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CBS Saturday turns to toons

Eye plans about-face in ayem lineup

Cartoons are coming back to CBS’ Saturday-morning sked.

The Eye web plans to completely revamp its struggling Saturday-ayem lineup next fall, replacing this season’s live-action kidvid fare with six new animated half-hour series produced by Canadian animation outfit Nelvana Ltd.

Gone as of September are the rookie series “Wheel of Fortune 2000,” “The New Ghostwriter Mysteries,” “The Sports Illustrated for Kids Show,” “Fudge” and “The Weird Al Show.” Also retiring at the end of this season, after a five-year run on the network, is the much-praised “Beakman’s World.”

Lucy Johnson, CBS’ senior VP of daytime/children’s programming and special projects, said the web’s experiment with an all live-action slate has been a creative success, but a commercial disappointment.

“As well-produced as these shows are, the kids aren’t watching them,” said Johnson. “We have to stay competitive, and we’re committed to being competitive in this daypart.”

CBS dropped out of the Saturday-morning cartoon race last year in a bid to counterprogram the long-dominant Fox Kids Network and help the Eye web stand out amid increased competition from netlets UPN and the WB and cablers like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission approved a new mandate requiring commercial TV stations to offer at least three hours per week of educational programming for kids. CBS had hoped to blend education with entertainment with shows like “Wheel of Fortune 2000” and “Sports Illustrated For Kids.”

For the season thus far, however, CBS has slipped further behind its broadcast competitors, while ABC has seen its ratings rebound on the strength of Disney-produced animation and the studio’s marketing prowess.

CBS is averaging a 0.6 rating and 3 share in the key Saturday-morning demographic of kids 2-11. Fox, by comparison, is averaging a 3.7/16 and ABC is right behind with a 3.5/16. The fledgling Kids’ WB! lineup has proven to be a formidable competitor to the established webs, averaging a 2.2/9 in kids 2-11 this season. NBC long ago traded cartoons for teen-oriented sitcoms like “Saved by the Bell” on Saturday mornings.

For CBS, the return to cartoons was also prompted by the perception in the advertising world that kids naturally gravitate to animated series, while live-action shows typically take time to build a following, Johnson said. Next fall, CBS’ cartoon slate will be designed to appeal to a slightly younger audience than the kids targeted by Fox Kids and ABC.

For Nelvana, whose animation credits include PBS’ “The Magic School Bus” and Nickelodeon’s “Arthur,” the non-exclusive deal with CBS comes as the Toronto-based production/distribution outfit moves away from live-action production. With foreign sales factored in, the series commitments from CBS could generate as much as $30 million for Nelvana, according to company prexy Toper Taylor.

Among the new series in the works for CBS are two series based on best-selling Scholastic Books titles: “The Dumb Bunnies” and “Guardians of the Legend.” In keeping with the FCC mandate, all of CBS’ new kidvid shows will have a solid educational foundation, Johnson said.

The other new shows in the works are:

– “Franklin,” following the adventures of a turtle.

– “Anatole,” centering on a Parisian mouse and his six offspring.

– “Birdz,” revolving around a family of birds and their budding filmmaker son.

– “From the Files of Flying Rhinoceros,” focusing on a high school computer nerd with the ability to travel through time and transform his school environment.

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