Chillin’ With Children — And Their Parents

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Kids and family networks were in the prime of life in 2003, posting the kind of record viewership numbers that any program genre would love. So why, then, have channels in those program categories slipped their Maseratis into the pits for a tune-up?

Jack Nicholson would understand. In the film Something’s Gotta Give, the 67-year-old actor realized his world had changed and pursued Diane Keaton instead of the usual 30-somethings. The networks, too, have found that with time, they must tweak their approaches as they face not only a fiercely competitive kidvid business, but competition from DVDs, video games and the Internet.

“We believe the bar is getting higher; the journey is getting harder for us,” says Rich Ross, recently promoted to president of Disney Channel Worldwide in the April executive shake-up at ABC.

Is the surging Disney Channel a bit light on boy viewers? Roll out a pair of shows with male leads: Phil of the Future, a live-action program about a teenager from 2121 in today’s world, and American Dragon: Jake Long, an animated comedy about an Asian-American boy who has mystical powers.

Cartoon Network has too much testosterone for even its male-skewing blueprint? Here comes The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, about a little girl who brooks no troublemakers; and Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi, a series based on real-life Japanese pop stars — a girl group — on tour.

Nickelodeon’s ratings a bit flat? You don’t need Clarissa to explain what to do. Go back to your roots and introduce several splashy live-action series starting Julia Roberts’ niece and Britney Spears’ sister.

Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon TV, is analyzing her competition, but seems to sum up everyone’s dilemma in noting, “The Lizzie [McGuire] frenzy seems to be dying down … What comes next?”

VIEWER GROWTH CURVE

While some shows may be starting to show their age, overall the cable networks are pulling in kids in droves. According to a Magna Global TV study, kids 2 to 11 watched an average of 8.62 hours tuning into basic-cable shows aimed at their age group in the fourth-quarter of 2003, compared to 7.26 hours in 2000.

The 9-14 “tween” audience is staying glued to the tube in greater numbers as well: 5.69 hours, a 25% rise in three years, according to Magna Global.

The debut of new diginets such as Noggin/The N, Toon Disney, Nicktoons, Nick GAS, Boomerang and Discovery Kids have contributed to the Nielsen boom.

Even the ever-struggling ABC Family Channel showed some life in the first-quarter as its new “Jetix” action-adventure animation block made enough gains in the mornings to encourage executives to add three more shows to its lineup this summer.

At Disney’s upfront presentation to advertisers in March, executives said Jetix grew by 56% among boys 6-11 against previous four-week averages. Overall, ABC Family’s 2-11 viewership jumped by 58% in the first-quarter as its teen rating grew to 0.7 from 0.4 from 2003.

What lies ahead for ABC Family remains unclear. Previously it has tried to find a niche attracting tweens and teens uninterested in MTV, but it is entering yet another transition with the recent appointment of the highly regarded BBC America CEO, Paul Lee, as its president — following last fall’s exit of Angela Shapiro. ABC Family lost another key team player last December with the death of chief Linda Mancuso.

Disney did not provide any ABC Family executives to comment for this story but in a February interview with Multichannel News, then-ABC Cable Networks Group president Anne Sweeney — since promoted to president, Disney-ABC Television — said she wants to limit the network’s wholesale repurposing of ABC shows in favor of pursuing 18-34 year-olds. How all of that plays into the network’s family programming mission under Lee remains to be seen.

RISING FORTUNES

The family approach is something that Hallmark Channel has been chasing with some success. Using a program model not too dissimilar from the old CBN Family Channel — without being burdened with The 700 Club — Hallmark’s core audience grew a staggering 52% in the first-quarter over the same period in 2003 (while distribution rose only 20% to just under 60 million homes). Averaging 711,000 viewers, the G-rated network drew larger audiences than more established and distributed services such as Food Network, Animal Planet and ESPN2, with a heavy skew among baby-boomers and older viewers.

Hallmark believes there is gold in airing shows that parents can watch with their kids, even if advertising is geared toward grown-ups. And that gold is showing up on the bottom line. Using a schedule heavy with movies and old network shows, it broke into the black on an “adjusted” cash-flow basis in the fourth-quarter, according to parent company Crown Media.

More good news for Hallmark came in Magna Global’s report on kids’ viewing, which argued that the 1990s belief that children and parents watch different shows at night is a myth. Magna found that while kids’ viewing is rising, youngsters are watching far less “non-kids” oriented shows. According to that report, 8 p.m. adult-oriented shows like Friends drove them away from TV sets.

There’s little wonder that Hallmark executive vice president of programming David Kenin says the network plans to “stay the course” by continuing to acquire “classic TV shows that we think the entire family can view with each other, and continue to do movies in primetime.”

The network will accelerate its original movie lineup with an eye toward at least doubling its slate of original films next year. It rolled out 14 during 2004. The 2005 slate will include 12 “holiday” movies and 16 mystery movies, which have fared well. Ratings on the films have peaked at a 1.7.

Kenin says he wants to celebrate “human relations” in much of the channel’s original movies and to create a safe place where parents don’t feel they have to hold their hands over their children’s eyes.

Hallmark is certainly not alone in pursuing that philosophy. For example, Fort Worth-based FamilyNet is taking a G-rated approach that has helped it gain entry into 32 million broadcast and cable homes — 7 million of which are cable-originated. It programs a mix of old movies, kid shows and sitcom reruns, concerts and other original programming, done on a bare-bones budget with a Christian edge.

The 700 Club airs daily on FamilyNet,, sharing space with Victory in Jesus and reruns of My Little Margie. FamilyNet recently began offering short news breaks throughout the day and will launch a daily newscast in the fall as part of a new “World View” primetime block.

DISNEY’S AGENDA

Disney also wants to encourage family togetherness in front of the tube — but in a way that makes youngsters feel in control as opposed to plopping on the couch to watch Mom and Dad’s movie.

“At no time are parents running away from us,” says Disney’s Ross. “They are saying to us: 'I remember when Disney meant something to me.’

“Appointment viewing — where the family sat down [to watch TV together] — went away a long time ago,” adds Ross. He notes that parents are joining their kids at “multiple entry points,” since (as every exasperated parent knows) children can watch the same show ad infinitum.

In Disney’s case, girls are watching more often than boys — and the disparity in the numbers can be sharp at times. For example, Lizzie McGuire ranked fifth among girls 2-11 in the fourth-quarter. But it came in 60th with boys. That’s So Raven was 13th with girls, 71st with boys.

Among kids 6-11, Disney averaged a 1.6 rating with girls on weekday mornings and mid-afternoons, compared to a 1.3 rating with boys. But Disney’s popularity with boys did rise from 0.8 in the fourth quarter of 2002 to a 1.3 in the same period of 2003.

By way of comparison, Nick pulled in a more balanced viewership, averaging a 2.4 with each sex in the same weekday morning and mid-afternoon time periods, over the same span.

Cartoon is on the other end of the spectrum, with a 2.3 rating among boys and 0.9 with girls 6-11.

Some observers believe Nick’s success with both genders is based on programming decisions that were made in the 1990s, a strategy that ran counter to the prevailing wisdom that boys would never watch shows with girls in the lead. “The idea was that if you program to boys, girls will watch,” says Marjorie Kaplan, general manager and executive vice president of Discovery Kids. “Nick programmed those shows with girl leads, and boys were watching.”

DISNEY’S NEW SHIFTS

That is, that was true until Disney converted to a basic network and launched a succession of popular programs fronted by girls, which siphoned off some of Nick’s audience.

Overall in the fourth-quarter — the most critical time of the year for kid-oriented networks — Disney tied with Cartoon at a 2.1 rating among all youngsters 2 to 11, behind Nickelodeon’s 2.8 for total day viewing. No one else was even close.

Disney’s share of kids’ viewing skyrocked, from 18.6 in fourth quarter 2002 to 25.3 in fourth quarter 2003. While Cartoon remained second overall among kids at 26.6, it fell 6% as Nickelodeon also slipped, by 9% to 35.6.

Ross explains that Disney’s move to create more male protagonists has resulted in an upswing in viewership among boys. He points to its “Playhouse Disney” cartoon Jo Jo’s Circus, which improved by 30% among boys and only 10% with girls in the fourth quarter.

But could adding male leads be hurting Disney with girls? In April, that network’s ratings grew 8% with the 2-11 set, but the gains are heavily skewed toward Disney’s Playhouse Disney pre-school crowd. The network’s median age dropped to 9.8 — from 11.2 a year ago — and marked the fourth straight month that has occurred. Among tweens, Lizzie McGuire’s ratings fell by 24% and Kim Possible lost 32%.

A Disney spokeswoman says that kids 6 to 11 — not tweens — are the channel’s main focus, and that the network’s ratings remained about even in the first quarter, as Nick grew by 4% and while Cartoon slipped by 2%. She termed a new show, Dave the Barbarian, a “solid” if not spectacular performer that earned its highest rating in mid-April and is the network’s second-most popular show among boys 6 to 11 behind Kim Possible.

A Cartoon spokesman said ratings may have suffered because it was holding off on introducing new shows until the summer, typically its strongest season.

NICK’S BALANCING ACT

Observers say Disney’s rising kidvid share sent Nickelodeon back to its successful Clarissa and Secret World of Alex Mack days. It’s no coincidence that three of Nick’s four new live-action series in its “TeenNick” block have female protagonists. Zarghami says Nick is introducing the new girl-driven shows to counteract out such new boy-focused programs as Romeo and Drake & Josh.

“It’s a balance to make sure older kids stick with us,” she adds, noting that the network had concentrated most of its efforts in animation in recent years.

Nick’s core mission, she says, remains unchanged: be “funny and entertaining” while attracting older kids who “look at the world in a gender-neutral way.”

New Nick shows include: Unfabulous, which stars Julia Roberts’ niece Emma Roberts as a music-crazed teen; Britney Spears’ sister Jamie Spears in a still-untitled series about a maverick teen in a boarding school; and a Whoopi Goldberg-created comedy about an all-girl soccer team.

To fight Playhouse Disney, Nick Jr., the Nickelodeon daypart targeted for pre-schoolers, has lined up five new shows including Dora spin-off Go, Diego, Go! and Blues Room, a series of “literary” specials spun off from the series Blues Clues.

CARTOON’S NEW CHALLENGE

Meanwhile, Cartoon is facing its second challenge in three years. Two years ago, the net found itself in a ratings free-fall among 6-to-11-year-olds. “When Cartoon hasn’t done as well in our history, we weren’t making sure we had good 6-to-11 programming. That’s when we got a little lost,” admits Cartoon senior vice president of development Sam Register.

After fixing that problem, Cartoon found its “girls problem” accelerating: Ratings fell to 1.9 among girls 2-to-11 in the fourth-quarter, a 26% drop over two years. “We clearly want to stay with our male-skewing base,” insists Jim Samples, the network’s executive vice president and general manager. “We think these [new] shows will bring girls, but the audience will be predominantly boys.”

Register puts it another way: “We’re not thinking, 'Let’s do girls the way Disney does girls or the way Nick does girls.’

“It’s fun,” he says of the new approach. “It allows us to start thinking in places and ways we haven’t thought before.” Those places include Japan, the setting for Hi Hi Puffy. That series mixes a bit of live-action with animation of the girl group at the center of the show, which Register says is considered exotic in Japan. “It feels original and new,” he adds.

But Cartoon is not taking its boys audience for granted. It moved its “Toonami” action-adventure block from Saturday afternoon to night and debuted Megas XLR on May 1.

Last month, Cartoon introduced “Miguzi,” a new weekday afternoon action block from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and has begun stripping its popular show Teen Titans twice on weeknights.

Despite all the tinkering, all of the networks are taking a fairly subtle approach to change.

Cartoon’s action slant toward boys has successfully counterprogrammed the girl-oriented Disney, and the softer, gender-balanced Nick, so there’s no reason for the network to radically change its stripes now, as Cartoon’s Samples says. The same goes for its rivals.

As Nicholson’s character in Something’s Gotta Give learned, making a few demographic and philosophical adjustments to the same delightful pursuits can make all the difference in the world.

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