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In Wired World, TV Still Has Grip on Kids

Television * Record ratings for Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network point to rise of multi-tasking.

September 18, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Congress and federal regulators examine marketing practices and programming directed at children, newly compiled data indicate that television's ability to galvanize kids remains unshaken despite competition from Internet Age technologies.

Indeed, two channels dedicated principally to children, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, posted record ratings during the summer, running first and second, respectively, among basic cable networks in terms of total-day viewing.

Moreover, research provided by Nickelodeon indicates that although overall TV usage increased during the summer to its highest level in eight years--a testament in part to the success of two network shows, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor"--kids' viewing experienced more substantial growth than viewing among any other demographic segment, compared to the previous seven-year average.

With computers, the Internet, video games and other technologies vying for their leisure time and attention, kids appear to be consuming more media of all kinds. Many are "multi-tasking," watching TV and surfing the Internet at the same time, for example.

Statistical Research Inc., a media analysis firm in Westfield, N.J., has also been monitoring children's media habits, interviewing kids between the ages of 8 and 17 about media usage.

More than half the kids polled said they have television sets in their rooms, and two-thirds reported that their TV time overlaps other activities.

"The kids who do have [TVs in their rooms] are much more likely to multi-task," said David Tice, the research company's director of client services, who noted that ad buyers and programmers are in essence "getting more hours in a day" to address kids as they simultaneously access different media.

A separate SRI study has shown having children in a home--especially teenagers--spurs the acquisition of media technology. Households with teenagers present are more than twice as likely as those with no children to contain multiple TVs, videocassette recorders, personal computers and Internet access.

Part of the viewership gains for Nickelodeon (a division of Viacom, which also owns CBS) and Cartoon Network (a unit of Time Warner) can no doubt be attributed to traditional broadcasters' focus on reaching young adult viewers--the demographic most avidly sought by advertisers--in the process abdicating the kids audience to cable.

The most tangible example of that strategy this season involves ABC's decision to eliminate its "TGIF" Friday night situation comedy block--a prime-time staple for more than a decade, with shows ranging from "Full House" to "Boy Meets World," historically enormously popular with the under-18 set.

Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon's executive vice president and general manager, said various factors contributed to the general rise in TV viewing during the summer--from "Survivor" to weather patterns--but that more tightly focused cable channels have also learned lessons about how to target kids and adjust their programming around children's schedules.

Taking Advantage

of New Technologies

As for competing with computers and video games for kids' time, Zarghami said, "We also believe the opportunity [exists] to make the two come together for kids--to take advantage of [new technology] rather than fear it."

Toward that end, Nickelodeon has added more "U Pick Nick" programming--allowing viewers to vote online for programs they want to see--which will run from 8 to 10 p.m. Fridays to capitalize on the lineup changes at ABC. (Some of ABC's youthful audience may gravitate toward the WB network, which has acquired former "TGIF" component "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.")

Though the focus of children's advertisers and therefore programmers has traditionally been on kids ages 2 to 11, "tweens"--children 9 to 14--are also now being recognized as a distinct market segment, and they are actively courted. This includes Fox Family Channel, which has more than doubled its audience within that age group with music-oriented programming on Saturdays.

In similar fashion, Cartoon Network's most sizable growth has occurred in the 9-to-14 age bracket, with its summer prime-time audience surging more than 40% in that age group compared to the year before.

Dea Perez, vice president of programming at Cartoon Network, cited various factors in explaining its ratings growth, including expanded distribution--more cable systems are carrying the channel, now available in nearly two-thirds of U.S. homes--and the popularity of such programs as "The Powerpuff Girls" and "Dexter."

Children 'Have a Huge

Appetite for Change'

As for kids being lured away by new technology, she said, "They take away for a little bit, but kids will always come back to TV."

Some advocates concerned about TV's influence are, not surprisingly, disturbed by these latest findings.

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