NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- For years, the kids' cable upfront was a two-and-a-half player game, where advertisers could do the vast majority of their business with Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and a few select shows on the subscriber-supported Disney Channel.
But in 2010, marketers and audiences will have nearly double the opportunities at their fingertips as Discovery and Hasbro ready a new network, The Hub, for a fall launch, and Disney XD enters its second year as a growing destination among young boys. Such recent entrants into the space have caused Cartoon Network to broaden the definition of its programming and brand name to include more live-action series in its lineup, while long-time ad-supported leader Nickelodeon is casting a wider net to lure more older teens and parents to the network.
WHAT'S IN A NAME? After a brief identity crisis, Cartoon Network is leaping into live action, but it is still launching animated shows such as 'Adventure Time.'
The newest kid on the block, The Hub, also has the added pressure of what will likely be one of the last big cable network launches ever -- second only, perhaps, to Discovery sibling the Oprah Winfrey Network. But Margaret Loesch, CEO of the joint venture, is banking on more than two decades of experience in programming to children from her days as a producer of Hasbro programs such as "GI Joe," "My Little Pony" and "Transformers," all of which are expected to appear in revamped form when the network launches Oct. 10.
"The Nickelodeons and the Disneys are doing a great job with offering strong programming, but they're starting to age up a bit," Ms. Loesch said. "We think if we come in and really focus on the 6- to 12-year-old demo as our prime target, it's a relatively underserved audience where there's a lot of opportunity to do a lot more."
But The Hub is also looking to pry open Hasbro's vaults and those of other production companies to program at least an hour's worth of vintage content from the 1980s to attract the parents of its target viewers. Joe? Transformers? Please?
This opportunity to program to the whole family is also a key focus of Nickelodeon's upfront-programming strategy this year, as it expands its highly successful Nick at Nite prime-time block by adding an extra hour to the 8 p.m. timeslot with shows such as Damon Wayans' "My Wife & Kids" and the original animated series "Glenn Martin, D.D.S." from executive producer Michael Eisner.
"Through research, we know the first generation of Nickelodeon kids have grown up and are having kids themselves, so there's this huge affinity to the Nickelodeon brand," said Pamela Kaufman, Nickelodeon's chief marketing officer. "We also know there's an enormous amount of time parents are spending with their kids, and through that time the most popular activity is watching TV."
Nickelodeon is also extending the lifespan of core franchises such as "Dora the Explorer" through broader marketing partnerships with organizations such as the U.S. Census, State Farm and The Parents and Teachers Association as part of the popular character's 10th anniversary.
Disney, too, is taking a partnership approach to its upfront this year, aligning the Disney Channel and its sibling media partners such as Radio Disney, Wondertime magazine and the Disney Online network with marketers such as Best Western, Walmart and Sara Lee for strategic programming and retail partnerships. "We're marketers first, so it's important that our partners are fully integrated from a brand perspective wherever our content lives," said Michelle Scarola, Disney's senior VP-ad sales.
And with shows such as "The Wizards of Waverly Place," "J.O.N.A.S." and "Sonny With a Chance" still scoring strongly among tweens, often competing directly in the ratings race with Nickelodeon, there's confidence that the network will still have some franchises to lean on when "Hannah Montana" airs its final episodes later this year.
Cartoon Network, meanwhile, is coming out of what could be described as a short-term identity crisis. At its upfront last spring, the network announced its first live-action programming, and later reportedly toyed with altering its name to reflect its new nonanimated focus. But even as it readies reality-based series like this summer's "Unnatural History" and fall's "Tower Prep," the network has reissued its commitment to original animation with new cartoons such as "Adventure Time" and "Generator Rex."
"Animation is still the core of what we do and will continue to be our brand identity," said Turner Animation CMO Brenda Freeman. "But whether what we're doing is with animation or live-action, we want to become a youth-culture brand for kids."