NEW YORK -Taking the battle for the 9-to-14 audience up another notch, Nickelodeon is launching a Sunday-night programming block aimed at tweens.
The 2½-hour "TEENick" block, which kicks off March 4, will offer such live-action and animated programs as Taina, Kenan and Kel, Caitlin's Way
and As Told By Ginger, along with a weekly countdown of viewers' top music-video picks.
"This is a destination for tweens," said Nick executive vice president and general manager Cyma Zarghami. "It's a place on Nickelodeon they can call their own.
"We have always had a strong tween audience, but.this is a recognition, in a way we have not done before, that this is a demo."
TEENick, which will incorporate interactive elements, also includes the cable debut of Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, the sitcom that was the cornerstone of ABC's now-cancelled "T.G.I.F." block.
Nick's tween-oriented programming will air from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Sundays. Disney Channel also runs tween-targeted original series during that timeframe as part of its "Zoog Weekendz" lineup.
Fox Family Channel also has ardently pursued tween viewers, but during the day rather than at night.
TEENick-like Snick, Nick's branded Saturday-night block for children 2 to 11-will have a distinct on-air look. Currently, Nick is averaging a 4.1 rating among tweens from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., according to Nick officials.
The new tween block also plays into Nick's nine-month-old strategy of building on its weekend programming, according to Zarghami. The network now airs cartoons aimed at kids until 10 p.m. Friday nights and offers the Saturday primetime Snick block, which features comedy and variety shows.
Nick has been No. 1 with tweens for nine consecutive years. It draws more viewers aged 9 to 14 than any other basic-cable network during both its "kids day" schedule and on a 24-hour basis, according to Nielsen Media Research data cited by Nick.
In terms of total day, Nick was No. 1 with tweens with a 1.8 rating, or 330,000 tween viewers. But Disney Channel said it soundly beat Nick in the primetime tween ratings last year.
In primetime 2000, Disney Channel averaged a 2.9 among tweens, compared with Nick's 2.5, according to Nielsen data supplied by Disney.
"Marketers are talking to this audience," Zarghami said. "Music is talking to this [group] as an audience. They certainly watch TV in a way they haven't before. They're more consistent as a demo than before."
Nick rivals such as Fox Family and Disney Channel have also been aggressively courting the tween audience.
Officials at Disney Channel said they've been airing programming that Nick plans to incorporate in its tween block-such as concerts and music countdowns-for some time now.
TEENick will include N.V.P.,
or Nick Video Picks, a weekly countdown of the top videos as tallied by Nick.com. Snick's Nick Cannon will host; the No. 1-ranked video will run in its entirety.
FACE-OFF WITH DISNEY
Disney airs its tween-targeted original programming on weekends from Friday to Sunday, so it will compete head-to-head against Nick's Sunday-evening block.
Disney Channel general manager Rich Ross questioned how Nick-whose core audience is aged 2 to 11-can present a consistent message to viewers while targeting an older group on Sunday nights.
"But they're smart people, so we'll see how they do," Ross said.
Since its relaunch nearly three years ago, Fox Family has aimed for the tween audience, according to Joel Andryc, the network's executive vice president of programming and development. Fox Family programs for kids and tweens during the day and adults at night.
"It seems like everyone is jumping on this tween bandwagon," Andryc said. "I wish Nick the best of luck, but how can you be all things to all people?
"Nick is perceived and looked upon as a 6-to-11 destination. Why not work on your strengths rather than dilute your brand?"
He argued that Fox Family is a more natural place for tweens to turn for TV than either Nick or Disney Channel, whose programming he described as "sugarcoated." Tweens are familiar with the Fox brand through such broadcast shows as The Simpsons
and Malcolm in the Middle, he argued.
Fox Family also has slated some new teen-targeted series, such as the animated Braceface,
which is voiced by actress Alicia Silverstone.
"We feel we have established ourselves as a real tween destination," Andryc said.