TV channel hopes to lure male demographic

Cartoon Network is drafting an army of boys in the kids’ TV wars.

Turner Animation prexy Stu Snyder and Rob Sorcher, Cartoon’s recently hired chief content officer, have set their sights on male teens and tweens in their sweeping overhaul of the cabler.

They’re hoping to stanch the flow of young viewers leaving the network for Disney and Nick, but they’re also trying to rebuild the net as “the home for boys,” in Snyder’s words (though he quickly adds that he hopes the female aud sticks around for shows like Cartoon’s new comedy “Chowder”).

“I think in general the network has a strength in fantasy and adventure, and it has a strength with boys,” says Sorcher. “You’ll see us capitalizing on that — (upcoming show) ‘Star Wars’ is a great indicator of where all this is going.”

Judging by a scan of the Nielsen ratings, it had better get there soon: In April, total-day ratings were down by double-digit percentages in the key demos of kids 2-11, kids 6-11 and kids 9-14.

Right now, the top 10 ad-supported shows for the two younger kid demos are Nick, Nick and nothing but Nick, and mostly “SpongeBob” at that. The Viacom-owned net also rules the roost in vital total-day numbers for those categories as well.

But Sorcher and Snyder are up to more than readjusting Cartoon’s position on the chart.

As announced at its upfront, this year the network will roll out “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” an animated TV show set to premiere hot on the heels of the movie, which goes out through Warner Bros. on Aug. 15. With “Clone Wars” as the cornerstone, Cartoon is planning a Friday-night block that will have boys’ action shows up the wazoo, notably a new Caped Crusader cartoon (“Batman: The Brave and the Bold”) and homegrown Cartoon properties “Ben 10″ and “Secret Saturdays.”

It’s a strategy that will work one way or another, because even in the unlikely event that a name like “Star Wars” can’t attract new viewers, the boycentric focus has been making Cartoon the only game in town for advertisers.

“In the kids’ marketplace, there aren’t a whole lot of places to move your money,” admits David Campanelli, a national TV team leader for media buyer Horizon Media. This may help explain why, despite declining ratings, Cartoon Network saw its ad revenue rise this year — to $481 million from $432 million, according to SNL Kagan.

Advertisers are after the young male demographic to sell action figures, food and other branded merchandise, Campanelli explains, and Cartoon skews toward that desirable audience, even though Nickelodeon usually has higher ratings.

“You can get more raw kids, but you’re also going to get a stronger female audience as well,” Campanelli says of Nick. “You’re paying for the girls that you don’t necessarily want, whereas Cartoon is mostly a pure boys audience.”

While a few nets, such as the CW, run Saturday-morning cartoons, the majority of programming for kids has migrated to dedicated cable channels like the gal-skewing Nick, Cartoon and the non-ad-supported Disney Channel, so advertisers are stymied when it comes to promoting product to boys.

Parsed that way, Cartoon is doing extremely well in the ratings: Twice in the last four weeks, the almost all-male aud for “Ben 10: Alien Force” put that show at No. 1 among boys in its time period on Saturday ayem — primetime for toymakers, Happy Meal hawkers and vendors of sugary breakfast cereals.

“Ben 10″ is Cartoon’s biggest success story, and last November’s live-action original movie “Ben 10: Race Against Time” is the highest-rated program in the net’s history. “Ben 10″ is also the only original Cartoon show that consistently makes a strong showing among the 10 most popular programs for boys 9-14, and its aud is 79% male; its closest competitor at Nick, “iCarly,” is 49% male and thus a less desirable place to sell Batman action figures.

As Cartoon Network continues in its quest to energize the brand, Sorcher says he’s out to bring back not just the space opera but an entire kind of show that he says has gone AWOL and is uniquely appealing to male youngsters.

” ‘Star Wars’ has a marquee value, but it also represents a certain kind of storytelling,” Sorcher says. “There’s a kind of show that isn’t even on television anymore. What happened to the ‘Lost in Space’s of the world? Where did that go, and can it be brought back? I think we can be exhibitors of a kind of entertainment that can’t be seen on the dial.”

Alongside Sorcher’s artistic aspirations, the net is delving into name-brand territory by designating Sunday evenings for movies.

Snyder says he wants to set aside Sunday nights for “kids and parents to sit down together and watch real movies.” The net will put a number of TV preems of theatricals in that slot, starting with a slate that includes “TMNT,” “Monster House,” “The Ant Bully,” “Open Season” and “Hoodwinked.”

The decision to amp up Cartoon’s own product by associating it with outside name brands isn’t a cheap one. The costs involved in snagging an extravagantly animated CG “Star Wars” show are undisclosed, but if Turner bought its shiny new theatricals at a standard 11% of domestic gross, those five movies alone cost it more than $32 million.

Still, if the net can both maintain its male aud and bring in parents and girls with shows like “Chowder” and “Star Wars” (which has high-profile female characters), it may yet stand a chance of stemming the ratings ebb and making its programming the most profitable advertising option to boot.

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