Toon Zone Interviews Jennifer Davidson, CN’s Sr. VP of Programming & Scheduling
In her 15 year career, Jennifer Davidson has moved up from assistant to senior management positions. Along the way, she’s overseen the launch of the Boomerang network and the Adult Swim programming block, and won numerous industry and marketing awards for her work. She was recently selected as a Betsy Magness Fellow by Women in Cable Telecommunications (WICT) for 2007-2008, and was just promoted to Senior Vice President, Programming & Scheduling at Cartoon Network.
We were able to speak briefly with Ms. Davidson via telephone with a brief follow-up by e-mail to talk about her past, present, and future at Cartoon Network.
TOON ZONE NEWS: How exactly did you start up with Cartoon Network?
JENNIFER DAVIDSON: I started in December of 1992. I graduated from college and had applied to several jobs at TBS and TNT before Cartoon Network had even launched, and through that interview process, I met a woman who said, “You would be perfect for Cartoon Network. They’re about to launch. Let me hook you up with some folks there.” And one thing led to another and I got hired as an assistant for the on-air department shortly after launch.
TZN: Your last role was in controlling on-air promotion, correct?
DAVIDSON: I spent 10 years in on-air and then the last 5 years I was in the marketing department, where I still was responsible for promotion strategy, but I also worked at trade marketing, which was working with our sales group on marketing the network to their sales clients, as well as consumer products trade marketing.
TZN: How do you move from a position in the marketing group to doing the on-air programming and scheduling?
DAVIDSON: Well, let me go back. Since the moment I started at the network, I have been responsible for the on-air promotional strategy, and what that means is that from the assistant when I started to where I am now, I’ve managed the group or been responsible for working with the programming department to how to promote our schedule. In the 15 years I’ve been here, the scheduling part of the network has been inherent to my responsibility.
Whether I was in on-air marketing and now programming, because this group has moved with me from each department I’ve been in, the schedule has always been a driving force behind the promotional strategy. My team and I have always worked closely with the programming group. When they were looking how they were going to work with programming and content moving forward, it was sort of an easy discussion to have, based on my experience with scheduling every element of the network, just not the programming. So now we’re putting those groups together. From day 1, I can say I felt like, “Wow, this really really works to have these two groups together.” But it’s only been 30 days (laughs).
TZN: What does a typical day for you look like now?
DAVIDSON: Again, since I’m so new at this position, I’m in a lot of meetings and I’m asking a lot of questions. Surprisingly, having been at the company as long as I have, I’m meeting people that I never would have worked with at my previous job and asking a lot of questions of those people. I’m watching a lot of our existing content, as well as possible future content. Having a lot of screenings with my team and having a lot of discussions with my team about our strategy moving forward.
TZN: Can you talk about any of the changes you’re planning to institute in programming, or what kinds of things you’ve been talking about?
DAVIDSON: Well, mostly I’ve been asking them, historically, how they’ve been developing their strategy because I inherited a team and I brought a team with me, so the only thing I’ll say at this point is that I want to get more consistent with our schedule. I think we’ve had a lot of changes for lots of reasons. Our competition is moving things around all the time. We’re all doing it, trying to catch eyeballs, and particularly with our new shows, I want to be more consistent and more reliable for our audience to find them.
TZN: So will you be instituting any major changes in what’s on the air now? Are you going to be bringing back anything that you can talk about? What kinds of changes in the programming are going to be under your control?
DAVIDSON: I couldn’t say much about changes at this point. The schedule is under my control, so clearly as development is working towards new shows, we’ll be thinking about where those shows will work from the programming end. We just launched Out of Jimmy’s Head, and Chowder is coming this November, so in talking with the development team, we’re looking to see what would be the follow-up there. So it will very much be a partnership. Although we’re split departments now, the partnership and the collaboration absolutely will remain.
TZN: One thing that seems to be growing on all networks is anime. What are your plans as far as Japanese and other foreign animation goes? Are you going to reorganize into theme blocks?
DAVIDSON: The second part of your question, absolutely — the flow of the network is a priority for us and how we build audience through the day. For me, it’s not about Japanese animation or anime or live-action or animated — it’s about the content and the entertainment that’s going to serve our core audience, which is kids 6-11. So if there’s an anime show that’s going to work, I’m going to look at it and talk about it with the team. That’s the mission right now: finding the shows that are going to work to serve our core audiences. Anime is part of that. I can’t say specifically right now the specific shows that are going to be part of that.
TZN: You were pretty instrumental in starting up both Adult Swim and Boomerang. Can you talk a bit more about what your role was in getting those initiatives off the ground?
DAVIDSON: Sure. For Boomerang, I was the executive producer of all the promotional and packaging elements that we launched with. I worked very closely with the creative director at the time, Michael Ouweleen, and we hired an animation company in Atlanta, Primal Screen. We knew we wanted it to be classic, but it was all about how we were visually going to put that on the air. So this idea was of the toys being on the air, presented in gorgeous new packaging but with a classic sensibility. That was the positioning that Michael and I came up with to present Boomerang with.
The interesting thing about launching Boomerang, for your audience, would be that we had to search for the largest Hanna-Barbera toy collection that existed — and this was before you could just go Google something like that. So we started doing our research, but the old Hanna-Barbera building was gone by this point. The merger had happened with Warner Brothers. The building was gone and through contacts, we were told that there had been a huge collection that had existed in that building, so we went and tracked it down. Where we found it, and where it lives now, was at three huge warehouses out in L.A. where Warner Brothers houses all their movie costumes, their archival props, and everything to do with their movies. In one of those buildings was a huge section of boxes. It was like Christmas going in there and unwrapping all these old, old toys, some of which I remembered from my youth, and some of which were from the 50’s and 60’s. But that was really my biggest memory of launching Boomerang was going out and finding all those toys and then choosing what would go on the air.
TZN: Are you going to be controlling programming on Boomerang as well?
DAVIDSON: My group does program Boomerang, and again the promotional plans there come from my group.
TZN: How about for Adult Swim?
DAVIDSON: No, Mike Lazzo is absolutely the strategic mind behind the programming of Adult Swim. However, my team is responsible for the operational function of plugging in the programs and also the promotional scheduling, so I still am tied in to Adult Swim and Mike’s team.
TZN: There’s been a lot of controversy among our fans about the increasing amout of live-action on the network. Is that something that you’re able to comment on or talk about if you’re going to be changing that from a scheduling perspective?
DAVIDSON: Again, our core audience is kids 6-11, and the feedback we get from our research with kids is that they love live-action, they love animation — they just love good entertainment. Our history is clearly in animation and we have no plans to abandon that history. It’s going to incorporate into our sensibility moving forward with animation and with live-action. You can see with Out of Jimmy’s Head that it’s about kids and it’s for kids, but it has our sensibility in it with the brain of an animator. We’ve had a lot of discussions at the network about how we’ll move forward with it.
TZN: Looking back, what’s one thing that’s happened that you would have said, “You’re crazy, that will never happen” back in 1992?
DAVIDSON: Launching Adult Swim. That was definitely an interesting time here. Over-analyzing how our audience would react to that. I never would have predicted that we would have done it in 1992. And it’s been a huge success for us.
TZN: What do you mean when you say “you were over-analyzing that”?
DAVIDSON: We didn’t know what effect putting it on Cartoon Network’s palette would have. If parents would be irate and protest it. And none of that happened. We put it on the air, and it has a different audience than our daytime audience. It’s built ratings for us and it’s opened up other advertising opportunities for us. It’s been nothing but a success. But in 1992, I think the thought of an Adult Swim or an adult-oriented cartoon block just wasn’t even in the purview at the time.
TZN: So what’s your take on the belief or the general belief in the populace that “Cartoons are for kids”?
DAVIDSON: I absolutely wouldn’t agree with that. Clearly, Adult Swim has proven that that’s not true, as has the long-lasting success of The Simpsons and South Park, and Family Guy coming out of cancellation. I would say I don’t agree with that, and clearly there’s been case after case after case of success stories, the #1 frontrunner being the success of Adult Swim.
TZN: What would you say is the coolest thing about working for Cartoon Network?
DAVIDSON: Without a doubt, my two sons get the coolest T-shirts in school.
TZN: What are your favorite cartoons?
DAVIDSON: I grew up a big Scooby-Doo and Looney Tunes fan, and when I worked here in the 90’s, I loved The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Lab. But I have to be honest and say that right now, I have 3 kids, I like watching the cartoons they like to watch. So, we’re into superheroes right now in my house. They watch a lot of Super Friends, and they’re big fans of Ben 10. They’ve seen previews of Chowder, our new show in November, and they really like that. They were a little young when Clone Wars came out, but they’ve been watching Clone Wars 1 and 2 on DVD, and they’ve been really getting into that. They LOVE Star Wars. They know way, way, way, way, WAY, way more about it than me at ages 5-7.
TZN: You’re one of very few female senior executives in the television industry. What advice would you give to a young woman thinking of a career in television?
DAVIDSON: I would tell a woman thinking of entering the television industry the same thing I would tell a man: work hard, stay up to date on industry trends and news and network. No matter what level you’re at in your career, I have found those things to be crucial to continued success.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Jennifer Davidson for taking the time to talk with us, and with the Cartoon Network PR department for setting up the interview.