Defining distinct niches

Mar 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Even in children’s television, it’s all about the real estate.
When it comes to the branding of kids programming, cable networks have the upper hand with their round-the-clock presence. When you have the time, you can build the brand. And branding is particularly important for kids programmers-more so than for those targeting adults-because kids are destination viewers.
And the No. 1 destination for kids is Nickelodeon, the cable network that launched 24 years ago, say industry experts. Not only is the cable channel far and away the ratings leader for kids, it also has the strongest brand.
“Kids learn about Nickelodeon before they even go to school,” said John Wagner, media director, kids negotiations, at Starcom Worldwide. “Nickelodeon goes out and aggressively seeds the brand at a very young age and it’s not because there’s a huge advertiser demand for 2- to 5-year-old eyes, but it educates kids about where they are on the dial.”
Nickelodeon is in a unique position as a kids-only network, said Cyma Zarghami, executive VP and general manager for Nickelodeon. Disney Channel is targeted to families while Cartoon Network reaches for a broader audience, she said.
Nickelodeon is followed by Disney Channel and then Cartoon Network in the game of branding kids programming. Broadcast networks aren’t in a position to establish a strong identity for kids because, with the exception of Kids’ WB, they don’t offer more than the Saturday morning block each week. In addition, they have leased out that time period to partners: ABC Cable Networks Group programs ABC, Nickelodeon programs CBS, Discovery Kids programs NBC and 4Kids Entertainment programs Fox on Saturday mornings. Before the rise of kids cable networks in the ’90s, broadcasters dominated Saturday mornings. Brands weren’t important then and kids watched the program, like a Scooby Doo, said Mike Goodman, programming analyst with the Yankee Group. “The brand was the program,” he said. The absence of a strong brand for kids enabled Nickelodeon and Disney Channel to take off in the mid-’90s and build a space and a name just for kids, he said.
Both networks have defined distinct niches within kids programming: Disney Channel has capitalized on Disney’s lifelong reputation for wholesome entertainment, while Nickelodeon is a little bit edgier, he said. In turn, they have extended their brands successfully to radio, the Internet, toy stores and elsewhere, he said.
Where branding counts with kids, the Cartoon Network is lagging behind. Even though the network has established itself as one of the three premier kids networks, its brand recognition isn’t as strong since it also programs cartoons that are appealing to adults, Mr. Goodman said.
The network’s core audience is 6 to 11, but Cartoon also has its late-night “Adult Swim” block for the 18 to 34 crowd and Toonami for teens and tweens. Research indicates that people think of Cartoon Network as a place for cartoon lovers of all ages, not just kids, said Dennis Adamovich, VP of marketing for Cartoon Network. The network’s ratings are down this year, and Cartoon is trying to right the ship with a new slate of shows announced at the kids upfront that triples the number of originals from a year ago, he said.
The notion that there is a three-legged race between Nickelodeon, Cartoon and Disney is a myth, Ms. Zarghami said. On any given day the other two networks combined usually generate about half of Nickelodeon’s numbers, and Nickelodeon has 22 of the 25 top-rated shows for kids, she said. Nickelodeon averages a 4.6 daily rating for kids 2 to 11, while Disney and Cartoon battle it out for about a 1.8, she said.
Despite the importance of branding, Kids’ WB has proved that content can also be king. The network programs 17 hours per week for kids, including phenom shows like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon. With its regular presence, Kids’ WB has aimed to create a particular feel and brand to its kids programming, with the cornerstone image of an animated backlot locale, said Suzanne Kolb, executive VP of marketing for The WB and Kids’ WB. That brand can help to parlay the viewers of the network’s hit shows into regular viewers by enticing them to sample, she said.
Kids’ WB has shown that kids aren’t just destination viewers and will tune in for the content, said Al Kahn, chairman and CEO of 4Kids Entertainment, which began programming the Fox Block on Fox on Saturday mornings last fall and which produces Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon. “Brand loyalty is only as good as what you put on,” he said.
Still, most broadcast networks just don’t have the time, literally, to build a kids brand, so they need to leverage the resources of their sister companies. ABC has stemmed some of the recent ratings erosion on Saturday mornings with the showcase strategy it adopted this year. Six of the 10 half-hour slots feature shared shows that have aired first on other Disney properties, like Lizzie Maguire from Disney Channel, Power Rangers from ABC Family and Teamo Supremo from Toon Disney. ABC is up 5 percent in kids 6 to 11 and 2 to 11 for the season and 11 percent in tweens 9 to 14, said Jonathan Barzilay, general manager and senior VP for Toon Disney and ABC Kids.
At the end of the day, though, a kids marketer should devote 80 percent to 90 percent of ad dollars to cable because that’s where the eyeballs are, said Starcom’s Mr. Wagner.