SVOD hurts kids ratings, this should put a final end to that debate.”

The network tells a different story. “Based on earlier analyses done ourselves and by Bernstein, we assumed that providing our kids content to Netflix could cause a decline of 3-5 percent in viewership nationally,” a Cartoon Net spokesman said. “Our own more recent analyses and the most recent Bernstein analysis confirm a national impact of about 3 percent.”

Other declines, the network said, are due to comparisons between the most recent quarter this year, which suffered from the absence of the wildly popular Lego-branded show, Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu. The Season 2 finale delivered a whopping 3.11 million viewers on Nov. 21, 2012.

Interestingly enough, Ninjago appears to be all over YouTube although those views were not factored into the Bernstein analysis.

Bernstein has been one of the loudest voices calling out networks for allowing enticingly pricey content deals with third-party digital distributors to cannibalize the ratings at their main revenue source: cable television. Kids networks, Juenger said, are most susceptible to this sort of thing though he admits that Cartoon accounts for such a minor chunk of parent company Time Warner’s overall revenues that the ratings dip shouldn’t have any long-term impact on TWX economics.

“Their deal-making calculus is a function of, ‘How much licensing revenue will we generate, versus how much audience (and therefore ad dollars) will we lose?’” Juenger said. “For Cartoon Network, it’s a close call, [as it] looks to us like they are probably making a few million dollars (net). So it could be argued that the decision to license content to Netflix was, on balance, financially positive.”

Roughly half of the programs on Cartoon are available on Netflix—not current series, mind you, just reruns from seasons past. But that’s of less concern to kids, who (as any parent knows) are sometimes interested in the episodes of Adventure Time they haven't seen yet and at other times are content to watch the same episode of SpongeBob on an infinite loop.

Juenger said the trend is bad overall for childrens TV. Though they deny any causation, Nickelodeon saw a major fall-off when the company put episodes of flagship shows on Netflix. But Nickelodeon parent company Viacom has the most to lose, given its dominance over the kids TV markeplace.

Disney Channel remains relatively insulated (its shows are sponsored but not ad-supported) although eroding viewership is likely to contribute to even more difficult carriage negotiations in the long run.