Rebranded toon channel to debut in February

Two forces, one a rag-tag underdog and the other a many-armed corporation, are about to go to war over a generation of boys.

But this is not a show on Cartoon Network, this is Cartoon Network, the established player in a ratings battle for 9- 14-year-olds. The battle that’s about to heat up is courtesy of an unlikely underdog: Disney’s rebranded cartoon channel, Disney Xtreme Digital (formerly Toon Disney), which will hit the airwaves in February.

The Mouse’s ad-supported toon net will face a tough hombre in the mighty Cartoon. The Turner/Time Warner net recently announced new iterations of marquee properties — including a new Star Wars show — for the fall, and it’s about to debut a giant, downloadable massively multiplayer online game called FusionFall; after all, the kids these nets need are notorious for reaching for a joystick before their remote control.

If Disney has a cheering section in this enterprise, it’s Madison Avenue, which, if it’s going to sell action figures or sugary food, has to buy boy-focused ad time from Nick or Cartoon, whether their ratings are good or not. And Cartoon, with its majority male aud, has carved out a deep niche.”Kids used to be more widely dispersed throughout syndication and the major networks,” observes Brad Adgate, a researcher with media buyer Horizon. “Now the ratings go to two places: Nickelodeon and Cartoon (which gets a larger percentage of boys than Nick).”

The new XD gives buyers another alternative.

“If they can get the same kind of audience delivery on Disney that they can on Cartoon, I think that’s something that buyers would welcome,” Adgate says.

Conventional wisdom holds that Disney’s TV properties appeal mostly to girls — Hannah Montana and the Disney Princess licenses are two of the biggest success stories — but XD’s Rich Ross says the rebranded net didn’t have as far to travel as one might think. “We already have a raft of programming geared toward boys,” Ross says. “It’s not a standing start at all.”

Disney XD has tried to attract boys with indestructible older titles that used to run in syndication, like “Batman: The Animated Series,” while upcoming shows include a “Ben 10″-ish skein called “Aaron Stone” and a Japanese robot skein called RoboDZ. The net’s ratings bear out Ross’ thesis: In total day numbers for August, 32,000 of the net’s 48,000 viewers in the 9-14 demo were boys. XD’s problem is the number of households where the channel is available: Cartoon has much deeper penetration (97.2 million households to Toon Disney’s 71.3) and in August, it averaged 329,000 viewers in the 9-14 demo (including 232,000 boys). Disney must sell the net in many more markets if it’s going to compete, and while it is busy doing that, Cartoon is trying to dig even further into the limited demo with initiatives like its buzz-heavy weekend lineup and copious vidgame tie-ins.What may turn out to be Disney’s ace in the hole is a partnership with another network in the ABC/Disney family: ESPN.

“Our sister network — I suppose brother network would be more appropriate in this case — has been working with Disney Channel and Jetix (Toon Disney’s online presence) for years,” Ross says. “We thought it would be to our advantage to bring in things from their library, and some new material, as well.”

But while Disney is trying to build up a base of franchise properties that can pull more boys back to TV, Cartoon is already there, working to incorporate its homegrown characters into the FusionFall gaming world where the game and the network will advertise for one another.

Ironically, it’s a tactic Disney itself had great success with: Square developed the multiproperty “Kingdom Hearts” game series for the Mouse in 2002, which sold more than 10 million copies. So if Disney does choose to compete in that market, it will be a formidable opponent.

“I’ll be curious to see what they do,” Adgate says of the braintrust at Disney’s XD. “I don’t think they’ll screw it up. They have the content and they’ve got the brand.”

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