Not many years ago, the toughest activity children faced after rolling out of bed on Saturday mornings was switching among the three TV networks in search of a cartoon to sustain their interest longer than the back of a cereal box.
Cable TV and Nintendo helped change that, increasing kids’ choices and reducing network ratings. Now the networks are facing perhaps their biggest challenge yet with the emergence last season of the Fox Children’s Network.
For the 1990-91 season, combined Saturday morning ratings on CBS, ABC and NBC for 2- to 11-year-olds dropped 16% from the previous season, despite the fact that household viewing levels were up slightly. Fox trails the larger networks in ratings measured since September. But in the important month of May, which advertisers use as a guide to set their summer and fall advertising rates, Fox’s Saturday-morning lineup beat NBC by half a ratings point, representing about 465,000 homes.
The networks offer differing accounts of Fox’s responsibility for their decline in ratings.
“I think that certainly Fox has taken away from everybody, all three networks,” said Al Carosi, vice president for children’s programming at NBC.
Judy Price, vice president of children’s programming for CBS, the top-rated network on Saturday morning, disagrees: “I wouldn’t attribute any of (the network share loss) to Fox. To say they’ve taken viewers away from the networks is ridiculous. The truth of the matter is, there is audience erosion in all time periods. Viewer choices are simply greater today.”
All three major networks, with an arsenal of new fall programming based on such popular figures as M. C. Hammer, Michael Jordan and Macaulay Culkin, say they are not being bullied by the new kid in their playground--at least not yet. They point out that before Fox formed its children’s network, most of its affiliate stations had been running syndicated animated series on Saturday mornings for years.
“The Fox stations, before they signed up with Fox, have always programmed for kids on Saturday mornings, but they were never added up before in the network ratings,” Price said. “They were syndicated shows so they were tallied in a different way. The only difference now that Fox has formed a network is we can measure those kids.”
The idea for Fox Children’s Network was born in the mind of a station owner, Harry Pappas, with affiliate stations in Fresno and Omaha. Two years ago he wrote a letter to Jamie Kellner, president of Fox Broadcasting.
“The letter said: Listen, the syndicators with strong product are becoming more and more powerful, demanding we give them more air time,” Fox Children’s Network President Margaret Loesch said. “And they’re starting to tell us when we have to program certain products. We as broadcasters are starting to lose our ability to program ourselves, and to control our own destiny. So if that’s the handwriting on the wall, why don’t we set up our own children’s network, and control the air times and the earnings?”
Fox Children’s Network is sprouting fast. During the May sweeps, Fox attracted 16% of the viewers between the ages of 2 and 11, a 100% increase from the network’s debut in September. In June, Fox drew 15%--the same as NBC. CBS had 27% and ABC 18%.
And Fox’s future looks even brighter. Warner Bros., calling Fox Children’s Network a “one-stop shop,” essentially decided to pull out of the children’s syndication market by signing a $100-million deal with Fox in May. The agreement will bring Steven Spielberg’s “Tiny Toon Adventures,” one of syndication’s highest rated children’s shows, to Fox in 1992. “Merrie Melodies” and a new “Batman” are also headed to Fox in 1992 from Warners.
One key difference between Fox and the major networks is that Saturday isn’t the only day it programs for children. Fox counter-programs the afternoon talk shows that are on most network affiliates with the animated “Peter Pan & the Pirates.” And next season, Fox will introduce “Beetlejuice” on weekday afternoons and move “Peter Pan” to weekday mornings to fly up against the stately network news shows.
(“Beetlejuice,” currently an ABC Saturday morning series, will continue to air there. Fox claims its weekday version will be a bit “wilder.”)
“We have stations that are very strong with children’s programs Monday through Friday,” Loesch said. “So for us to introduce a Saturday morning last season was a natural extension of something that is in place for most of our stations. We immediately came out of the chute with a delivery system that far exceeds the three networks.
“We are the only network that can effectively deliver programs for kids Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. And we cross-promote all areas. So you can see the potential for growth is huge.”
The cost is also huge. Fox Children’s Network spent $50 million, including advertising and marketing, for its first full season. That bought Fox three hours of Saturday morning programming--the networks have four hours--and one weekday, half-hour program.
Fox expects to spend another $50 million next season to expand even further. The unusually high budget is considered an investment, since Fox owns more than half its animated programming and will share revenues from merchandising and ancillary markets with its profit-sharing affiliates. The other networks pay license fees for programming.
“Financially, Monday through Friday is the more important time for us,” Loesch said. “It was always our plan that Saturday morning would be a testing ground where we can develop and introduce product. And as we develop programs, we can take the ones kids like and spin them off into Monday-through-Friday programming. The networks have no place else to go but Saturdays.”
In search of marquee names next season, all four networks are introducing fall series based on popular children’s properties. “There’s a lot of presold properties, with built-in audience recognition, on the networks’ schedules,” ABC vice president of children’s programming Jenny Trias said. “And I think that will be the way of Saturday mornings, because of the intensity of competition.”
Among the notables, rapper M. C. Hammer will become a cartoon super-hero in ABC’s “Hammerman,” and ABC has picked up Disney’s heavily promoted “Darkwing Duck.”
On NBC, the kid star of the theatrical blockbuster “Home Alone” is up for display in “WishKid Starring Macaulay Culkin,” and animated sports heroes Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and Wayne Gretzky star in “ProStars.”
CBS, meanwhile, will go “Back to the Future” in an animated version of the movie and place the “Where’s Waldo” puzzle-book character in his own series.
Fox expects to stay competitive with its own recognizable properties: “Little Shop,” a rap version of the film “Little Shop of Horrors,” the Looney Tunes’ Tazmanian Devil in “Taz-Mania,” and the movie-inspired “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures,” which Fox picked up from CBS and will cross-promote with a prime-time, live-action version of “Bill & Ted” this fall.
In April, advertisers reportedly spent between $180 million and $190 million in “upfront” commitments to the Saturday-morning lineups of the four networks for the fall season. Because of the big bucks and the potential for sudden success that a new hit show can deliver, NBC’s Carosi doesn’t expect Fox’s presence to force any of the networks out of business on Saturday mornings any time soon.
“The advertising dollars were bigger this year than last year,” Carosi said, “and that has not been the case in prime time. The marketplace for children’s programming is very healthy right now. A number of new product categories--shoes, microwave foods, those kind of categories--are getting more into the (Saturday morning) day part and bringing in more money. With that kind of opportunity for growth and advertising revenue, any network will be hard-pressed to leave.”