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It's time to put 20 candles on a cake for Cartoon Network. On Oct. 1, television's top network among boys 6-11 begins a month-long celebration of its 20th anniversary. The slate will feature birthday-themed episodes pulled from its classic series-Looney Tunes, The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory-and the network's newer hits, such as Adventure Time, The Amazing World of Gumball and the Emmy-winning Regular Show, which premieres its fourth season that first night.
"We have a very simple philosophy with what we try to do: We are always trying to surprise our audience by creating and developing shows that are funny, unique in their voices and something that our viewers could only see on Cartoon Network," says Stuart Snyder, president/COO of Turner's Animation, Young Adults and Kids Media division.
Now reaching more than 360 million households in nearly 180 countries, Cartoon Network has seen an impressive evolution since it premiered in 2 million households on October 1, 1992, with an airing of 1946's Looney Tunes cartoon, "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery," starring Daffy Duck.
The network was created as a home for Turner's vast library of animated content, including the Hanna- Barbera library that Turner had acquired in 1991 for $320 million in a joint venture with the Apollo Investment Fund. At the time, many networks aired animation blocks, but no one had thought to give a network dedicated to airing cartoons a shot.
"The job of the network was to package cartoons in an interesting way," says Rob Sorcher, Cartoon Network's chief content officer, who was the network's first general manager. Sorcher left Cartoon Network in 1998 for stints at USA, Fox Family and AMC, and then returned to the channel in January 2008 in his current capacity.
"The first thing we did at the network was curate the library," says Sorcher. "At the beginning, instead of just running three cartoons in a row, we thought that we would help the viewer understand what was interesting about these cartoons, so we would package together three cartoons directed by [Looney Tunes impresario] Tex Avery, or we would pull characters out of the shows and put them into contemporary environments during interstitials," says Sorcher. "Combining all of that was powerful: The Tex Avery Library would do twice the rating of just the programming on its own," Sorcher adds. "All of sudden, we were a top-five cable network across all demographics."
Upon his return, Sorcher also initiated the "Cartoonstitute" at Cartoon Network Studios (established in 2000 and based in Burbank, Calif.) to help nurture a new generation of animators who could create "homegrown" hits for the network. Those efforts developed the network's current hits, Adventure Time and Regular Show, which over this past summer led Cartoon Network to its best performance ever in early primetime among kids 6-11 and kids 9-14.
By 1994, Cartoon Network executives decided it was time to expand into original content, adding shows over the next few years such as Space Ghost Coast to Coast, The Powerpuff Girls, Cow & Chicken, Dexter's Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Ed, Edd n Eddy, and Courage the Cowardly Dog.
"Shows like Dexter's Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls had a really specific point of view," says Sorcher. "Those two shows became the foundation for a lot of things."
Other shows, such as Space Ghost, made it clear that there was an older audience for animation as well. To take advantage of that, Cartoon Network launched Adult Swim in 2001. Adult Swim made use of later hours on the network when kids weren't watching, airing quirky original shows such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.
By 2005, Adult Swim-with added acquired shows such as Twentieth's Family Guy, American Dad and King of the Hill-had become so successful on its own that Turner split the block from Cartoon Network so that Nielsen could provide separate ratings for it.
Eleven years after its founding, Adult Swim airs nine hours each broadcast day and is basic cable's top network for total-day delivery of young adults 18-34 and 18-49, as well as for men 18-34, according to Turner.
In its latest programming evolution, Cartoon Network has been trying its hand at live-action.
"Kids told us they wanted more diverse content and that they wanted to see more of themselves on our air," said Snyder. "Our core will always be animation, but it is also important to have an ongoing dialogue with your viewer and listen to what they are telling you."
To that end in 2009, Cartoon Network added a live-action block of alternative programming that included shows such as Dude, What Would Happen; Hole in the Wall; Destroy Build Destroy; and more recently, the scripted series Level Up, about a group of kids who find themselves in between the two worlds of a video game and real life.
"Level Up has the feel of Cartoon Network," says Snyder. "It's got lots of action and adventure, but it's also funny."
Cracking the liveaction nut is still a work in progress. But with the success of Level Up, Cartoon Network will next premiere Incredible Crew, a live-action sketch comedy show from Nick Cannon.
The network also has had success with its kids' sports awards show, Hall of Game, which grew 74% in its second year to 2.6 million viewers and tripled the number of votes on its website at HallofGame.com. "When we are thinking about what boys are interested in, sports is high on the radar screen," says Snyder. "Because of the sports element, Hall of Game really is a firstof- its kind awards show for kids with great musical performances and surprise moments that have that Cartoon Network DNA."
With a solid foundation laid in early prime, Cartoon Network now is looking to build for the future.
"All of these shows are created by great new talent that we helped nurture," says Snyder. "These are very new, funny voices for today's generation of kids."
In mid-September, the network announced plans to expand on that success, green-lighting Steven Universe, from Adventure Time writer and artist Rebecca Sugar, and Uncle Grandpa, from Pete Browngardt, who's also worked on Adventure Time, as well as Chowder, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack and Secret Mountain Fort Awesome.
On Sept. 4, Cartoon Network premiered its latest series, Dreamworks' Dragons: Riders of Berk, based on Dreamworks' hit movie, How to Train Your Dragon. The animated series looks and sounds almost exactly like the film, with most of the original voice talent in place, and picks up right where the film left off. The series was No. 1 in its 7:30 p.m. ET time period on Tuesday, Sept. 4, among all boys' demographics, and improved the time period by 16% among kids 9-14 compared to last year.
"We saw that property even before it was released in movie theaters," says Snyder. "The properties of that show fit all of our requirements, and it focuses on boys while still inviting girls to participate."
Another important property of Dragons was that it lent itself easily to a video game adaptation, which launched concurrently with the TV series on the network's website, CartoonNetwork.com.
"I feel very proud of that game," says Paul Condolora, Turner senior vice president of digital and consumer products for animation, young adults and kids' media. "The key to that movie is all about the thrill of riding a dragon, so we wondered, ‘How can we recreate that visceral thrill through a game?' That was the hook that we focused on, creating a series of quests around riding the dragon to give the game depth."
Part of Cartoon Network's success is that it understands boys' need to connect with content through interactivity. That connection often happens via online games or additional content at CartoonNetwork.com, which the network launched in 1998 to an audience of 4 million visitors in its first week.
Since then, CartoonNetwork.com has become a destination for series-related video games with more than 250 offerings available on the site.
"Our audience expects to find gaming," says Condolora. "That's been our focus since we started adding games to the website back in 2000. We've parlayed that success over time and innovated from single-player and multiplayer games to immersive games, mobile games and console games. That's what we're known for and that's what kids expect from us. It's a great marriage between our platform, which is of course interactive, and the brand. We've always believed our brand translated very well in the digital space."
Like its parent network, CartoonNetwork.com is the top-ranked kids' domain among kids 6-11, according to comScore. In 2012, the site has had more than 721 million game plays and 9.1 million unique site visits per month. Cartoon Network also boasts more than 11 million fans on Facebook.
Gaming gives Cartoon Network a good point of connectivity, but the network is also working hard to maintain its status as the go-to TV site for boys. One of the ways Cartoon Network expects to do that is by offering live streaming.
"One of our core strategies is allowing viewers to access our content wherever they are and whenever they want," says Snyder.
In June, Cartoon Network started streaming the network live online at CartoonNetwork.com and on mobile devices such as the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad. Viewers log in on the website or via an app and are authenticated through their television content provider, which is part of Time Warner's TV Everywhere initiative.
"Kids are clearly gravitating to these platforms, whether [through] tablets or mobile devices," says Jeremy Legg, Turner Network Sales senior vice president of business development and multi-platform distribution, who also helped launch CNN's live stream.
"We think initiatives such as Cartoon Network's live stream supports the broader cable ecosystem," Legg continues. "We want people who subscribe to cable television to have access to our content on those platforms, and we don't want people to have to pay an incremental fee to access it."
Similarly, earlier this fall, Cartoon Network launched its new iPad app, CN 2.0, which allows users to watch the network's live streams and play games at the same time.
"One kid wrote to us and said: ‘You've recognized my genius,'" says Condolora. "All of us here have kids, and we all know that they play games while they watch TV. We did a lot of focus groups and they quickly showed that it made sense to converge these two aspects of Cartoon Network."
FOR A GOOD CAUSE
Looking past its content and at its audience, Cartoon Network also is investing in social causes that affect kids. Over the past few years, it's launched the "Stop Bullying: Speak Up" campaign, as well as "Move It Movement," to encourage kids to focus on fitness.
"The Stop Bullying campaign came from our audience," says Snyder. "Kids told us that bullying was something they felt they could do something about if they were provided the tools."
Cartoon Network launched the Stop Bullying initiative on Oct. 4, 2010, in conjunction with the fifth annual National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month and National Bullying Prevention Awareness Day. The initiative uses on-air spots to direct viewers to online resources at www.StopBullyingSpeakUp.com that teach kids to work with adults on how to effectively speak up against bullying, as well as partnering locally with cable affiliates to spread the word in their markets about this important pro-social initiative.
Beyond the online campaign, Cartoon Network worked hand in hand with CNN, Time Inc. and Facebook on a series of online and print editorial features, two Anderson Cooper 360 Town Hall specials starring celebrities such as Dr. Phil McGraw, Live!'s Kelly Ripa, Glee's Jane Lynch and author and bullying expert Rosalind Wiseman, as well as their own special called, Speak Up!
The Move It Movement campaign, launched more recently in conjunction with the White House's "Let's Move" initiative to combat childhood obesity, went on tour across the United States over the summer, partnering with the local cable affiliate in each market, encouraging kids everywhere to get outside and get active.
All of it-from the quirky original programming, to the expansion into live action, to the investment in online and gaming-is designed to grow Cartoon Network as a global brand over its next 20 years, and keep evolving in the same way that its young, imaginative viewers change with the times.
"Our audience is living in expanded environments [beyond] just linear television," says Snyder. "It's all about growing our brands and growing our shows."
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