Toons of the 2000s: The End of Broadcast Kids TV - Part 2
Kids’ WB: That’s All Folks?
Things looked rosier over at Kids’ WB, thanks mostly to the ongoing
success of Pokemon, the resources of Warner Bros. Animation, and the
general oversight of WB Network boss Jamie Kellner. But as Fox Kids was
in its extended death throes, The WB was undergoing turmoil of its own.
The infamous AOL Time Warner merger had just completed.
The new regime attempted to rearrange AOL Time Warner’s vast empire
in a more synergistic way. The WB moved from Warner Bros. Entertainment
to Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta; Jamie Kellner moved with the network
and became the new president of the enlarged division. The new boss
wasted little time in cleaning house, from refocusing TBS and TNT to
axing its unprofitable wrestling company.
Then there was the matter of the kids’ side. Turner already had
Cartoon Network. WB brought in Kids’ WB. The two networks began to work
closer together than in the past; a single ad sales team represented
both the cable network and the broadcast side. Programs developed for
Kids’ WB began running simultaneously on Cartoon Network, and
However, the two networks were not combined into one entity and
operated quite separately. This was clearly demonstrated not long after
the merger, when Toonami “expanded” from Cartoon Network to Kids’ WB.
Everyone is familiar with the Cartoon Network original, which packaged
action animation with slick drum-n-bass, nice CGI, and an overall cool
attitude. Kids’ WB’s version, a spectacular misfire, simply took the
name and CGI and pasted it on top of the existing weekday lineup. It
lasted a year.
Kids’ WB stayed with the same programming strategy that made it
successful. For most of the decade it remained the #1 broadcast
kids’ lineup, although declines in viewership began to accelerate
towards the middle of the decade.
Yet the affiliates began to grumble. The same changes that happened
at Fox were happening over at WB as well. There were no affiliation
switches, but more and more stations were duopoly partners, programmed by stations with little affection for kids’ programming. At
the same time, the advertising market for kids began to soften.
Spending was moving to cable, and the FCC was adding tougher
restrictions to advertising on children’s programming.
As Fox did, WB caved to the pressures – but unlike Fox, it kept the
time slot for itself. January 6, 2006 was the last weekday for Kids’ WB. On
January 9, off-network repeats filled the 3-5pm block as Daytime WB. Fifteen
days after that, Les Moonves and Barry Meyer walked onto a stage
together and shook the broadcasting world to its core.
The announcement of the CW came on the same day that Disney
announced it would buy Pixar and was no less significant. The WB and
rival network UPN would be shut down, and one new network would air the
best programming from both its parents. That programming included Kids’ WB,
transferring over with the same name and branding – no change was made
to reference CW.
Yet the end was near. Advertisers continued to avoid the broadcast
kids’ business in favor of cable. The CW wasn’t doing very well. Close
government scrutiny toward children’s advertising in general began to scare
some longtime advertisers away. Amid these three factors, the new
network threw in the towel and sold the timeslot to 4Kids, the same
company that was running the programming on Fox. For the first time
ever, no network was programming its own Saturday morning cartoon
Of course, Kids’ WB didn’t completely die, it just moved. Not long
after the block died in television form, Warner Bros. resurrected Kids’
WB on the internet. While new shows aren’t being made for the revived
brand yet, various Warner Bros. programming, both past and present, is
available to view. Kids’ WB has even returned to television; Comcast
and other cable systems are making the programming available as an
on-demand stream. It’s not the end of Kids’ WB so much as it is a new
After These Messages…
Advertising and kids’ television have long had a symbiotic
relationship. To a lot of people, the commercials that aired on kids’
programming are just as important as the actual cartoons themselves. In
some cases, they are one and the same – witness Transformers, GI Joe,
and countless other toyetic cartoons. Yet few other sectors of
advertising are scrutinized and criticized as closely as kids’
advertising is. Countless studies have been done on just what is
marketed to children and if it is really good for them.
When it tightened its federal regulations, the FCC set strict
limits on the amount of commercials that were allowed to air during
kids’ programming. Stations can air no more than 12 minutes per hour of
commercials on weekdays, and on weekends this limit shrinks even
further to just 10.5 minutes. To put in perspective how limiting this
is for stations, the general average these days is 16 minutes of
advertising time per hour. A loss of 4 minutes might be nothing to
viewers, but it’s tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue to stations.
Furthermore, limits are set on just what can be advertised. Say a
station is airing Transformers. During one commercial break, it airs a
commercial for a Transformers toy. In the FCC’s view, that episode of
Transformers has just turned into an infomercial, and the station has
just earned itself a hefty fine. The agency is particularly strict
about this and will fine stations even if the network – not the station
- is the one that violated the rules.
With these strict limits, it’s not surprising that most of the ad
money is going away from broadcast kids’ TV and over to cable. The FCC
controls all aspects of over-the-air television, but it does not have
any oversight on cable. There are no limits to what can be advertised or how much can be advertised during programming. Nickelodeon might
have a slightly smaller reach than CW, but it can air more advertising
- and that makes it a more effective vehicle for sponsors.
Overall cultural pressures have also contributed: primarily the
growing concern about obesity in the nation’s youth. The cereal
companies are the most prolific advertisers to children. The cereal
companies are also some of the more scrutinized advertisers to kids. When the chief products being advertised are Frosted Flakes
and Cocoa Puffs, it’s easy to see why.
Remember that key advertiser that stopped buying ads, influencing
the CW to sell the time to 4Kids? That key advertiser was Kellogg’s,
which decided to drastically cut its ad spending towards children.
Kellogg’s is virtually synonymous with children’s advertising. A large
part of its image was built up through Toucan Sam, Tony The Tiger, and
other assorted cereal mascots. If the cereal company was not the
largest advertiser on kids’ networks, it certainly was near the top, and
the loss of ad money from Battle Creek was not an insignificant number.
ABC and the Mouse
When Disney bought ABC in 1995, one of the possibilities dreamed up
by analysts was the impact of Disney on the Saturday morning lineup. In
family entertainment there is no bigger name, and a Disney-branded
Saturday morning lineup would make ABC a player in kidvid with
relatively little cost.
That did happen, but not in the form that many people would think. ABC’s kids’ lineup eventually became 1 Saturday Morning,
an ambitious, all-Disney animated block that featured hosts and a
virtual set. Instead of the adventure shows that characterized the
Disney Afternoon, ABC’s lineup consisted largely of cartoons with a
more realistic focus, largely complying with the FCC E/I regulations. 1
Saturday Morning was a success, and ABC finally became competitive. For
While 1 Saturday Morning was taking up residence on ABC, the Disney
Channel was being reinvented. New, mostly live-action programming
targeted towards an older, more feminine audience began to
characterize the channel. On the back of such shows as Kim Possible, Even Stevens, and eventually Hannah Montana, Disney outgrew Cartoon
Network to become a serious challenger to Nick.
By 2000, 1 Saturday Morning was decaying as Disney Channel rose in
prominence. The hosts and virtual set were gone by this time, and the
amount of new series and episodes decreased each year. Suddenly, a
large portion of 1 Saturday Morning was now “powered by Zoog”, and
featured the name and shows of Disney Channel’s largest programming
block – all badged as E/I.
In 2002, 1 Saturday Morning was retired in favor of the more descriptive ABC Kids.
The new block’s first – and last – significant additions were Fillmore (the last cartoon produced specifically for ABC) and the newly acquired Power Rangers. The latter show obviously cannot be considered as E/I;
consequently, affiliates frequently pre-empt, reschedule, or even refuse
to carry the franchise.
ABC’s level of commitment to its block has decreased to the point
of non-existence. A weekend Good Morning America replaced an hour of
ABC Kids in 2004. The lineup is now entirely Disney Channel
programming, and no significant changes have been made to the lineup in
several years. Even Power Rangers, displaced from Disney XD, is ending; repeats of the original 1993 series will fill the hour taken up by
ABC and Disney are sending a clear message: broadcast is an afterthought. The good stuff is on cable.
A 500 Channel Universe?
You have probably noticed one recurring theme: cable is more
lucrative than broadcast. Stations claim, “There’s no reason for us to
program kids’ stuff if it’s more readily available on cable.” Networks
claim, “There’s no reason for us to program kids’ stuff because we own
the cable networks.”
Amongst executives, there’s near-universal agreement that cable has
done a better job of catering to the kids audience. That’s to be
expected – the cable networks can run kids’ programming during times
that broadcast outlets can’t or won’t run it. Nick can run Spongebob at
5pm each weeknight; Cartoon Network can run Flapjack in primetime. Part
of CN’s initial marketing pitch was “people will watch cartoons at
night; it’s just that nobody else has done it.”
There are more networks airing kids’ programming these days; during
the 1990s most homes had access to Nick, CN, and Disney. Now, a typical
kid has access to not only the aforementioned trio, but Nick Jr.,
Nicktoons, TeenNick, Boomerang, Disney XD, PBS Kids Sprout, Discovery
Kids, and a host of others. Most of the big premium services offer
their own family-oriented channel. On average, a cable subscriber has
access to 10-15 services.
However, there is a catch. While there are more channels, a bunch
of them are controlled by Nick, CN, and Disney. Nick has four distinct
channels, and CN and Disney have two each. Now, most of these channels
do have their own focus. Disney’s two channels serve girls and boys while Nick’s channels serve different age groups or niches, but it’s still
essentially the same guy signing the checks. Even if a subscriber is on
the high end of that 10-15 range I mentioned, you’re still looking at
roughly half of the available channels belonging to these three
This is where things get a little troubling. All of these various
channels produce and market new programming each year, as that’s where
the money comes from. Inevitably, the networks look to their own
individual production arms for exclusive programming and not just for
cost convenience. They want to own these properties. The advertising
revenue that SpongeBob takes in is insignificant compared to the
billions Nickelodeon has made from merchandising and licensing the
Networks tend to gravitate towards these types of properties. As a
net result, fewer cartoons come from fewer studios. A studio that has
these outlets – a Warner, a Disney, a Nick – then thrives at the
expense of the smaller, independent studios that don’t get the best
timeslots and don’t get the best stations. Contrast this with the Fox
Kids lineup of 1994 which included entries from Warner, Saban, Nelvana,
DiC, Hanna-Barbera, and Sunbow – nearly all of them in prime spots.
Is this more choice? Or simply the illusion of choice?