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WarnerMedia Will Push for Preschool Audiences in Bid to Draw Views to HBO Max

WarnerMedia wants to open its kids-content playground to bigger crowds.

Known best for Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, two showcases for animation primarily aimed at young male viewers, the AT&T-backed entertainment conglomerate will launch a new preschool brand, Cartoonito, and work to bring more young girls and family viewing into its mix with new concepts that feature female protagonists as well as a weekend family block.

Executives believe a ramp-up of programming aimed at these aforementioned audiences will bring a wider array of advertisers to the company, as well as big audiences to HBO Max, the company’s new streaming service.  WarnerMedia intends to unveil an ad-supported version of the service in the second quarter. Media buyers expect to see announcements by June. Kids are seen as integral to the success of a bevy of the media industry’s new streamers, with the theory being that consumers with young viewers won’t churn in and out of subscriptions as time goes on.

The programming focus of Cartoon Network “has gotten narrowed over time, to mean a cable channel and largely animation for boys 6 to 11,” says Tom Ascheim, president of Warner Brothers’ global kids , young adults and classics businesses, in an interview. “We want to undo some of that.”

Warner unveils its new initiatives as part of the industry’s so-called “kids’ upfront,” when advertisers consider media focused on children and teens. In 2021, however, the kids market will also serve as the tipping point for some of the industry’s new streaming services. ViacomCBS, the owner of Nickelodeon, is about to launch Paramount Plus, and Walt Disney continues to focus on Disney Plus, Star and Hulu. Those competitors have long played with kids content that attracts females and families.

Warner’s bet is that it can muscle the decades-old heritage of its kids’ properties — built around Looney Tunes, DC and Hanna-Barbera — to build new connections with modern audiences. “We have very lofty ambitions” and kids media “is the foundation of that,” says JP Colaco, WarnerMedia’s head of advertising sales, in an interview. “We believe we will take share” from rivals.

As part of the moves, Warner will overhaul Cartoon Network, setting up Cartoonito as an early-day block on TV and as an option for HBO Max subscribers. One new series, “Bea’s Block,” is devised by Sesame Workshop and centers on block toys and a five-year-old  female protagonist. Meanwhile, “Bugs Bunny Builders” is produced by Warner Bros. Animation and features popular animated characters to pull off some of the most challenging construction projects ever seen.  The company is developing pre-school series featuring “Tom & Jerry,” the iconic cat-and-mouse team, and Thomas the Tank Engine, the central character of several popular kids series. The company has already unveiled some series, including “Batwheels” (above, pictured)

“This will be the biggest commitment we have ever made to preschool,” says Ascheim.

The executive says Cartoon Network and HBO Max will use weekend events that feature both popular films like Warner’s series of “Harry Potter” movies to court family viewing (Ascheim has been placed in charge of managing that franchise). New originals and specials are also in development .

Warner is expanding its pipeline of kids content as linear viewership for kids’ networks has been sagging. The average viewership of kids between 6 and 11 watching Cartoon Network tumbled 37% between 2019 and 2020, according to data from Nielsen, falling to 64,000 in 2020 from 101,000 in 2019. ViacomCBS’ Nickelodeon and Disney’s Disney Channel also saw shortfalls in linear audiences.

Meanwhile, Cartoon Network’s subscriber base is seen falling 8.2% in 2021 to 74.9 million, according to Kagan, a market research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence. Ad sales, however, are expected to increase 3.4% to $267.1 million.

“Like everybody  our linear ratings are becoming a smaller part of our success. I wish it were different, but it’s not,” says Ascheim. “What we really focus on is you have to develop incredible intellectual property and you have to make sure to get it in all the place where kids and families both are spending time.”

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