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Nets Eye March-April Start for Kids' Upfront

Now that the annual Toy Fair has rolled through this city, can the kids' upfront be far behind?

The answer: the annual selling season will likely come later, rather than sooner. Some cable-network officials expect negotiations in that marketplace to kick off in March or April.

For years, Nickelodeon had timed its upfront presentation to coincide with Toy Fair, which was held last week. This year, though, it's preparing to stage its 2002-2003 pitch to the ad community "slightly later" — possibly March 12 — said Nick spokesman Dan Martinsen.

For the second year, Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc. clients will be able to buy Cartoon Network on a standalone basis or in combination with The Kids WB, executives said.

Both Cartoon — which is planning a March 7 kids' upfront press briefing — and ABC Family are eyeing one-on-one agency presentations.

There are some major shakeups coming on the broadcast side. Discovery Communications Inc. will take over NBC's Saturday-morning programming and ad-sales chores. And the team of 4Kids Entertainment and DIC Entertainment will assume those roles for Fox.

Last year, the protracted sales period — hampered by a lack of demand and the overall faltering ad market — generated roughly $700 million, down from $750 million in 2000.

Some of the licensing and promotional partnerships touted at the Toy Fair, however, should channel millions of ad dollars into the kids' upfront.

For instance, Burger King Corp. is likely to spend heavily to promote its Kids Meals linked to New Line Cinema's second installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
trilogy, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

General Mills Inc. and Frito-Lay Inc. are among the promotional partners for this spring's Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Come fall, Coca-Cola Co. will align itself with Warner Bros.' next Harry Potter
flick

The kids' upfront should also get a boost from cable-network series that have spawned films and merchandise. Two Cartoon Network staples — the original Powerpuff Girls
and the Hanna-Barbera classic Scooby-Doo
— will hit the big screen this summer. Trendmasters is the toy licensee for the animated Powerpuff
film, while H.J. Heinz's Kibbles 'N Bits will tie-in its new Scooby Snacks for dogs with the live-action remake of Scooby-Doo
.

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius
— a popular film from last Christmas now up for an Academy Award in the new animated-feature category — is slated for series duty on Nickelodeon this fall. Mattel Inc. plans to add to its roster of Neutron
toys this year, while Burger King will hinge a Kids Meal on the skein.

The hamburger chain is also promoting its Kids Meals' link to the Cartoon series Dragonball Z
.

Hey Arnold
and The Wild Thornberrys
are other Nick cartoon series headed for the big screen later this year, via sister distributor Paramount Pictures. SpongeBob SquarePants
is reportedly set to follow them.

All told, the Toy Industry Association has made bullish retail toy sales projections, calling for a 6 percent rise after just a 1.7 percent advance to $25 billion in 2001.

Simon Applebaum contributed to this story.