The top-to-bottom restructuring of WarnerMedia’s TV and streaming units includes a shift in the oversight of kids and family programming for HBO Max.
The responsibility for developing children’s and family-friendly programs has moved from the content group led by HBO and HBO Max content chief Casey Bloys to the group headed by Tom Ascheim, the Disney veteran who joined Warner Bros. as president of Global Kids, Young Adults and Classics in June.
Ascheim came to Warner Bros. from Disney’s Freeform to head a newly created content division designed to make the studio and characters from its vault bigger players in the kidvid universe. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, Tom & Jerry and others in the WB menagerie are under-exploited in the modern era compared to Disney and other classic toons.
Ascheim’s portfolio includes linear cablers Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Boomerang and Turner Classic Movies. He also steers Cartoon Network Studios and Warner Bros. Animation. Given those assets, Ascheim’s group was seen as better suited than Bloys’ group to focus on kid-specific originals produced under the Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. brands for HBO Max. Bloys’ HBO Max programming team will continue to oversee young adult content and adult animation for the service that has had a slow start with subscribers since its May 27 debut.
Among the top priorities for Ascheim’s unit (known internally as KYAC) is to develop preschool centric programming to complement HBO Max’s investment in the “Sesame Street” franchise. Pre-school age viewing accounts for as much as one-third of the children’s TV market, Ascheim noted. His roots in the kids TV arena run deep. Before Disney, Ascheim worked with Sarnoff during the years of rapid growth at Viacom’s Nickelodeon cabler in the 1990s and 2000s.
“We want to expand the definition of kids and family offerings under the Cartoon Network pedigree,” Ascheim told Variety. “We are going to be an animated enterprise but we will not always be cartoons. We’re trying to serve the kids and family audience as widely as possible so we can be a better provider to HBO Max.”
The job of crafting children’s programming is challenging because the target audience is diffuse across digital and linear platforms. Cartoon Network and HBO Max need to bring their characters and brands to kids where they are congregating, whether it be YouTube or Snap or gaming platforms and the like.
“We have more tools than ever. So much of the work we do is to make a great program to put on our linear networks. The other part of the work we do is to get into the nooks and crannies of where kids live,” Ascheim said. “You’ve got to find the best and first way to meet your audience and get them to want to come back and watch your shows.”
HBO Max also aims to reach a wider swath of the older kid and tween market with a wider range of shows including live-action fare presented under the Cartoon Network banner. He points to the new animated series “Unicorn: Warriors Eternal” in the works from Genndy Tartakovsky, the prolific creator of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim’s “Samurai Jack, Cartoon Network’s “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Sym-bionic Titan,” among other franchises. “Unicorn” revolves around a group of “ancient teen heroes” who team up to save the world from evil. The anthology-style series is billed as “inclusive for all ages” and inspired by myths and folklore from around the world.
The series from Cartoon Network Studios is set to bow next year on HBO Max. “Unicorn” is in keeping with another ambitious toon production in the works for HBO Max next year from Warner Bros. Animation and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV. “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai,” set in Shanghai in the 1920s, decades before the time frame of the 1984 “Gremlins” live-action feature helmed by Joe Dante.
WB’s KYAC has struck a deal for three more projects to come from popular children’s author Mo Willems and Greg Silverman’s Stampede Ventures banner. There’s an animated series based on Willem’s “Unlimited Squirrels” franchise, a musical special “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Special” and a pilot order for a live-action “immersive” series dubbed Cat the Cat’s Show the Show Show with YOU the YOU!”
Also in the works is a revival of the “Tiny Toon Adventures” cartoon series that Spielberg produced for the studio in the early 1990s during a previous regime’s effort to revitalize Warner Bros.’ animation business. “Tiny Toons Looniversity” has been given a two-season order for HBO Max and Cartoon Network. Spielberg is back as an executive producer through his Amblin Television banner.
For Ascheim, the HBO Max focus is part of a larger push to breathe new life into dormant IP, including the first feature-length “Tom and Jerry” movie in nearly 30 years.
“We have characters that have been around for decades that people love, and we have people who have a strong point of view on how to modernize them. It’s really delightful,” he said.
(Pictured: “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai”)