TV networks in the ultracompetitive battle for kids seem to be trying just about anything they can think of heading into this year's upfront pitches to advertisers, touting old characters like Bugs Bunny, new apps for on-demand viewing and added awards shows they hope will be watched live.
Nickelodeon got the jump on its own upfront event, scheduled for Thursday night in New York, by announcing a robust slate of new shows earlier today. It said it has green-lit a pair of preschooler offerings, including a "Dora the Explorer" spinoff; a trio of cartoons including "Bad Seeds," about a bird and two jungle imps; and three live-action shows, including "Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Daw," about 10-year-old quadruplets.
The network is renewing familiar shows such as "SpongeBob SquarePants," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "The Fairly OddParents."
But Nickelodeon is also making a play for kids who don't have the TV on, promising a Nick Jr. app that, like the Nick app before it, will let children stream full-length episodes live and on-demand, interact with characters like Dora and play games.
The Nick Jr. app will include ads, a commercial load similar to Nickelodeon's preschool TV block, where ads play before episodes begin but within episodes.
Last week, Cartoon Network announced the creation of Cartoon Network Anything, a "micro-network" designed to deliver snippets of content to mobile devices. The app will be free and won't require viewers to prove they pay for cable, unlike the Watch Cartoon Network app.
Disney Channel is also experimenting with how it releases content digitally, said Rita Ferro, exec VP-Disney Media Sales and Marketing. The network plans to keep experimenting with how it introduces shows, for example, something it began trying when it put the first nine episodes of "Sheriff Callie's Wild West" on the Watch Disney app last November before they ran on TV.
At the same time, kids' TV is following the broader industry lead and countering on-demand viewing with awards shows that viewers tend to watch live.
Nickelodeon this year is introducing Kids' Choice Sports, a new awards show celebrating sports stars, set to premiere on July 17. And Disney Channel will air the Radio Disney Music Awards on the network for the first time in April. It had previously been relegated to Radio Disney and the Watch Disney app.
Cartoon Network, meanwhile, said it has greenlit its first miniseries, "Over the Garden Wall," and is reviving classic characters like Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry.
Disney Channel's biggest programming announcement is the original live-action movie, "Descendants," which will introduce the children of classic Disney villains when it debuts in the summer of 2015. The movie is meant to create a new franchise for the channel, said Rita Ferro, exec VP-Disney Media Sales and Marketing.
Cartoon Network and Disney Channel both decided to skip the flashy presentations to advertisers this year in favor of one-on-one meetings.
Heading into upfront negotiations, Disney Channel continues to reign as the most-watched network for children. It averaged 1.3 million viewers in the 2-to-11 demographic in 2013, compared to 1 million for Nickelodeon and 6430,000 for Cartoon Network.
Cartoon has experienced the biggest hiccups over the past year, with viewership in the 2-to-11 demo down 21% from 2012. Nickelodeon is back on track after a bout of hemorrhaging viewers.
There's not a lot of growth opportunities to bring in new types of advertisers in the kids market, said Darcy Bowe, VP-media director, Starcom. The kid's marketplace has been stable but not expanding, she added.
So kid's networks have been making a bigger push to attract brands looking to target the whole family. Disney Channel's Ms. Ferro said she has seen uptick in auto, retail, hospitality and consumer packaged goods that are looking to speak to moms.
The networks are also seeing the erosion of a once-reliable asset: kids' propensity to view episodes many, many times. That's making digital platforms and a renewed focus on content all the more important, Ms. Bowe said.
"Watching a show over and over is not as strong as it once was because kids no there's so much new content they can get their hands on," she said.