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Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network Vie for Kids’ Attention With Apps, New Screens

The TV screen is about to get more competition when it comes to luring young eyeballs — and some of the content

is going to come from the networks themselves.

As upfront season approaches, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have let loose a slew of new programming initiatives ranging from the return of “Max and Ruby” to a retooled “Tom & Jerry.” More intriguing, however, were the networks’ unveilings of new means to get their programs to young fans beyond the living room TV set.

Cartoon Network disclosed plans to beam 10- to 15-second-long clips, trivia and interactive games to kids’ smartphones and tablets, with children able to swipe to a new bit of video with the flick of a finger. Nickelodeon, meanwhile, took the wraps off production of an app for its Nick Jr. preschooler’s network that will feature shortform content, live streaming of the TV network for subscribers and even a Dora the Explorer who speaks directly to the user.

The chase through the digital ether for young viewers is likely to become more critical for TV networks, and not just the ones catering to tech-savvy kids. After all, the audience for animated favorites is destined to grow into the one clamoring for the next “Justified,” “Big Bang Theory” or “The Walking Dead” — and executives must recognize the way it likes its video content served up.

Just as most consumers no longer see much difference between a mainstream broadcast outlet like CBS and a cable network like USA, kidvid execs say younger viewers see little distinction between a tablet and a TV set.

“They move pretty fluidly across all the devices,” said Chris Waldron, Cartoon Network’s VP of digital. And while video made for mobile devices often contains elements of interactivity, that programming must be spread around all screens, new or old. “We are going to do a lot of work to follow kids to new platforms and give them a similar experience on every screen,” said Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Group. “Whether you are in your car or on your desktop or on your smartphone, you are still watching the same content.”

The tech initiatives are coming just in time for Nickelodeon and Cartoon to impress the upfront crowd. The two cablers, along with others like Disney’s boy-centric channel Disney XD; NBCUniversal’s Sprout; and Discovery and Hasbro’s Hub, hope to land the largest share of the $800 million-$900 million that advertisers commit regularly to reach children, from toddler age to pre-teens, in a market that has been stunted in recent years by rules that narrow the flow of advertising from makers of sweets and food deemed less nutritious for growing bodies.

And while largest demographic of those consuming video content continues to be young people who  watch on their TV sets, the attention they pay to mobile devices is ballooning. The average amount of time kids aged 8 and under spend with such devices has tripled over the past two years, to 15 minutes a day. Over that same two-year period, the number of kids who have merely used mobile devices has nearly doubled, to 72% from 38%. More significant, perhaps: 38% of kids under 2 have used a mobile device, compared with 10% in 2011, according to nonprofit Common Sense Media.

Advertisers are rooting for the television networks to make new connections, because kids are turning more readily
to second-screen activity while their favorite TV programs are on, said Jeff Malmad, who leads the mobile practice at large ad-buying agency MindShare North America.

Young viewers don’t channel surf, he explained. “They app surf and they social surf, which makes it even more important for these networks to have a large presence” on new screens.

Parents may howl, but the networks are modeling entertainment so that kids will wind up spending more time engaging with programming and ads.

“It’s all about how you extend the kids’ time spent with the networks,” Malmad said.

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