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How Cartoon Grows Its Grip on a New Generation

At a time when viewers are harder than ever to capture, Cartoon Network seems to have found ways to tighten its hold on its young audience.

The channel’s ratings are actually up, a rarity for any network but especially for a kid’s channel. Cartoon’s C3 number among kids 2-11 grew 2% during the third quarter.

At the same time Cartoon is growing with the non-traditional viewing today’s kids love. Cartoon was the most-watched network of any kind in video-on-demand, its apps have been downloaded 57 million times and weekly traffic to the Cartoon Network app was up 122%, with monthly video plays averaging 23 million.

Christina Miller, president and GM of Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang, has been studying the new generation of viewers known as the plurals, and has found that to this first mobile-native generation, “choice and control is really important.”

Cartoon Network makes content available for its viewers everywhere. It experiments. Some shows will premiere on the network, favorite episodes can be found on-demand and other content is created specifically for other platforms, such as the CN Anything app.

“There is always a wealth of content up there and what we’ve seen is by putting more of it up there, it increases the overall ecosystem so ratings can go up and traffic in our app can go up and usage on VOD goes up,” Miller says. “In the past, conventional wisdom has been that one might erode the other, but that’s not what we see across our business.”

Measuring all that viewing remains a problem, but Cartoon won’t let that slow them down from serving viewers.

“We really believe the metrics will catch up and there will be a holistic measurement somewhere down the line. But we know the behavior is what the behavior is at this moment. So we cater more to that,” she says.

Monetization is tricky as well, but SNL Kagan analyst Derek Baine says Cartoon (along with its Siamese twin Adult Swim) has been a solid financial performer with strong cash-flow margins and has done well with digital exploitation.

Baine estimates that Cartoon’s net ad revenue will grow 9% to $585.5 million this year. That will help boost cash flow to $491 million, up 11%.

Cartoon’s multiplatform viewing is mainly driven by what Miller calls its core content. In addition to long-form and short-form episodes, cartoon is creating 15-second content for its micro-platform, the CN Anything app. Content created for and originating on one platform, if it proves popular, can be adapted for other platforms.

Miller pointed to Mighty Magisword as an example. Appearing on CN Anything, the 15-second episodes let viewers choose their own adventures. The two lead characters pick fanciful swords to complete missions. If different swords are chosen, there’s a different outcome.

With the series proving successful, the network has created longer versions that appear throughout the Cartoon ecosystem and it will be making its way to full-length 11-minute episodes, Miller said.

Going the opposite way, the series We Bare Bears has been successful with 11-minute episodes. The network has created 15-second bits for CN Anything and 2-minute segments that appear on digital platforms and sometimes “add extra flavor on the air.”

The effort reflects the network’s conclusion that these plural generation viewers want to be able to access the brand anywhere and everywhere—and that the network must serve them even if it means figuring out the business rules later. “We can’t make our problem their problem,” Miller says.

Knowing this generation will also help as they age up to Adult Swim and perhaps to Turner’s other networks.

Unlike the millennials, who grew up during the information revolution and need filters and curation to handle all the material available to them, plurals “want as much as they can get. They can filter it out more rapidly than anyone,” Miller says. “They demand a constant fresh stream of content.”

Plurals also like visual communication, such as emoticons and Instagram. “Whether it’s through a GIF or a meme, they really do find ways to participate with the content,” says Miller.

And Miller says they are also optimistic and inclusive. “Making sure your tone is right, having that humor, having that heart that Cartoon Network is known for is critical to this generation,” she says. “They’re just a little bit more hopeful than the likes of us.”