Disney Junior Looks to School Competition

After existing as a programming block on Disney Channel for the last year, Disney Junior is ready to grow up into its own 24-hour cable channel.

The network, which replaces SOAPnet, launches March 23 and is joining the crowded kids space that already includes two Disney properties—Disney Channel and Disney XD—plus Cartoon Network, The Hub and longtime category leader Nickelodeon, though that last point may be changing. In February, Disney Channel tied Nickelodeon in total-day ratings among kids 2-11 for the first time in 16 years, and Nick’s recent ratings declines have rivals thinking opportunistically.

That makes it not a bad time for the preschooltargeted Disney Junior (the network’s key demo is kids 2-7) to enter the fray. Having already launched a breakout hit last year— Jake and the Never Land Pirates, the top cable series for boys 2-5—it will look to leverage the added eyeballs on Disney Channel as it attempts to move tots to the new network.

“We’re definitely seeing that shift, and it’s clear that what we’re doing on the 2-5 numbers is helping build that 2-11 number,” says Nancy Kanter, senior VP, original programming and general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide. “Years ago, Playhouse Disney was a distant second to Nick Jr., and we are really at this point neck and neck.”

Disney Junior will be at a disadvantage in terms of distribution, at least at launch, with an initial footprint of about 30 million homes – considerably smaller than Nickelodeon’s 100 million, Cartoon’s 99 million or The Hub’s 64 million. The Disney Junior block will remain on Disney Channel after the 24-hour network’s launch to take advantage of the flagship net’s full distribution, though program scheduling will be checkerboarded to avoid overlap.

“Throughout the next year or two, obviously we’ll be adding to that as our cable operator deals are negotiated and renewed,” Kanter says of the distribution issue.

Where Disney Junior will have a head start is on the awareness meters, with the benefit of a breakout series in Jake as well as a trove of legacy Disney characters to draw on through series like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

“It’s always harder for someone new, because they’re coming into an established environment. But they come with the advantage of not only the Disney brand, but all of the other ancillary ways in which Disney can get out the word,” says Bill Carroll, VP/director of programming at Katz Television Group.

Kanter says she wants to strike a balance between series based on legacy Disney characters and building new franchises, citing a 50-50 balance in the network’s current slate of development. In addition to Jake and Mickey, the new health-themed series Doc McStuffins, which will launch on March 23 with the channel, is a priority for the young net.

“They are sort of our triumvirate of really solid shows that we’re feeling very good about and think will bring viewers in,” Kanter says.

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