The Biz: WB, Nickelodeon lead hot kid ratings

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A sea creature named SpongeBob and a card-playing boy named Yu-Gi-Oh have helped kids' TV market champs Nickelodeon and WB turn in strong ratings performances during the fourth quarter. Overall, the kids' TV market saw a nice bump in ad revenue from movie studios and toy and video-game marketers.

So far fourth-quarter advertising revenue for kids' programming is 3% to 5% higher compared with the same time period a year ago, according to media buyers and sellers. This has resulted in a slightly higher price for a TV commercial than during the kids' upfront market.

National TV kids' upfront advertising sales for the 2002-2003 broadcast year-which stretched from April to August of this year-improved 7% to $815 million overall, according to an informal survey of media agency and selling executives. Overall, it's expected the 2002 calendar year could end up 10%, reaching $1 billion. Movies, video games, package goods and traditional toy companies are the growth areas.

"The market has been really up against all categories," says Susan Danaher, exec VP-general sales manager for Viacom's Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite and TVLand. "And from our experience this is the first year that the toy category didn't shrink. In fact, it grew."

Karl Kuechenmeister, senior VP-ad sales at AOL Time Warner's Turner Kids Television, which owns The Cartoon Network, concurs. "We have tremendous growth in share and revenue from virtually all clients with business up 35% in the calendar year."

Still, media executives offer a mixed review of the entire ad market. "It's been a neutral market," says one major media-buying executive. "Money is somewhat up, but ratings are up as well." That means, says the executive, that CPMs [cost per thousand viewers] aren't rising because there is a glut of ratings points.

Season-to-date ratings show the WB and Nickelodeon leading. For Saturday mornings-a key kids' programming time block-the WB topped Nickelodeon in head-to-head competition in the growing ages 6 to 11 demographic with a Nielsen Media Research 5.4 rating to Nickelodeon's 5.2. Much of that performance is thanks to WB's "Yu-Gi-Oh!"-an animated show about a bunch of teens who play a card-battling game in which players pit different mystical creatures against each another.

According to WB executives, the 6-to-11 demo is increasingly valuable to advertisers. "You always want to program up, not down," said Bill Morningstar, WB's exec VP-advertising sales. "You want to hit the kids 6 to 11, because you can always get the younger brother to join them."

The ultimate kid TV land, however, is still Nickelodeon, now improving its share of Nielsen's total weekly kid ratings points to 50 from 48 of a year ago. Cartoon Network dropped for the first time in years, sinking to 32 from 35. The WB, which has far fewer hours of kids' programming compared to the 24-hour cable channels, improved to a 6 from a 4.

Average weekly kids 2- to 11-year-olds ratings, through Nov. 11, had Nickelodeon up 3.5% to a Nielsen 3.1 rating. The WB was 35% higher at a 2.7; Cartoon Network posted a 1.7, down 11%. ABC's "Disney One Saturday Morning" was up 6% to a 1.8. CBS' "Nick on CBS" was flat at a 1.6. Fox Box, a new Fox kids' network, earned a 1.3 in its first year. UPN was at a 1.0, down 10%; NBC, with a new Discovery Networks'-produced kids' block, was at a 0.6.

Cartoon Network's dwindling ratings was the biggest surprise. One veteran media-buying executive said it hit a "perfect storm." The network appeared to lose some of its boys aged 6-11 viewership to its sibling WB, according to this executive. Other executives say Cartoon Network, now firmly established, isn't getting the benefit of subscriber distribution gains as it had in the past.

Nickelodeon remains strong because of its "SpongeBob Square-Pants" franchise, which regularly appears as one of the 10 highest-rated overall cable programs.

In addition to the launch of 4Kids Entertainment's Fox Box, a boys-targeted network on News Corp.'s Fox, Discovery Network introduced a kids' educational programming block on NBC. Fox Box pulled in a Nielsen 2.2 boys 6 to 11 rating-coming in third behind the WB and Nickelodeon. Discovery's block pulled in a small Nielsen 0.6 rating among kids 2 to 11.