Mouse House tooning in new basic cable net

Looking to give the Cartoon Network a run for its animated money, Disney/ABC Cable Networks on Monday announced plans to launch a new 24-hour Disney Channel spin-off for basic cable titled Toon Disney, which will exclusively feature cartoons and animated product from the Disney library.

The April 18 launch date is the 15th anniversary of the Disney Channel. Although the new cartoon-themed net will be ad-supported, the Disney Channel remains free of advertising, and its executives say there are no plans to add commercials.

The announcement of Toon Disney promises to be one of the major topics of conversation at the California Cable Television Assn.’s four-day Western Show, which kicks off today in Anaheim with an expected attendance of more 25,000. It runs through Friday.

While there had been speculation in the cable industry that Disney had a cartoon channel on the drawing board, confirmation of its launch appeared to catch most in the industry by surprise, particularly coming on the eve of the show.

Toon Disney also marks the first concrete effort for Geraldine Laybourne, the Disney/ABC Cable prexy who is said to have been stifled in her ability to push through many of her ideas since arriving at Disney from Nickelodeon in spring 1996.

Kids’ news on tap

It was also widely expected that Laybourne’s first breakthrough would be with ABZ, a planned kids’ news, information and learning channel, which has been in development for many months. The Toon Disney announcement does not affect ABZ’s fate and continued development, Laybourne said Monday.

Laybourne also said that while the proposed channel — which has locked up no distribution as yet —hopes to gain some analog carriage, “We know that, realistically, this is a difficult marketplace. We’re looking primarily at a digital rollout.”

Added Disney Channel prexy Anne Sweeney: “We’re expecting the Disney name to help an awful lot.”

Toon Disney, which will target kids aged 2 to 11 and their parents, will rely entirely on the Walt Disney Co.’s more than 2,200-episode animated library. There will be programming crossover with the Disney Channel, but 25% of the product will be exclusive to the new entity. Sked will include no films, relying instead on series such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Gummi Bears,” “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” and “Darkwing Duck.”

The Disney Channel has a subscriber base of 30 million, 25 million of them basic subscribers and just 5 million on the premium side. Only those operators carrying the Disney Channel on basic will have a chance to offer Toon Disney to their subscribers.

“We see this as a value-added service for the basic lineup,” Sweeney said.

Libraries differ

Cartoon Network prexy Betty Cohen was unavailable Monday to comment on the Toon Disney announcement. However, a channel spokesman noted that while the new Disney service will have access to 2,200 titles, Cartoon Network has more than 8,500 in its library. That network launched Oct. 1, 1992 with 2 million subscribers. Its reach now stands at 47 million domestically, while its ratings continue to grow.

“We’re confident in what we have to offer,” Laybourne said. “We have very expensive animation. Our library is unique in all the world. We’re very excited.”

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