On The Stairway To Kids Upfront, Toon Unveils New Slate: 'Hello Kitty Meets Led Zeppelin'

Cartoon Network and Kids' WB got out in front of the upfront Wednesday night, kicking off the annual kids' TV ad sales season with a presentation that touted new and returning animated series, synergy between the two networks, and more forays into decidedly non-cartoon live action.

And the Turner executives got a little boost from their friends, Batman, Darth Vader, and a squad of storm troopers, as well as the actors who voice Duck Dodgers and his slow-talking sidekick, Porky Pig, during a two-hour multimedia event at Chelsea Piers in midtown Manhattan.

A lot was pitched at the upfront, which is handled by a combined sales force under the Cartoon Network banner. But two story lines stuck--the continued success of the Cartoon Network against an ascendant Disney Channel and powerhouse Nickelodeon, and Kids' WB's attempts to turn around a ratings decline that has plagued the network.

Cartoon Network unveiled a schedule that was heavy on new episodes of returning shows and five new series--four premiering between May and December, and another that will debut in February 2005. The new programming is twice what the network had two years ago--aimed at the boys it already gets in droves while taking advantage of the channel's growing popularity among girls. Among the offerings are a new Justice League series that teams favorite superheroes with lesser-known colleagues, a look at what might happen in a foster home for imaginary friends after their child friends grow up, and "Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi," the part live-action, part cartoon adventures of a Japanese girl group on a world tour.

"I've been kind of describing it as 'Hello Kitty' meets Led Zeppelin," explained Sam Register, programming head at Cartoon Network.

It's not the only live action on the Cartoon Network, which buyers said might be feeling the heat from the mostly live action hits on the Disney Channel. It recently introduced a Friday night block of programming with two young hosts that mix live action and animation. And a block of programming that begins in mid-April called Miguzi will feature series like "Totally Spies," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," and "Teen Titans." But it will also have segments that profile real-life entertainers, athletes, and heroes such as astronauts.

Kids' WB has had a tougher time, with a slide in ratings toward the end of last year for its 14 hours of programming weekly--not only Saturday mornings but also weekday afternoons. The network is sticking toward its 52-week programming strategy, although it acknowledged a dip in 2003.

"That [strategy] worked to some degree," said John Hardman, senior vice president of Kids' WB.

Hardman said that since January, ratings were up 30 percent, with executives hoping that the momentum would continue further into 2004.

Much of its projected fall schedule is made up of seven returning series like "Jackie Chan Adventures," "Pokemon," and "Yu-Gi-Oh!" Only two new series are on the schedule, a science fiction/hip hop series called "Da Boom Crew" and "The Batman," the adventures of a 20-something Bruce Wayne.

For the summer, Kids' WB is reaching into the world of live action. It promised an "aggressive" campaign for two projects, a live-action film (the network's first) named "Zolar" and a hidden-camera hijinks show called "Gotcha." Handman said "Zolar" combines two of the demographic's keenest interests, action sports and aliens, for a story of how three action- sports heroes protect another action sports athlete who's really extreme -- from another planet. "Gotcha" portrays several children who play pranks on adults like dropping bugs on them and spraying water purportedly from a pug- nosed dog with an overactive bladder.

"We have a couple of surprises for our audiences in the works for the spring and into the fall," Handman said.

Donna Speciale, president of U.S. broadcast at MediaVest Group, said she was a little disappointed that the Kids' WB ratings decline and the steps that are being taken to reverse it weren't discussed more at the upfront.

"I think that's an issue," Speciale said.

She said Cartoon Network has a lot of momentum right now, and that she hoped Kids' WB could pull through the rough patch.

"I'm rooting for the WB. We definitely think broadcast ratings points are very important for... all the kids advertisers," Speciale said.

Charlie Zakin, director of media for toymaker Hasbro, said he felt the networks offered a strong lineup during the presentation. He wasn't sure, however, what the pricing situation would be once the upfront broke.

While there's been a growing supply of demand in the kids market, a lot of it has been in networks like the Disney Channel, which don't have the opportunities for 30-second spots offered by Kids' WB, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon, among others. On Wednesday night, no one made predictions about what that would mean for the kids upfront.

"I think the key is in the demand, and it's a little too early to tell," Speciale said.

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