Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network look to schedule an upfront playdate with media buyers as the obesity flap fades and market dollars expand

By Anthony Crupi, Mediaweek

March 19, AdWeek

Early reports on the ill health of the kids upfront have been greatly exaggerated, according to network ad sales executives, who hope to swap out Chicken Little projections of a flat to down market in favor of a more blustery Foghorn Leghorn outlook.

"You'd be crazy to think that the upfront will be flat," says Jim Perry, evp of 360 Brand Sales, Nickelodeon and MTVN Kids and Family Group. "Food has rebounded strongly, as have QSRs [quick-service restaurants]. And movies are healthier than they have ever been."

Perry -- who helped Nickelodeon kick off the upfront season on March 13, when the kids powerhouse held its annual upfront presentation in New York's Hammerstein Ballroom -- says he was puzzled by projections of a slowdown, pointing out that other than toys, "endemic categories are up in the kids space, and that alone would suggest that we're in for good, steady growth."

A key category that has struggled in the last several quarters is toys, which is clearly a significant piece of the puzzle for networks targeting the footie-pajamas crowd. According to a new report from market research firm NPD Group, U.S. retail toy sales slipped 2.2 percent in 2007 to $22.1 billion, down from $22.6 billion the year before.

NPD pointed to worrisome declines among dolls (off 8 percent versus 2006), infant/preschool toys and sports toys (both down 5 percent). Action figures helped take some of the sting out, as sales grew 8 percent in 2007.

If ad sales tied to toy promotions were flat or slightly down last year, Perry believes nonendemic categories will continue to provide an ample lift in 2008. Like Disney Channel, Nickelodeon has aggressively gone after clients looking to reach parents who watch along with their kids. Since 2006, when Nick did some $50 million in nonendemic business, categories like insurance, automotive, travel, financial services, consumer electronics and wireless have become a sizable part of the network's business model.

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photo: When the Turner network unveils its upfront slate on April 3, the centerpiece of the presentation will focus on a new project from 'Star Wars' creator George Lucas (Photo by LucasFilm Inc.)