A Children's Channel Retools
New York Times
October 10, 2010
With imports of European cartoons, a smattering of Hasbro ads and a rerun of the movie “Garfield,” Hasbro and Discovery Communications unveiled a new television brand for children on Sunday, called The Hub.
Over time, the two companies hope to prove that there is room for a fourth player alongside Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and the Cartoon Network, the three heavyweights of children’s TV, said David M. Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery Communications.
“If the cable industry can support 30 channels that are successful in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic” — and he says it does — “then there’s room for us in the 15-and-under demographic,” he said.
Taking advantage of the unusual date — 10/10/10 — The Hub started at 10 a.m. Eastern time, replacing Discovery Kids onchannellineupsacross the country. At every programming break Sunday afternoon, a commercial for The Hub called it “a new network for kids and their families,” with an announcer adding, “Welcome!”
Gaining the attention of families will be a daunting task for Margaret A. Loesch, The Hub’s chief executive. Her ammunition includes shows based on Hasbro toys, like “Transformers Prime” and “My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic;” a new series from the “Goosebumps” author R. L. Stine; and “Family Game Night,” a game show that shares its name with a Hasbro-branded video game.
The promotion of Hasbro products brought the channel some early scrutiny from critics who said it further commercialized the children’s TV landscape. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood called the channel an “infomercial” before it started, and organizers there said they would be monitoring the content closely.
Investors, too, will be keeping an eye on the joint venture, to see if Hasbro’s toy sales are sufficiently bolstered by the new programming.
But first, the programs will have to find an audience.
“I think there are valid questions about whether or not this programming will have the ability to be competitive with the incumbents,” said Anthony DiClemente, a media analyst for Barclays Capital, adding that Nickelodeon, Disney and Cartoon are already “very well positioned” in the marketplace.
There are other players in the market as well. Last year the Walt Disney Company retooled Toon Disney as Disney XD, catering to boys because its main Disney Channel has a higher concentration of girls.
Also last year, the parent of Nickelodeon, Viacom, renamed two of its smaller, narrowly focused channels for children, with The N becoming TeenNick and Noggin becoming Nick Jr.
The Hub is a significant retooling of Discovery Kids, a channel available in about 60 million homes that had withered within the portfolio of Discovery Communications, which owns Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet and co-owns the forthcoming OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.
Discovery Kids came onto television after Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, and it never found a competitive footing. It earned less than 10 cents per subscriber from cable and satellite companies, and most of its ads were of the low-rent direct-response variety.
“We were really lying in wait,” said Mr. Zaslav, who determined that he needed a business partner in the children’s market, and last year found an eager one in Hasbro, which paid $300 million for a 50 percent stake in the channel. To run the new entity, the companies hired Ms. Loesch, an experienced children’s programmer whose hits have included “The Smurfs,” “Animaniacs,” “Goosebumps,” “X-Men” and “Bear in the Big Blue House.”
Advertisers “know Margaret well, and she has won before,” Mr. Zaslav said, adding later, “We’re betting on Margaret that she can do it again.”
Ms. Loesch said children are “loyal to their favorites” on television, “but they’re quick adapters.” There, she sees an opportunity.
Young viewers will stick with certain mainstays, like “SpongeBob SquarePants” on Nickelodeon and “Phineas and Ferb” on the Disney Channel, she predicted, but they will give new shows a chance because “they will drop very quickly the shows that they are only moderately interested in.”
She is bullish about the prospects for “Family Game Night” because its game show format encourages a shared viewing experience, and for “R. L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour: The Series” because the mystery-horror genre has been “underserved for a while.”
Mr. Stine said the “Haunting Hour” episodes were based on a short story collection. “We’ve stepped up the scares for a new generation of kids,” he said in an e-mail message.
Imported and acquired series, family movies like “Garfield” and reruns of classic shows like “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” will help fill out the daily schedule. The Hub also picked up reruns of “Meerkat Manor” from its sister channel, Animal Planet.
Promoting the 10/10/10 start date, a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign for The Hub started in earnest in late September and will continue into early 2011. The campaign, by the Troika Design Group in Hollywood, features Hasbro characters like Transformers. Stickers promoting the channel are attached to more than 35 million Hasbro toy boxes, Mr. Zaslav said.
The companies say that they take the concerns about commercialization seriously. Mr. Zaslav said Ms. Loesch “has an impeccable record of defending kids and putting quality stories on the air.”
They are not apologetic about the fact that merchandising is an important part of the children’s television business. Brian Goldner, the chief executive of Hasbro, told investors in July that the dump-truck toy Chuck My Talking Truck would “get additional support” from TV programming, and that the My Little Pony brand was “undergoing a reinvention” both on store shelves and on television.
“The majority of new product tied to programming is scheduled to launch in fall 2011,” Mr. Goldner added.
Apart from the programming, some ads for Hasbro games like Twister and Pop Goes Froggio were already evident on Day 1 of The Hub, alongside ads for McDonald’s, PlayStation 3 and some products for parents.
Ms. Loesch said Hasbro commercials would not be scheduled during Hasbro-branded shows.
“At the end of the day, kids are pretty smart and parents are very discerning,” she said.
Referring to Mr. Zaslav’s statistic about how many successful channels exist for adults, she added, “kids deserve a lot of diverse programming just like the rest of us.”