Cartoon Network is eager to use the force

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Stuart Snyder had barely started his job last year overseeing Turner Broadcasting System’s Cartoon Network when he heard Lucasfilm was working on a full-length series of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”

The series evolved from a Lucasfilm-Cartoon Network partnership of “Clone Wars” shorts and picks up the storyline from a full-length movie currently playing in theaters.

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Cartoon Network

‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ will be on Cartoon Network on Friday nights.

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Snyder said he flew to San Francisco to screen several episodes. He then told filmmaker George Lucas that the only place he wanted to see the show was on Cartoon Network.

And, that is where it will appear, starting Oct. 3, at 9 p.m., Cartoon Network is expected to announce today.

“Star Wars was on my radar within 30 days of being on the job,” said Snyder, president and chief operating officer of animation, young adults and kids media at Atlanta-based Turner. “I wanted that show, and I wanted Lucasfilm to passionately believe that I wanted it.”

Cartoon Network officials won’t say how much they paid for “Clone Wars.”

For Cartoon Network, it’s not just about getting what Snyder calls a game-changing show for Friday nights. He’s built an entire Friday night action-adventure block of programs around it.

Snyder’s goal has been to rejuvenate Cartoon Network, which competes heavily with animation powerhouses Nickelodeon and Disney. Although the cable network made a push to grab the preschool market in the mornings a couple of years ago, Snyder said his team is going back to its roots of programming for older kids.

“It’s executing a slightly new business plan to where the company has been before,” Snyder said.

The shows, which include a new series, The Secret Saturdays, and Ben 10: Alien Force, a spin-off of the Ben 10 franchise, follows a full Thursday night of comedy programs that include Flapjack and Total Drama Island.

“This is a new multiplatform business and programming strategy for the network,” said Snyder. “We really saw this as a multiplatform of key nights and winning key nights.”

He is already optimistic that the shows will help boost ratings.

“You catch me at a time where I have a smile on my face because of our internal results,” Snyder said. “I can say there’s a little bit of bragging on the third quarter for us.”

Some of the figures from the second quarter for Cartoon Network’s key demographic — kids age 6 and older — weren’t as strong.

Viacom-owned Nickelodeon, for example, captured an average 649,000 viewers in the 6-to-11 age group during the second quarter. That placed it ahead of the Disney-ABC Television Group’s Disney Channel, which had an average 528,000 viewers and Cartoon Network’s average 351,000 viewers in that age group, according to Nielsen Media Research data supplied by Nickelodeon.

Historically, the Cartoon Network has lagged in ratings behind the rest of “the big three” in viewership for children’s programming, said Aaron Bynum, news editor of AnimationInsider.net, which offers news and reviews of cartoons and other animation.

Aqua Teen’s shadow

Snyder moved into his new role in May 2007, in part, to replace Jim Samples, Cartoon Network’s general manager who left that February. Before that, he ran the online gaming site GameTap, which Turner said in July was for sale.

Samples was the general manager for Cartoon Network. He resigned after a botched marketing effort for one of Cartoon Network’s late-night shows, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” caused a bomb scare in Boston. The incident cost Turner $2 million to satisfy Massachusetts authorities.

Bynum considers Samples’ resignation a “watershed moment” for Cartoon Network, which has spent the past year recruiting managers and talent “in an honest effort to bring back the big CN, and in a big way.”

“Cartoon Network can be bigger and better than ever, developing and producing world-class television animation and other engaging kid’s entertainment, but it’s going to be an uphill struggle for a long time,” against its chief competitors, which present a more balanced format, Bynum said.

Kiddie core

Cartoon Network was launched in 1992 and gears its programming toward older kids, ages 6-14. But the network shifts its focus to adults in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic with its late-night subset Adult Swim. The block of shows, which includes “Aqua Teen,” runs from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. weekdays and Saturdays, and 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Sundays.

On Fridays, the fantasy-and-adventure theme is in line with the cable network’s core audience, Snyder said. Snyder considers “The Clone Wars” to be a “mini movie” that is going to appeal to kids as well as parents who were fans of the blockbuster movies.

“Clone Wars” is set in between Star Wars movies II and III — “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith.” It features known characters such as Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda.

“Our sweet spot is really about focusing on the 6- to 14-year-olds,” Snyder said. “We’re clearly the dominant player for boys. We have that market, and we’re increasing the overall share of the youth market.”

For the first part of the third quarter, Cartoon Network’s ratings increased 6 percent in the 6- to 11-year-old demographic compared to 2007, according to Nielsen data supplied by Cartoon Network. For Thursday nights, ratings for the key 7:30-10 p.m. time grew 41 percent for the 6- to 11-year-old demographic, compared to a year ago, according to the same Nielsen data.

Snyder said the Friday night lineup is building upon a strategy that started a year ago.

“I really do believe that based on the popularity of the brand, we need Friday nights as a destination night, an event night, and that will help with the rest of the evening,” he said.

FRIDAY NIGHT LINEUP

All aimed at kids ages 6-14

8 p.m.: The Secret Saturdays

8:30 p.m.: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (repeat from previous week)

9 p.m.: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (new episode)

9:30 p.m.: Ben 10: Alien Force

WHAT KIDS ARE WATCHING

Second quarter 2008 ratings average for the 6- to 11-year-old group for the entire day:

Nickelodeon: 649,000 viewers

Disney Channel: 528,000 viewers

Cartoon Network: 351,000 viewers

Source: Nielsen Media Research data supplied by Nickelodeon.