Young and the Rested

Kid shows reign as the king of cable

Sex and the City
commanded a global following. The Sopranos
numbers are off the charts. But talk about cable viewers, and the winner and still champion is kids. That's right. Those too young to buy birth-control pills or worry whether Tony will get whacked are the heavy hitters of cable, especially basic cable.

Kid World
When it comes to children's television, Nickelodeon rules.
Rank PROGRAM Net Kids 2-11 Rating
Source: MAGNA Global USA analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, September–December 2002
1All Grown UpNick5.24
2Fairly OddParents MovieNick4.75
3S Jimmy Neutron JetfusionNick4.62
4SpongeBob SquarePantsNick4.32
5Jimmy NeutronNick4.19
6Fairly OddParentsNick4.13
7S Jimmy Neutron Egg PireNick4.07
8The Amanda ShowNick4.02
9Teenage RobotNick3.88
10All ThatNick3.81
11Yu-Gi-OhThe WB3.77
12PokémonThe WB3.60
13Ozzy & DrixThe WB3.54
16Lizzie McGuireDisney3.28
17The X-MenThe WB3.27
18Lilo & Stitch: The SeriesDisney3.22
19Jackie Chan AdventuresThe WB3.19
20Mucha LuchaThe WB3.16
21Sabrina the Teenage WitchNick3.10
22The Proud FamilyDisney3.04
23Rocko's Modern LifeNick3.01
25Kim PossibleDisney2.93

Check the box scores: On Saturday Feb. 22, starting at 9:30 a.m., an audience of roughly 5 million relished an hour of cartoons on Nickelodeon. Four nights later, about 250,000 fewer people tuned in to watch USA's Monk—basic cable's most popular prime time series.

That's no anomaly.

"All the obesity studies tell us kids are watching a lot of television," says Marjorie Kaplan, general manager and executive vice president of cable network Discovery Kids, which also programs NBC's Saturday-morning block. "There are an enormous number of kids with TV sets in their rooms."

Just look at the stats: In January, according to Nielsen, a SpongeBobSquarePants
episode on Nickelodeon drew 5.7 million viewers at 8 p.m., only about 10% fewer than a typical Life With Bonnie
show on ABC. That same month, Nick's All Grown Up, The Fairly OddParents
and SpongeBob, who lives in a pineapple with his pet snail, Gary, accounted for half the top 50 shows on basic cable. This is not a Nickelodeon success story; Disney Channel led cable's kiddie charge in 2003.

In fact, in fourth quarter 2003, children watched 9% more hours of programming aimed at them than in 2002, according to a Magna Global USA analysis. That followed a 2% dip from 2001. The growth was even greater on basic cable, where kids spent 12% more hours in front of the tube. Nick remains the king of kids 2-11, accounting for 35.6% of the category's total ratings points in the fourth quarter, far ahead of Cartoon Network at 26.6% and Disney at 25.3%, according to Magna.

But in terms of sheer growth, kids are flocking to Disney world. The network saw its share of the kids market grow 36% from 2002, while Cartoon and Nick slipped 6% and 9%, respectively, even though their viewership remained stable. Hit shows like Lizzie McGuire,
That's So Raven,
and The Proud Family
have given Disney a strong base for launching more potentially popular programs.

"It all comes back to character and story," says Karen Gruenberg, executive vice president of content at Sesame Workshop. "Those shows hit a chord with kids. They bring them into a world—they're funny and engaging—that girls want to be a part of."

Even though they watch a lot of TV, kids remain an elusive audience, says Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Entertainment, which produces Clifford
and Sagwa
for PBS. "Kids are much more programmed than they were before. They have less free time."

To grab the lion's share of the audience, some networks have redefined traditional research. Disney hired a staff "trendologist," Irma Zandl, to help establish characters that ring true with tweens, says Disney President of Entertainment Rich Ross. It sounds like a line out of Steve Martin's L.A. Story,
but it's no New Age joke to Ross. "She helps hone Disney's message to kids. We want to represent something interesting without being too edgy," he adds. (To Ross, "edgy" means having strong sexual and vulgar content. The opposite of edgy is The Cosby Show.)

To augment its strong girl lineup, Disney is aggressively pursuing boys. The bait? Dave the Barbarian, an animated show that follows the medieval exploits of Dave and his two sisters, Fang and Candy. It kicked off in January. Come June, expect Phil of the Future, a new live-action series about a teenager from the year 2121 and his eccentric family.

Networks are eager to escape their stereotypes and cast a wider gender net. Disney wants to attract boys, while Cartoon is looking for girls. And neither wants to alienate the kids they've got.

represents Disney's effort to reach out to boys by using a male lead. Similarly, action-oriented Cartoon Network will add female leads. Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi
turns a real all-girl Japanese band into stars of a hybrid animated/live-action show. "This is nothing like live action on Disney," says Sam Register, Cartoon senior vice president of development.

Explains Cartoon Executive Vice President and General Manager Jim Samples, "We clearly want to stay with our base. We think the shows will bring girls, but the audience will still be predominantly boys."

Nick has no such problem, since its audience is split roughly 50/50. Still, the Viacom-owned network is debuting a string of live-action series, including a pair starring Britney Spears' sister and Julia Roberts' niece. "We haven't done a lot of live action as of late. We took a bit of a break," says President Cyma Zaraghami. "We focused on animation for a couple of years. This is a way to balance, to make sure older kids stick with us and to tell real kid-relevant stories."

Will the crossover popularity of some shows reignite broadcast's family hour?

There is evidence that kids are watching certain established programs with their parents. SpongeBob
crosses generational lines, as do Cartoon's Powerpuff Girls
and several of Disney's live-action series. "There's some indication that kids bring parents along," says Discovery Kids' Kaplan. "There is no reason to run from family-friendly programming."

Steve Sternberg, Magna's executive vice president of audience analysis, explains, "Families want to spend more time together, not less." In Magna's TV report, he makes a passionate plea for the broadcast networks to return to the kinds of shows lighting up cable's rating books.

Todd Kessler, creator of Nick's Blue's Clues,
agrees. "The problem is that programmers underestimate the ability of the younger audience to take a complex show and digest it."

But here's the kicker: Kids pick hits on their own terms. Which is why the popularity of the ever wacky SpongeBob
would have been impossible to predict. "Part of SpongeBob's
appeal," says Zaraghami, "is that people discovered it on their own."