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Kids of Summer

8/27/2012 11:47 AM Eastern

Sometimes you can win a game just by letting your competitor make mistakes.Our cover story this week is about an epochal moment in the small but wickedly competitive world of children’s television.

For the first time in memory, Disney Channel has beaten Nickelodeon in the core demo of kids 2-11. Disney’s Gary Marsh, a smart executive who’s built a powerful stable of new series to keep the network humming, would like you to think his team’s brilliance and foresight are the reasons.

But if you look closely, Disney’s 2012 summer ratings are virtually flat (up 1%) compared to 2011. And for two years before that, the needle barely moved.

Moreover, as Nickelodeon points out, Disney Channel is strongest when Nick is off the air.

The obvious reason, as our story and charts point out, is the sudden drop in Nickelodeon’s ratings. Theories abound. Viacom claimed Nielsen isn’t counting right. Some analysts said off-net kid shows on Netflix are to blame. Others theorize Sponge Bob SquarePants is getting long in the tooth. Or maybe Nick just lost its mojo this year.

Whatever the reason, those lost kids are gone now - Disney surely didn’t pick them up.

Disney has some winning shows, no doubt. I confess I can barely pull my kids from the latest series, Gravity Falls. I catch myself laughing at its innocent-but-quirky humor.

But here’s the thing: I have an even harder time pulling them from new technologies like our iPad, and my own iPhone, which they manage somehow to program with games under my nose - games which steal their attention with some sort of viral, zombie-like distraction.

So congratulations on the summer win, Disney Channel. Well-earned. But keep looking over your shoulder. The real enemy in the crowded kids’ TV market isn’t Nickelodeon - it’s something much bigger.

September