For younger viewers — especially the increasingly coveted 9-14-year-old tweens — this is a golden age of television, with networks churning out a surfeit of critical and commercial hits. Fueling much of this positive creative energy is the ever-intensifying clash of two programming titans: Nickelodeon, once the sole superpower in cable's kidvid universe, and Disney Channel, owned by America's most potent brand of family entertainment.
“For the longest time Nickelodeon was the dominant player but there is now a real race,” Katz Television Group vice president of programming Bill Carroll said. “Nickelodeon has not gone down but relatively they're not as high.”
Carroll acknowledged the buzz generated by Disney Channel's Hannah Montana and two High School Musical movies, saying, “In perception, Disney leads by a head. And in the entertainment industry, perception is reality.”
Still, despite the perceived and real challenges Nickelodeon faces, it would be hard to find a healthier network, said Derek Baine, a cable television analyst at SNL Kagan Research: “The network still has a huge cash flow margin — at 67% it's one of highest in the industry.”
Though both networks were born in the 1980s, Nickelodeon was the first to explode on the pop culture scene in 1991 with a hit parade of original cartoons such as Doug, Rugrats, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Hey Arnold and Wild Thornberrys.
The network flexed its muscles further with the live-action series Clarissa Explains It All, a ratings win that put an end to the myth that boys would tune out any show with a girl star.
In 1994, the network formalized its daytime Nick Jr. block, creating another line of unmatched successes with shows like Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer and Bob the Builder.
Then in 1999 came a little underwater cartoon about a sea sponge and his friends. Spongebob Squarepants quickly became an exalted and iconic franchise, paving the way for more animated hits such as The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, The Fairly OddParents and Avatar the Last Airbender.
The network was also able to develop future audiences for its subsequent tween lineup (slotted in blocks called SNICK and TEENick), including Drake and Josh, Zoey 101 and Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide.
The Walt Disney Co.'s Disney Channel, on the other hand, started as a premium network, which limited its audience; and the network slowly found its footing after moving to basic cable in 1997.
While Disney produced the long-running original cartoon Kim Possible, it never posed a serious threat to Nick's animation crown. But as the new millennium arrived, it began to capture the public's — and especially tweens' — attention with shows such as Even Stevens and Lizzie McGuire. Adding That's So Raven and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody to its mix, Disney gradually built a foundation that more than rivaled Nickelodeon in attracting tweens.
In 2006, the network scored in a big way with the first High School Musical TV movie and its Hannah Montana series, both of which zoomed beyond mere hit status to cultural phenomenon. HSM, for instance, yielded the year's top-selling album and the fastest-selling DVD of a TV movie ever.
For Disney Channels Worldwide president Rich Ross, such successes reflect the company's desire and ability to “not just to make [certain shows] a favorite show, but a part of people's lives.”
But Nickelodeon hasn't been sitting idly by. Last year, it debuted two original cartoons built off pre-existing properties (Back at the Barnyard from a Nickelodeon movie and Tak and the Power of Juju from a video game).
More significantly, TEENick, which had retrenched from two nights to one, expanded with three new live-action tween-targeted series, The Naked Brothers Band, Just Jordan and iCarly.
Carroll credits Nickelodeon with a “shrewd” approach — countering Disney's charge with a music-oriented show and another with a strong girl lead yet finding ways to make them unique. Naked Brothers features real kids writing and performing their own songs and iCarly is built around the character's fictional webcasts, allowing the Web site and show to tap into viewer content.
“They're taking Disney head on with tweens but not head-to-head, they've given their shows a twist to the left or the right,” Carroll said.
Despite the strong reception, Nick's new shows were somewhat overshadowed by Disney, between the record television ratings reaped by High School Musical 2 in 2007 and the box-office bonanza of the Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds concert movie earlier this year.
“Disney has really ramped up to become a destination for programming,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice-president, director of research for Horizon Media. “Nickelodeon does very well still, but Disney has supplanted it as the top-rated network.”
Still, neither network can be pronounced a hands-down winner.
Disney was indeed tops last year in primetime, not only with kids but with total viewers, thanks to HSM 2, which scored over 17 million viewers — nearly double Nickelodeon's own wildly successful TV movie, SpongeBob Atlantis SquarePantis — and Hannah Montana, the top scripted cable series among the 6-11 and 9-14 demos for the second straight year. (Disney's Suite Life was second.)
But Disney's dominance didn't extend beyond primetime. Nickelodeon, which has seven of the top 10 weekday preschool shows, was once again No. 1 in viewers and all kids demos for total day. With kids ages 2-11, Nickelodeon averaged 1.2 million viewers overall, nearly a quarter-million kids more than Disney. (Cartoon Network trails Disney by another 350,000.) But Disney's primetime dominance was strong enough that it also won the total-day tween demo, inching ahead 518,000 to 498,000 among 9-14-year-olds.
“Disney has latched onto something that is really resonating with kids and young teens,” said Adgate. But in addition to a magical programming touch, Disney has a bit of good fortune in timing and its remarkable marketing might.
Disney began its live-action dominance at a time when television lineups were over-saturated with animation, according to Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami, leaving 9-14 and even 6-11 year-olds craving something new.
Disney was also finally ready for success. When Lizzie McGuire emerged, the network was a one-hit wonder, Ross said, but this time around it had a “bigger foundation” of popular shows.
Then Disney did what it does so well — a publicity blitzkrieg for HSM and Hannah Montana. The network spent more pushing Hannah Montana then it had on any previous show, according to Disney executives. They would not disclose specific figures.
“We do launch things incredibly well but we also don't forget about them,” Ross said, adding that he's fortunate because virtually all of Disney's vast empire is devoted to family entertainment so “I don't spend my time negotiating [with third parties]. I spend it collaborating.”
“Disney has an unbelievable marketing machine,” Zarghami said. “They can go from zero to 100 miles an hour in a short period.”
While acknowledging the ratings success of HSM and Hannah Montana, Zarghami noted that the hottest shows often burn out the quickest and everyone says tweens, especially tween girls, are fickle. And while Nickelodeon strives for gender-balanced shows that will provide longer runs, Disney's biggest phenomena do skew more heavily toward fad-oriented girls, since they're more susceptible to product-driven marketing affiliated with a popular show.
In 2008, nearly 70% of Hannah Montana's 6-11 and 9-14 viewers are girls. Thus, Adgate said, they become passé more quickly — especially compared to a long-running revenue-generator such as Drake and Josh.
“We would love to permeate the culture like that, but we'd rather be the leader in ratings overall,” Zarghami said, “Constancy and steadiness are crucial to us. Slow and steady wins the race.”
Disney is already on the look out for its next big hit. The company has been promoting the Jonas Brothers band, first on its record label and in movie and television soundtracks and then last year on Hannah Montana, including on an episode that followed HSM 2.
The band then toured with Miley Cyrus and appeared in her Hannah Montana movie. Disney Channel is set to unleash a TV movie (Camp Rock) and a series (J.O.N.A.S.) starring the band.
Ross said Disney knows that “every show can't be a multiplatform global phenomenon, some shows are just television shows and that's great.” From that perspective, Disney is already keeping the pressure on Nickelodeon: its Wizards of Waverly Place, about a Latino family with magical power, is actually cable's top-ranked series with tween and 6-11 girls so far in 2008.
Disney is even gunning for Nickelodeon in animation now, having just hired away Eric Coleman — who had been at Nick for 15 years — and naming him senior vice president, development, for Walt Disney Television Animation. And February saw Disney's latest animation entry, Phineas and Ferb, which debuted with strong ratings across every demographic.
But Nickelodeon, where animation remains “our bread and butter,” according to Zarghami, has a new toon coming this spring, Mighty B, created by Saturday Night Live regular Amy Poehler. “We think you're going to be reading a lot about this show because it's hilarious and because it has an interesting story,” Zarghami said.
The network has plans for a nearly 50% increase in animation production this year. Zarghami has particularly high hopes for a major new cartoon slated for 2009 starring the four penguins from the Dreamworks' Madagascar, which will debut on the heels of the movie's sequel.
Just as Disney is upping the ante in animation, Nickelodeon has been going after the “family” market more in its Nick at Nite programming, boosting ratings with reruns of shows like The George Lopez Show. “Family viewing is a big opportunity for us going forward, especially in primetime,” Zarghami said.
On the digital front, both networks are making major moves in their digital channels: Nickelodeon moved The N, its tween-oriented block off its shared space on Noggin and into its own channel (replacing GAS); this gives the company three digital channels for progressive viewership: Noggin for 2-5, NickToons for 6-11 and The N for 9-14.
Disney, meanwhile, is pouring time and resources into its boy-oriented Jetix block on Toon Disney. “We have an aggressive development building-out for early 2009,” said Ross. To create a Hannah Montana-esque buzz among boys, “we will go for the full panoply of platforms. We are talking to every division here and our company is unrivaled with assets.”