Some big names are returning to Saturday morning television: Haim Saban and a colorful cadre of professional wrestlers.
In two weeks, the Los Angeles billionaire's company, Saban Brands, will launch a five-hour block of original children's programming called Vortexx. Aimed at young boys, the slate of shows will air on the CW television network and be anchored by "WWE Saturday Morning Slam," a new program produced by World Wrestling Entertainment.
The half-hour show, which debuts Aug. 25, marks the return of WWE to Saturday morning children's television after an 11-year absence. Saban Brands hopes to exploit the wrestlers' popularity among children to lift the Vortexx lineup of shows, which feature action-charged characters, including those from the Power Rangers and Yu-Gi-Oh brands.
The initiative comes at a time when major broadcasters had all but waved the white flag on Saturday mornings. The networks lost their hold on children as the Public Broadcasting Service and cable outlets such as Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network became dominant. But in recent years, media companies including Walt Disney Co. and Discovery Communications have sensed that there was still good money to be made in children's programming.
Discovery launched the Hub, a joint venture with Hasbro, nearly two years ago. Disney charged the field with new channels Disney XD, targeting boys, and Disney Junior, for tots.
"There is a lot of movement in viewer habits and we see this as an important business opportunity to establish a new brand," Elie Dekel, president of Saban Brands and co-president of Vortexx, said in an interview. "Our focus on the boys' adventure space will be a differentiator for us on Saturday mornings."
Saban and WWE are hoping to capitalize on research data that show children, including a healthy contingent of boys younger than 12, make up 22% of the audience for the wrestling group's core franchises, "Monday Night Raw" and "SmackDown," which run on the NBCUniversal cable channels USA Network and Syfy, respectively.
"Children make up a huge, huge component of our audience," said Eric Pankowski, senior vice president for WWE creative and development.
In an average week, the audience for WWE's national programs includes more than 2.5 million viewers younger than 18, Pankowski said, and about 40% of the people who attend live WWE events bring their kids.
Saban Brands approached WWE about doing the new show. Executives working for the media mogul noticed toys featuring WWE wrestlers were among the bestselling items in the toy aisle, where burly wrestlers do battle with figures from Power Rangers, Star Wars and Transformers.
"We said, why isn't there a show for kids that features WWE wrestlers?" said Joel Andryc, co-president of Vortexx.
"WWE Saturday Morning Slam" will feature one wrestling match a week, as well as wrestler profiles and behind-the-scenes footage, Pankowski said.
Pankowski said his group was aware of concerns about violence in the media. More than a decade ago, the wrestling company tangled with parent advocates over allegations that children were getting hurt replicating stunts they saw on TV. In 2002, WWE received a multimillion-dollar defamation settlement after a parent group unsuccessfully tried to tie the organization to a Florida beating death.
All of WWE programming will carry a TV-PG rating, Pankowski said.
"We are very sensitive to the fact that we are speaking to an audience of children," Pankowski said. "We want to make sure that the content that we put on at 10 o'clock on Saturday morning is appropriate for younger audiences. And we will be baking into our content such as our pro-social 'Be a Star' anti-bullying campaign."
The move marks a homecoming of sorts for Haim Saban, who launched his career in the U.S. by selling music rights for songs in cartoons and made millions of dollars by introducing the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" to America in the 1990s.
The programming block on the CW, a venture between Warner Bros.Television and CBS Corp., became available after the current Saturday morning provider, 4Kids Entertainment, filed for bankruptcy last year.