Distributors will have yet another all-animation channel from which to choose when MTV Networks launches four additional digital networks this year.
Nicktoons TV — to be filled with Nickelodeon animation — and the new pop-music offering MTV Hits will debut in April on Cablevision Systems Corp.'s digital service, iO: Interactive Optimum. That nascent digital platform finished 2001 with 17,200 subscribers.
The rollouts are part of a long-term affiliation agreement unveiled last week by Cablevision and MTVN. The Bethpage, N.Y.-based MSO will also expand analog distribution of TV Land and MTV2, and will carry MTVN's other core digital networks, including VH1 Classic, Noggin and Nickelodeon GAS: Games and Sports for Kids.
MTV Jams and VH1 Mega Hits will join Nicktoons and MTV Hits in the digital MTV Suite, expanding that stable to 13 services.
The four newcomers won't carry advertising at launch, but will run commercials at a later point.
Nicktoons TV faces competitors that boast long head starts in the race for distribution: Cartoon Network and spin-off Boomerang, both owned by Turner Broadcasting System Inc.; and Toon Disney, an offshoot of The Walt Disney Co.'s Disney Channel.
MTVN also must overcome some operators' objections to the grafting of repurposed programming onto diginets, which in their view, turns off subscribers and fuels digital churn.
"These guys are trying to stake their claim on digital tiers, and why are we suckers for this repurposed digital programming?" said Frank Hughes, senior vice president of programming for the National Cable Television Cooperative. "It's not new. It's not fresh. And we have digital churning at 4 to 5 percent [monthly]."
But Herb Scannell, president of Nickelodeon, TV Land and TNN: The National Network, disagreed. Nick has created some of the biggest characters in animation over the past decade in its animation studio in Burbank, Calif., and a newer digital studio in New York, said Scannell.
Those cartoon characters will drive digital penetration, he asserted.
"Animation is the most popular form of programming on Nick," he said. "And for operators to sell digital, they need characters and shows that people want to see."
Nicktoons TV will rely on Nickelodeon's library of 1,500 episodes of animated shows, including episodes of Doug, Rugrats, The Ren & Stimpy Show
and Jimmy Neutron.
Those shows will come in a package that also includes original programming, potentially using Nick GAS as a model, Scannell said. Nick GAS uses original hosts and interstitials to dress up library product such as Double Dare.
Nicktoons TV could also spawn future Nick shows. "It's an opportunity to pop some original programming," Scannell said.
MTV Hits — which features pop-music videos from artists such as Britney Spears, 'N' Sync and Destiny's Child — is aimed at the young end of MTV: Music Television's target demographic of 12- to 24-year-olds.
MTV Jams, which spotlights rap, soul, rhythm and blues and hip-hop, replaces alternative-music diginet MTV X in The Suite.
"We're driven by the demand from our audience, and these genres are among the most popular," said MTV: Music Television and MTV2 president Van Toffler.
VH1 Mega Hits is an all-music-video channel featuring such 1990s artists as Aerosmith, Janet Jackson and Sheryl Crow.
'TOON TRAFFIC JAM
MTVN is clearly the leader in the music-video realm, but it's a latecomer to the animated-network race, trailing Turner and Disney.
Cartoon Network, which originally focused on the Hanna-Barbera library and now offers much original fare, has posted strong ratings and is an analog monster, reaching 80 million homes.
Boomerang, which offers such Hanna-Barbera staples as Yogi Bear
and Huckleberry Hound, was just launched by Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles. In March, it will gain a berth on Time Warner's New York City system. Those launches put Boomerang into 4.5 million homes.
Toon Disney has 30.8 million subscribers. Though it debuted as a digital network, it now has substantial analog carriage, said an ABC Cable spokesman who declined to offer specifics.
Toon Disney airs a limited amount of original exclusive programming, according to general manager Jonathan Barzilay. For example, on Mondays through Thursdays it airs episodes of Teacher's Pet
that already ran on ABC. But on Fridays, Toon Disney runs an original, exclusive installment of the series.
"Toon Disney distinguishes itself with its three-year track record of success, fueled by consumer satisfaction and operators satisfaction," said Barzilay, who added the network scores well with consumers in Beta Research's surveys.
Under its MTVN deal, Cablevision agreed to launch 2.5 million additional analog subscribers for both MTV2 and TV Land, thus expanding TV Land's New York metro presence and helping MTV2 to reach 40 million homes.
"We're thrilled," Scannell said. "A presence in the New York market is so important."
Cablevision also owns MTV2 rival MuchMusic USA. "In the music space, there is room for a variety of music programming channels," an MSO spokesman said.
Cablevision will give TNN: The National Network 250,000 new subscribers and put VH1 in 80,000 additional homes.
The Suite's rate card currently stands at 46 cents a month per subscriber for all services, according to MTVN president of affiliate sales and marketing Nicole Browning. Operators may cherry-pick from among the Suite networks, but there are discount incentives for distributors to carry all or most services.
License fees for the four new networks are being determined, Browning said.