Kids love watching their favorite TV shows and characters. Over and over. Try wresting the remote from a 9-year-old engrossed in said entertainment source and you know just how deep that bond runs. While this phenomenon may cause endless frustration for parents, it could spell opportunity for cable operators to reach out to a voracious audience across media platforms.

MSOs are eager to connect with the 6-14-year-old demographic, which is primed for early adoption of technology. Youngsters often advise parents and peers on purchasing decisions such as a digital upgrade that would enable viewing of a VOD premiere. Time Warner Cable, cleverly, has a marketing strategy dedicated to wooing youngsters, including a just-launched on-demand promotion with Nickelodeon.

Children’s networks are providing more opportunities than ever for a meeting of the minds between cable operators and kids. The trend is three-pronged. Programmers are: spinning more series into original movies that operators can rally around; providing increased VOD exclusives for digital cable subscribers; and customizing marketing spots for MSOs that feature familiar characters.

Series spin-offs like Disney Channel’s recent That’s So Raven offshoot Cory in the House are not a new programming phenomenon, but original TV movies are more commonplace. Nickelodeon’s slate includes a new Drake & Josh movie, among others, plus new series Back at the Barnyard, spun off from the 2006 feature film. Cartoon Network has eight movies in active development, including a live-action Ben 10 movie and an Ed, Edd n Eddy TV film. The network’s original movie Re-Animated will also spawn a series this fall. Disney Channel, too, is capitalizing on momentum with sequels to the widely popular High School Musical, Cheetah Girls and Twitches. There’s even a documentary about schools producing versions of HSM.

"We are definitely doing more of these movies," says Bob Higgins, Cartoon Network’s SVP of programming. "These are characters kids have shown us they love, and they want to see more of them, in bigger and more spectacular stories." Higgins notes that while the ’90s saw a trend in bringing television characters to the big screen (think Nickelodeon’s The Rugrats Movie or Disney’s Doug’s 1st Movie), the industry has realized it makes most sense to show them where kids are already looking — on their TV sets. "Ratings-wise these [movies] have proven to be big drivers. We plan them 18 months in advance for key ratings periods," Higgins says.

Kids as Purchasing Advisers

For the networks, it’s all about perpetuating the brand — among consumers and distributors. "We are always looking at how can we extend this brand. Are there ways in which we can get Disney Channel and our properties to be a greater force in driving affiliates’ business?" notes Tammy Brown, VP of affiliate marketing for Disney and ESPN Networks.

"Our job is to help affiliates exploit the power of our characters, and I mean that in the most positive way," says Coleman Breland, EVP of sales and marketing at Cartoon Network. That means customizing campaigns. "Different operators have different needs and are at different levels of evolution," he adds. "We talk to them and see where the triple play matters the most, where is it about VOD. They need networks to be responsive to their needs."

A case in point is Cartoon’s new Dexter’s Laboratory on-screen campaign, which features the diminutive genius in his lab talking up the merits of digital cable. The spot has been customized for several MSOs, including Comcast. "Basically Dexter is being a spokesperson for affiliates, helping them move the triple play," Breland says. (Comcast executives did not return calls by press time.)

"The types of partnerships we have are much more multi platform, more VOD and broadband-based, not only because those happen to be important products our affiliates are trying to sell, but because we know that’s where our customers are going," says Juliette Morris, SVP of partner marketing for MTV Networks, which oversees Nickelodeon.

That cuts two ways: Kids like on-demand entertainment, and VOD, of course, is a great selling point for digital cable. On-demand programming was a critical cog in the multi-tiered promotions surrounding Nick’s Kids Choice Awards this March and included homages to past Kids Choice Awards shows and premieres of upcoming shows. "We premiered the first episode of Just Jordan in the video-on-demand package," Morris says. The awards show was not only the highest-rated Awards in its 20-year history, but VOD usage skyrocketed 104% versus the same time a year prior, according to Nickelodeon.

Cartoon put a twist on VOD in May with its "Cartoon Network Invaded" promotion, launched in conjunction with Comcast and Time Warner Cable systems. Each Friday night of the month regular series episodes were scrambled by "aliens" who blended the story lines into five specials shown on linear TV. At the end of the month digital subscribers had the chance to re-watch all five episodes on VOD, plus view a VOD-only special that tied all the episodes together.

Time Warner Cable is clearly enthusiastic about the combination of kids and VOD. On July 30 the operator begins a monthlong on-demand promotion with Nickelodeon on its Kids On Demand digital channel. Exclusive content includes the premiere of Back at the Barnyard several months before it debuts on linear TV, the premiere of new series Tak and the Power of JuJu, a VOD screening of Drake & Josh: Really Big Shrimp and exclusive TeenNick Extra Scoop content. The Road Runner broadband portal will present short-form segments and vignettes from these and additional Nick movies and series.

Here Comes HSM2

VOD will also play a starring role in Disney Channel’s upcoming High School Musical 2. Reprising its strategy for the first HSM, Disney will partner with Cablevision and Verizon for on-demand screenings of the sequel prior to its linear premiere on Aug. 17.

Cablevision customers must pay an additional $4.95 per month for Disney Channel On Demand, but events like the movie premieres drive subscriber demand for the service, Disney’s Brown says. "We’ve had and will continue to have success in working with affiliates on VOD," she says. "We help them give [viewers] something special they can’t get anywhere else." (Programming executives at Cablevision were unavailable for comment.)

Verizon’s FiOS TV will also begin running HSM2 as a free VOD title August 10, accompanied by a barrage of promos, including a sweepstakes on the Verizon Surround broadband site that will award a grand prize winner the chance to co-host a barbecue at his/her school or community organization with an HSM2 cast member; a free HSM2 lunch box for those who purchase FiOS service at a Verizon Experience retail store; inserts in new-subscriber welcome kits; and massive direct mail. In New Jersey alone, Verizon will shower potential subscribers with 400,000 pieces touting the VOD premiere.

"We are going out sooner [with promotions] than last time because we want to make sure we are able to get everyone installed and get access to FiOS" prior to the premiere, says Ann Schick, director of consumer acquisition and marketing for FiOS TV.

Schick says the movie’s target 9-to-14-year-old audience is a critical one. "This is a highly anticipated show, and kids and tweens are very influential to their parents and to each other. They are some of our best promoters." Of the 60% of FiOS titles that are available on VOD, family and children’s programming are among the top buys, she says.

Brown says VOD premieres work best for operators when they show an entire movie, not just excerpts. "Having the whole movie is what really drives that demand," she says. "It’s not about getting a little snippet."

Operators will watch closely the response to HSM2, which will be shown in HD, though most kids movies are not. Disney’s Cheetah Girls 3, slated for early 2008, for one, will be shown in standard def. In determining whether HD makes sense, "we look for a property that’s shown it has strong legs beyond linear appeal and is interactive and something from an ad sales side we’ve been able to brand out," Brown says. "We know HD is a huge priority for affiliates. A lot of the focus has been on sports and nature programming. Now operators are wondering is there anything in kids programming that’s going to help drive HD."

Play it Again

  • The Trend: Kids networks are capitalizing on viewers’ voracious appetites for favorite shows by stepping up series-based original movies and cross-platform promotions featuring familiar characters.

  • The Payoff for MSOs: Movie and series premieres are a great way to showcase technology like VOD. Plus, promos with kids’ idols are likely to resonate with this audience of early-adopters-to be, who will then incessantly urge their parents to upgrade.

Tapping Kids with Movies, VOD

Entertaining kids is more than child’s play for programmers wooing an audience that’s increasingly tech-savvy and steadfastly dedicated to its favorite shows. Here’s a roundup of top children’s networks and the TV movies and events they’re programming to entice young viewers.

BOOMERANG

Launch date: April 2000

Ownership: Turner Broadcasting

Viewership: not Nielsen rated

Management: Stuart Snyder, VP/COO, animation, young adults & kids media; Rico Hill, VP, programming and acquisitions; Dennis Adamovich, SVP, marketing

Upcoming movie/series spin-offs: The Batman (series), The Flagstones to The Flintstones Marathon


CARTOON NETWORK

Launch date: 1992

Ownership: Turner Broadcasting

Viewership: 93 million subscribers

Management: Stuart Snyder, VP/COO, animation, young adults & kids media; Beth Goss, EVP, ad sales & enterprises; Michael Ouweleen, SVP, development and creative direction

Upcoming movie/series spin-offs: live-action Ben 10 movie, Re-Animated (series), Ed, Edd n Eddy movie

DISNEY CHANNEL

Launch date: 1983

Ownership: The Walt Disney Co.

Viewership: 90 million subscribers

Management: Anne Sweeney, co-chair, Disney Media Networks/president, Disney-ABC Television Group; Rich Ross, president, Disney Channel worldwide; Gary Marsh, president, entertainment, Disney Channel worldwide

Upcoming movie/series spin-offs: High School Musical 2, Cheetah Girls 3, Twitches Too


NICKELODEON

Launch date: April 1979

Ownership: Viacom

Viewership: 92 million subscribers

Management: Cyma Zarghami, president; Tom Ascheim, EVP/GM, Nickelodeon Television; Denise Dahldorf, EVP MTVN and BETN content distribution and marketing

Upcoming movie/series spin-offs: Drake & Josh: Really Big Shrimp, Last Days of Summer, Backyardigans: Super Secret, Super Spy


NOGGIN

Launch date: February 1999

Ownership: Viacom

Viewership: 57 million subscribers

Management: Denise Dahldorf, EVP MTVN and BETN content distribution and marketing

Upcoming movie/series spin-offs: none

PBS KIDS SPROUT

Launch date: April 2005

Ownership: Comcast, HIT Entertainment, PBS, Sesame Workshop

Viewership: 33 million for linear and VOD channels

Management: Sandy Wax, president; Andrew Beecham, SVP, programming; Eileen Diskin, VP, marketing

Upcoming movie/series spin-offs: none

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