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'Tooning' Up the Kids' Upfront

Children's television remains big business, just not quite as big as it used to be. Still, the 2002-03 kids' upfront market outlook strikes some sellers as more promising than a year ago.

"We think [the upfront] is going to be up, " said Nickelodeon executive vice president and general sales manager Sue Danaher last Friday, predicting the market will move quickly once it breaks in early April, a sharp contrast to last year's protracted negotiating period.

Cartoon Network senior vice president of sales and marketing Karl Kuechenmeister is also somewhat sanguine. "The dollar volume will be up a little bit" from roughly $700 million last year — itself down after several years in the $750 million range.

In fact, Cartoon already has booked a number of 2002-03 deals — enough to keep dollar increases in the double-digits. "We're going to take more dollars out of the [kids'] market this year. [Cost per thousands] will grow modestly," Kuechenmeister said.

Danaher agreed. "Given that the supply of kids' programming is down, we see a stronger market. Even if flat, which would be worst-case, with the supply down, that'll force CPMs up," she said.

Fox Kids, Kids WB and ABC Family are among those making fare reductions.

Danaher projected that "42 to 44 hours [a week] are going away — roughly 10 percent of the kids' hours."

That's in sharp contrast to a few years ago, when the then-Fox Family Channel flooded the market with avails.

Discovery Networks U.S. vice president of national sales Ken Ripley, who's overseeing the kids' upfront for Discovery Kids and NBC — that partnership is a result of a programming-and-sales agreement signed last December — is also bullish on the kids' upfront. "We see year-to-year growth," he said. "We're optimistic that budgets have moved up a notch."

Naturally, those on the buying side have a different take. Lead kids' negotiator John Wagner at Starcom Worldwide predicted a "basically flat" kids' market ahead and hinted that buyers will oppose anticipated "modest pricing pressure, mostly on the broadcast side."

Wagner and others said the marketplace has been hurt by the financial woes of major toy and cereal marketers' and consolidation trends within the toy and packaged-goods industries, notably last year's Kraft Foods Inc.-Nabisco and Pillsbury Co.-General Mills Inc. mergers.

But Ripley countered, saying the toy field still looked good: "The mid-level manufacturers in aggregate are now a significant player."

Kuechenmeister said said that "toys will definitely be up," but expected cereal buys to be flat. He also anticipated more spending by video game, home video and music marketers.

The extremely competitive fast-food field and the movie studios are two other promising categories, according to sellers.

To make the ad-sales pie bigger, some vendors like Nick and Cartoon, are focusing more attention on young adults.

Cartoon's adult-appeal, late-night "Adult Swim" animation block — including The Brak Show
and Sealab 2020
— was part of an overall strategy to lure more viewers aged 12 to 34, a strategy born of the realization that "only so much money can be made from kids only," Kuechenmeister said. Indeed, a large share of Cartoon Network's upfront press briefing last Thursday concentrated on "Adult Swim."

Meanwhile, CBS is shrinking its weekend preschool "Nick Jr." block from three hours to one, and adding shows that will appeal to kids ages 6 to 11, a move "that'll broaden our advertiser base," Danaher noted.

Neither Ripley nor Kuechenmeister expected another drawn-out kids' upfront like last year's, which extended into June. "That was an anomaly," said Ripley.

Kuechenmeister agreed, anticipating "a crisper [spending] environment" than the year-ago market, which he called "the slowest ever."

Many agency buyers are pleased at the springtime scheduling of the kids' upfront since they prefer buying closer to airtime, as in the general upfront.