As Cartoon Network readies tonight's premiere of its first awards show, "Hall of Game," the Turner Entertainment kids channel finds itself at a branding crossroads. The sports-themed awards, which recognize athletes ranging from Kobe Bryant to Drew Brees to Serena and Venus Williams, represents another departure from Cartoon Network's core animation programming, yet a crucial next step for a kids network that has struggled in recent years to maintain relevance among its fickle demo of young boys.
Long a distant No. 3 in the kids cable rating race, trailing leaders Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, Cartoon first experimented with live-action in 2009 with shows like "My Dad's a Pro," a reality show about kids of NBA players; "Destroy Build Destroy," a game show; as well as live-action TV movies for its popular "Ben 10" animated franchise. After some hit-and-miss experiments with hour-long reality series last fall -- "Unnatural History" was canceled, and "Tower Prep" is awaiting a second-season renewal -- the network is venturing into other formats.
The network's upfront presentation in New York on March 23 will feature a mix of announcements in the animation, reality and even scripted live-action genres, said Stu Snyder, president-chief operating officer of Turner's animation, young adults and kids media group.
"Hall of Game" represents the latest step in the format remix. "It's a combination of what our audience has been telling us they enjoy and like," Mr. Snyder told Ad Age. "If you look at our Wednesday night block and shows like 'Destroy Build Destroy,' there's an attitude, a little fun edge to that stuff and they're connecting with it. 'Hall of Game' is a natural extension to what we're doing. We're not taking ourselves too seriously but celebrating sports and sports stars, then packaging it and presenting it in our audience's voice."
"Hall of Game" winners were selected by viewers, who logged 37 million online votes prior to the telecast, according to Cartoon Network. Key sponsors like Kids Foot Locker, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Hasbro-Nerf and Sears helped get the word out through in-store and online marketing promotions, and will be featured throughout the telecast via custom commercial billboards and other spot buys.
Child-marketing guidelines prevent sponsors from being integrated into the show itself, but Goldfish will be featured during ad breaks as the official sponsor of the Most Awesome Mascot award, which recognizes the best sports mascot and is supported by Goldfish's own spokes-fish, Xtreme.
Cartoon Network's recent efforts in sports and live-action programming have synced up with the Goldfish brand's pro-fitness and healthy living initiatives for young kids, said Neal Finkler, Goldfish's senior marketing manager. Past partnerships have seen the brand team up with the NBA and athletes like Dwayne Wade. Pepperidge Farm will continue to advertise on all three kids networks where it makes sense, Mr. Finkler said.
"For us it's really about the key demographic that watches the network," he said. "As long as they continue to develop quality programming that resonates with those kids, we'll go anywhere where we can help create awareness of our kids fitness program," he said.
Strong demand from advertisers might encourage Cartoon Network to consider creating other awards shows, said John O' Hara, the channel's sales chief. "Cartoon Network hasn't had an annual event like this, and the marketplace was very welcome to it," he said. "I think we have a model here for going forward works for partners get the opportunity to do something across a period of time leading up to the event and participating in the voting component online. I think we'll have something here that's a renewable opportunity."
But with live action programming taking a more prominent place in its programming, could the Cartoon Network ever have to change its name? Not so fast, said Mr. Snyder.
"I've always said our name is Cartoon Network and that will continue to be Cartoon Network for the foreseeable future," he said. "Cartoon Network is our brand."