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Nets face back to school blues

Kids WB counters decline with 'Mucha,' 'Yu-Gi-Oh!'

It’s back-to-school time, but for broadcast networks in the kids’ biz it’s hardly worth staying enrolled.

Tired of being bullied by kids’ cablers with millions of viewers, nets are losing confidence in creating original Saturday morning lineups.

Thus they’ll by and large continue this fall to repurpose successful shows from cable corporate sibs and to bow new shows sparingly in order to save money.

“Above and beyond what it takes to meet the FCC requirements, for most stations it doesn’t make financial sense,” says John Wagner, chief kids negotiator at media buyer Starcom.

This year total viewership was down 8%, attributed to fewer hours on the skeds and to kids watching less TV.

Only Kids WB manages to counter this decline thanks to smart acquisition and programming choices, as well as audible support from the suits upstairs.

The Tadpole is the only net that is taking a strong stand against the cable biggies on Saturday mornings. It’s giving dominant Nick a run for its money in boy demos and is so comfortable with its lead that it will launch an all-returning lineup this fall.

“They’re very good with acquired programming,” says ad buyer Mindshare’s senior partner Jason Maltby. “Just as ‘Pokemon’ was fizzling, they got ‘Yu-Gi-Oh’ and struck gold twice. There’s certainly a halo effect when you have a monster tentpole.”

Soph series “Mucha Lucha” is teacher’s pet, and has been fast-tracked to break out across all platforms — a Warner Bros. feature, games and merchandise, in hopes of mimicking Nick’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” $800 million retail sales.

Success hasn’t gone unnoticed upstairs who know they channel’s popularity helps feed fresh viewers into the pipeline.

“As our kids’ ratings have grown over the years, to our current position as market leaders in several key demographics, Kids’ WB has played an increasingly positive role in our primetime performance,” says network prexy Jed Petrick.

Compare that to UPN, which will drop out of kids programming entirely Sept. 1.

Other nets find their fall strategies borrowing heavily from cable sibs, with only a modest amount of new content bowing:

  • ABC: Working with content from cablers ABC Family, Toon Disney and Disney Channel, the combined strength of the Mouse channels has steadied ABC’s numbers without cannibalizing auds from its for-pay siblings. Disney’s tween friendly “Kim Possible,” and “Lizzie McGuire” have already debuted, and “That’s So Raven” is on the fall slate. Despite talk of extending “Good Morning America” into the weekends, Alphabet will launch fall slate with five hours.

  • Discovery Kids on NBC: ‘Kids’ at this point may be a misnomer. During its frosh year, cabler Discovery’s revamped geek fare reached a median audience age of 42, in part due to its newsie “Saturday Today” lead in. To become kid-friendlier, Discovery will slip animation into the fall slate, but still focus on scientific topics it knows best: Egypt (“Tutenstein”) and predators (“Kenny the Shark.”)

  • Nick on CBS: Nick’s deal dates back to 1999 when they first programmed a pre-school lineup. Since then, cabler has switched focus over to more valuable older demos with reairings of perennials, “Rugrats” and “Wild Thornberrys.” It’s not new programming, but Nick never premieres a show on Saturday either.

  • Fox Box: Recognizing what didn’t work, programmer 4Kids has scrapped half of last year’s slate and picked up new titles (including “Sonic X” and “Shaman King”) to gun for the boy demos.

CEO Al Kahn believes the industry has reached a turning point in broadcasting for kids on Saturday.

“The problem is that most people walked away,” says Kahn. “Certainly the WB is convinced that it’s a good business and we hope to emulate that.”

Underlying the professed concern for creating quality programming for children is the pesky FCC requirement that nets air three hours of kids content per week.

DIC Entertainment, seeing an opportunity, has created a block of core kids programming so that networks can make sure that FCC guidelines are being met.

But if the dollars don’t come in, kids’ fare could very well flunk out of the network lineup in years to come.

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