The days of the week-long kids upfront are over. It's still a $700 million business, give or take, and the way to get that dough is through cross-platform marketing. But the complexity of those platforms spreads the buying market for kids TV almost throughout the entire season.
Kids deals take longer "because, if I want to put something on a cereal box, I've got to call whoever makes the box to find out what the lead-time is on it," explains Jon Mandel, chief negotiating officer for Grey's Mediacom. "So you're involving a lot more people in the process than just the marketing and media guys."
And he expects the adult market to follow suit—if not this season, then soon. He sees "the vast majority of the business done sort of as you go" and only as quickly as the more elaborate cross-platform and integrated marketing packages take to execute.
On the selling end, it's a lot simpler in kiddieland. Once, there were plenty of children's television suppliers. Now the game is down to three players: Viacom, AOL Time Warner and Disney.
And it's not like there's no upfront. Bill Morningstar, head of sales for The WB, says there will be some amount of business done upfront, even if it is a smaller amount than in years past. "Clients with specific needs have to lock up inventory ahead of time."
Last week, The WB and Cartoon Network jointly presented their new season plans, promoting the marketing theme "The Power of Two." The commonly owned AOL Time Warner networks started accepting joint Kids WB-Cartoon Network orders last year but are now aggressively pitching cross-platform deals as the
way of doing business. And the two networks are starting to share more programming, including What's New ScoobyDoo, Dragon Ball Z
and Jackie Chan Adventures.
Sellers are hoping for a rebound from last year's sluggish upfront. Network executives are predicting perhaps a 5% increase in upfront dollars, although buyers say their spending is more likely to be flat compared with last year. Sellers expect to see slight CPM increases, especially on the broadcast side, where Fox is cutting back the number of kids hours (and leasing what's left in a block of time to 4Kids Entertainment) and Kids WB is reducing its total number of programming hours.
"We've already written some big deals and expect to do more in the next 30 days," said Cartoon Executive VP of Sales and Marketing Kim McQuilken.
If early sales figures for 2002 are any indication, the kids market is picking up. In February and March, Nickelodeon said, it registered its best ad sales in 18 months. Cartoon Network's time is sold out until Easter. Unlike last year, sellers suggest, waiting for the scatter market could be a more expensive gamble than buying upfront.
None of the cable nets are going it alone this year. Discovery Kids is selling time for its block next year on NBC. Walt Disney's ABC is selling for its cable sisters ABC Family and Toon Disney. Nickelodeon is charged with selling its Nick Jr. block on CBS, which is expanding another two hours come fall.
"The ad community is waiting to see what we do with our platforms," said Laura Nathanson, executive VP, ABC Family and kids sales. ABC Family is still polishing plans for its first kids schedule under new ownership (Disney bought Fox Family from News Corp. and Saban last year for more than $5 billion).