The Parent Trap

It’s no secret that some of the highest rated shows in the multichannel universe are targeted to kids. Episodes of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants and The Fairly OddParents occupied eight of the top 20 most watched programs in terms of household ratings during the month of April 2004, according to an ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research first-quarter data.

But the kids shows owe their lofty success to a somewhat hidden segment of their viewing population: adults. Whether they’re watching with toddlers during the day, with tweens in early fringe or unabashedly on their own, adults viewers are apparently not too old or ashamed to tune into kids programming fare.

And that, in turn, is reflected in some of the adult-oriented promotions for the kid channels’ shows, as well as the type of advertisers they’re attracting.

While the majority of viewing for each network comes from respective todder/tween/teen viewers, network executives say that a significant amount of their everyday audience base is made up of adults.

During the first quarter 2004, for example, Nickelodeon drew an impressive average of 566,000 adults 18-49 in primetime, more than adult-targeted networks Comedy Central and The History Channel. Disney Channel and Cartoon Network averaged 406,000 and 321,000 viewers, respectively, within the key adult demo, good enough to best such adult-skewing networks as Black Entertainment Television, Bravo and E! Entertainment Television.

Adult-driven viewers, along with strong kids audiences, have helped keep all three services consistently among the top 10 rated primetime networks each month.

But why are so many adults choosing to watch kids programming?

Network executives say much of the adult audience comes from co-viewing with their offspring. Nickelodeon executive vice president Cyma Zarghami estimates that about one-third of the network’s daytime audience is from adults watching Nick Jr. pre-school programming with their toddlers.

Nickelodeon’s sister service Noggin/Nick at Nite also generates a significant amount of co-viewing for its 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. block of pre-school programming, according to Noggin general manager Tom Ascheim.

“Of the people who watch Noggin, about 54% are pre-schoolers 2 to 5, and 40% are adults 18 plus, so over 90% of our audience are pre-schoolers or accompanying adults,” says Ascheim. “There’s a lot of lap time between parents and their kids who watch the network.”

In the evenings, that Nickelodeon’s adult-viewing percentage holds up for the network’s tween-targeted shows like Spongebob SquarePants and Fairly Odd Parents. Nickelodeon’s Zarghami says the phenomenon of adults watching Nick’s kids-targeted, animated programming really began in the 1990s with the debut of the one of the network’s first breakout series, Rugrats.

The Rugrats, which played at 7:30 p.m. for many years, laid the groundwork for the kind of co-viewing that we get,” says Zarghami. “Whether it was before or after dinner, families sat down together with Rugrats, and there was enough in the [show] for everybody that it generated quite a bit of adult viewing and co-viewing.”


The Disney Channel is seeing similar co-viewing experiences with such tween and teen targeted, live-action series as That’s So Raven, Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens.

While the shows are first and foremost targeted toward kids, Disney Channel Worldwide president Rich Ross said the family-oriented theme that runs through most of its series and movies has lured adult viewers to the network to watch with their kids.

“We try to do kids and family programming that’s innately appealing to kids [and adults],” says Ross.

For Cartoon Network, it’s the lure of animation that has both kids and adults tuning into the channel, says Jim Samples, executive vice president and general manager, Cartoon Network Worldwide.

“We have animation that is made for kids, but it’s one of those genres that has always appealed to lots of people,” he says. “The classic Looney Tunes and other cartoons were made for adults as shorts to go in front of theatrical [movies]. They still have that appeal among adults, but they were written to have that slapstick humor that appeals to kids.”

Cartoon also attracts a significant amount of adults to its latenight Adult Swim block of programming targeted to young adults, which ultimately comprises one-third of the network’s adult audience.

“What we’re seeing today with Adult Swim is that we have one place that’s a destination for adults, specifically, but we still have a big portion of our audiences that’s adult throughout the rest of the day,” says Samples.

But not all kids-oriented networks are attracting older viewers: Noggin’s primetime tween and teen block the N does not get a lot of adult viewing — and that’s alright with network executives. Only 5% of adults are actually watching the network with their kids, but Ascheim says that the N’s mix of acquired and original scripted as well as entertainment programming draw the highest composition of network-targeted teens and tweens during its 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. time slot.

“The whole reason for N is to be a home for teens and tweens, and at that age you don’t want to have grownups in your life,” says Aschiem. “Parents sort of vaguely know that their kids are watching it … They think it’s less harmful than a lot of other stuff out there, but they also know it’s private time for their kids.”


Given the high incidence of adult viewing, network executives say they are tailoring promotions and programming to acknowledge older viewers.

Disney’s Ross says the network had created interstitial and public service announcements for parents in an effort to make them feel more a part of the channel. “For Playhouse Disney, we definitely reach out to parents, and you’ll see a lot of parents in our promotion and parents in our shows,” he says. “We have families in our shows, so we think it makes a difference because kids and families can see themselves.”

On the original-programming side, Ross points to the network’s movie slate, which often deals with topical family issues and more mature themes that both kids and adults can identify with and talk about. He notes such movies as Stuck in the Suburbs, which handles issues about kids and parents adjusting to new environments, and this August’s debut of Tiger Cruise, which chronicles a father/daughter relationship against the backdrop of the Sept. 11th terror attacks in New York City.

“When we look at it, we know and try to send a message to adults — whether it’s in key art [or] promos — that they’re part of the message,” Ross says. “If you don’t tell them, then [adults] will say that’s just for my kids.”

But, ultimately, Zarghami says it’s the quality of the product that attracts adult viewers. She says that the succinct dialog from such network series as Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius can both stimulate adult interest while keeping younger audiences interested.

“If you look at any show that has been a success with adults it’s been because of the writing,” she says. “I think people have an inherent attraction to good writing.”

Ross adds: “I believe that good comedy appeals to a multiplicity of ages and differences. We’re not looking to make shows that work for just adults or just kids; we are looking to make shows that work for families, but focused through the kids’ point of view.”

While Cartoon Network draws most of its advertising from sponsors trying to reach kids, it does get a decent amount of adult-targeted advertisers as well.

“We have automotive and telecommunications ads that might appear at any time of the day, not just during Adult Swim, which is targeted to young adults,” says Samples.

Nickelodeon also attracts, non-kid advertisers, but it’s not a main part of its business plan. “We are always pursuing non-kid categories, partly because we think the kids have a lot of influence in families and we also do believe there is a lot of co-viewing going on,” says Zarghami. “But we have and always will be clear about our objectives to be kids first. [Adult advertisers] are an added benefit but I don’t think it’s a business objective necessarily.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.