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Cartoon Network's Non-Animated Push Comes With Risks

A ghost-hunting show following a team of paranormal investigators, a reality series about outdoor novices exploring the jungle and a game show set aboard a fast-moving roller coaster. While the premises sound like something you might find on Discovery Channel, it is actually Cartoon Network that will be rolling out those shows.

And while the network is betting its new live-action slate will help redefine the channel as a destination for youth culture, executives at the Turner-owned network know they risk alienating their core audience, a big gamble in any environment.

'Is this appropriate?'

“Anytime you do something new at a network, particularly at one with a very specific niche, there will be a reaction. People will say, is this appropriate?” says Cartoon Network Chief Content Officer Rob Sorcher. “We are doing something that is very different than anything in the nearly 20 years of history of the channel. It is possible that this is going to take a while.”

The new shows will air on Wednesday and Saturday beginning June 17. They include ghost-hunting program The Othersiders, outdoor survival show Survive This and original concepts such as Destroy Build Destroy.

The strategy is to target a slightly older crowd than the 6- to 11-year-olds the network courts during much of the day. The network wants to lure advertisers from categories such as electronics and cellphone companies, which may be reluctant to market to younger kids.

“I think these new shows, whether reality or live scripted, really open up and broaden the audience, so you can be thinking about new advertising categories,” says Stuart Snyder, executive VP and COO of Turner animation, young adults and kids media. “It opens up more categories for us than just being in shows specifically [targeting] 6- to 11-year-olds.”

According to Snyder, the possibility of moving toward more live action was one of his priorities after he came on board in 2007. “We did all the research in terms of what kids wanted to watch, what they were watching on TV at the time, on our network and across all networks,” he says.

It is no surprise, then, that many of the initial formats being launched as part of the CN Real block are familiar, like ghost-hunting shows. As Sorcher says: “That is a part of the strategy, for us, as executives who are betting on shows to work; it is helpful to know that a format has been seen and responded to.”

One of the biggest challenges Cartoon Network faces with its CN Real block is getting its audience to accept live-action alternative programming on a channel known primarily for animation. To that end, the network is planning what it calls a “360 degree” marketing campaign, spanning every platform, in an effort to get its product in front of as many people as possible.

The campaign will include in-theater advertising and promotions, including previews of the new shows on movie screens before trailers, as well as a major print buy in publications that appeal to the 6-14 demographic the network is targeting with the new programs. That would include buys in Sports Illustrated for Kids, Boys’ Life, and even Nickelodeon Magazine. Those are in addition to more standard buys such as spot TV and out-of-home in major markets.

But in many respects the heart of the campaign is online, where the network is expanding its marketing in a way it has never done before.

“We wanted to have a media plan that would appeal to our core [6- to 11-year-olds] but also had the breadth and depth to perhaps bring in 12- to 14-year-olds,” says Brenda Freeman, chief marketing officer of Turner animation, young adults and kids media. “That is one of the reasons we are doing more social networking aspects to our marketing plan than there would have been in the past.”

Cartoon has set up a Facebook fan page, which will be used to promote the alternative lineup, and is making buys on search engines such as Yahoo and Google as well as video site YouTube. It is also buying advertising on gaming sites that appeal to kids in its target demo.

“This is where some of the new innovation comes in terms of trying to bring in the broader audience, some of the older kids,” Freeman says. “Search and social networking to go along with more traditional banner ads.”

That innovation includes D-cast technology, an application that kids (or their parents) can download to their computer. The application lets Cartoon send brief messages about new programs straight to the computer. An icon on the home screen blinks whenever a new message is available. At launch, D-cast will feature host Bobb’e J. Thompson in a brief video clip previewing the alternative programs.

Cartoon is also relying on decidedly old-school technology in an attempt to lure viewers to the new lineup: a fanzine. The network is printing eight million copies of the fanzine, which will blend pop culture tips with promotional messaging related to the new shows. The publication will be distributed at movie theaters, Six Flags amusement parks, the Essence Music Festival, Cartoon Network live tours and other events.