TV ASIA Plus WEB-EXCLUSIVE: One-on-one with Cartoon Network’s Stuart Snyder
Stuart Snyder at his office in Atlanta, Georgia
Cartoon Network recently kicked-off a month long celebration for its milestone birthday at the Atlanta, Georgia headquarters, where Turner Broadcasting founder, Ted Turner, originally launched the network 20 years ago.
Saluting both its vast library of classic animation as well as its current crop of top-rated hits, Cartoon Network is spotlighting birthday-themed episodes from such beloved classics as The Looney Tunes, The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory alongside more contemporary hit series including Adventure Time, Regular Show and The Amazing World of Gumball throughout the month of October.
Q: This year we’re celebrating Cartoon Network’s 20th anniversary. How has the channel evolved?
A: Wow, 20 years. You think about the journey and where it all started. It started as an idea from our founder Ted Turner. It started as a collection of classic cartoons. It launched in maybe two million households in 1992. You fast forward to 2012 and now we’re in close to 400 million households, where in 187 countries we’re not only just a library of wonderful classic cartoons but we make original cartoons that are now popular franchises around the world.
So the evolution has been amazing with regards to the growth and the popularity. Who would have thought, “Gee! Cartoons would be so popular for so many.” But Ted did, had a vision, shared that vision and this is where we sit 20 years later.
Q: As you celebrate 20 years, could you share with me some recent milestones that would be causes for celebration this year?
A: Well I’ve had the pleasure of being in this chair since 2007 so in the five years that I’ve been here, I would point to a few things – First of all, partnering with Lucasfilms for Star Wars: The Clone Wars was a significant milestone for Cartoon Network. Perfect franchises, perfect match between a franchise and the network is a significant milestone.
I believe Adventure Time is now our big global franchise, our newest hit. What’s also significant is that we did a series of Cartoonstitute, which yielded us the Regular Show, which just won an Emmy. That to me is a great milestone. Our recent ratings success, where we’ve now greatly improved the ratings of the network in dramatic fashion, is also another milestone.
Our launching of the “Stop Bullying: Speak Up” campaign, I would say, is nationally recognised as a Cartoon Network effort. It has gotten the attention of President Obama, the White House, Facebook. Time Warner is involved, CNN, many partners as well, and the campaign is beginning to go international. We launched the campaign first in Latin America, and we’re looking to roll it out next in Asia, and then also in Europe.
On the digital front, we’ve had a few great announcements. Let me put into context. Digital efforts like CartoonNetwork.com has always been successful initiatives for Cartoon Network. We’ve always been one of the top kids domains – we’re very popular and our gaming efforts really drive that. But what we’ve done through our TV Everywhere efforts – this is the idea of making sure that our content is available to our audience whenever and wherever they are. We’ve done a few things- first of all we’ve started making full-length episodes available to our audience online on a regular basis. We then started streaming the network LIVE to our audience on June 15. In August, we went one step further. We then enabled our audience to watch full-length episodes or play games or do both on their iPads, which we call “Watch and Play” and that was all enabled through our CN2.0 app.
Q: You own a lot of your own content but not all. So if you’re having this TV Everywhere proposition, were there rights issues you had to grapple with?
A: For the most part, we’ve been able to secure the necessary rights to make sure that any show we are acquiring are also available to our TV Everywhere efforts. It’s mutually beneficial. We want to make sure that we expose our partner shows to the widest available audience as well. So we’ve been able to work those out to everyone’s satisfaction.
Q: Congratulations on the strong ratings. A lot of it tends to suggest a more boys-skewed target audience. Are you concerned about not getting enough of the girls onto the channel?
A: You know, Cartoon Network’s strength over the years has always been with boys. That’s one of our greatest strengths as a network. We always try to do it in a way and skew our content to our greatest strength – the boys – but in a way that’s also inviting to girls. You take a show like Adventure Time – Adventure Time, while drawing more boys, also has a very high girl number. So there are some shows that do more in terms of the greater ratio of boys to girls and some shows that do less. But I think we always have to be true to our brand and true to audience, and the strength of our audience has always been boys. I think the biggest thing that we need to do to be successful, frankly, is always be unique and alternative, and to surprise our audience. That is the essence of Cartoon Network. If we’re finding or developing content that surprises our audience, which we first love ourselves, then we are hopeful and we believe there is a very good chance that our audience is also going to love that content. Just by the sheer nature of our strength and our core audience, usually skewed more boy than girl – but that’s ok.
Q: Which properties currently have the greatest licensing and merchandising potential?
A: Well, for us our global brand is first and foremost, Ben 10. Ben 10 is popular around the world – it’s a three billion dollar consumer products behemoth. It is core to our brand, core to our network. Ben 10 through the multiple series that it has, the multiple product lines that it has – and it is one of those shows where the characters engage with the audience so well. And the beautiful thing is, he is a kid that becomes this great superhero but is always still a kid. So it really resonates with our audience and is a really successful global franchise.
The other brands that we’re focused on right now on building to those levels are Adventure Time and The Amazing World of Gumball. Gumball is a little different because Ben 10 is an action show with some comedy and light moments, and these two are comedies. But we’re finding that these kids are really embracing our new generation of comedies, which includes Gumball, Adventure Time and Regular Show. And the next way they are engaging with them is – from a standpoint of consumer products – they’re buying the merchandise, they’re proud of their affinity to the brand and recognising themselves as a fan of Jake and Finn. I can’t go to Comic Con without seeing all the white hats from Adventure Time – there’s a picture of the entire audience wearing the white hats from Adventure Time, t-shirts and so on. So we’re finding that our new generation of comedies are really breaking out, specifically Adventure Time, Gumball and Regular Show.
Q: Since you have come onboard, you’ve introduced movies and live-action as opposed to the traditional 2D animation which Cartoon Network is very famous for. Why?
A: First and foremost, Cartoon Network will always be at its core, about animation. Whether it’s comedy or action. We’ll always be known for that. Through research with our audience, they told us loud and clear they do like seeing themselves on television, they do like live-action. So what we attempted to do and what we’ve done is we’ve tried to put live-action shows and some special events that would fit with the Cartoon Network brand and be successful, and we tested a few – some didn’t work and others did work. That includes our newest show called Level Up, which is on the air now, and it’s all about finding the right show. Kids will accept and have accepted live-action on Cartoon Network but the network will always be at the end of the day, at its core about animation.
We’ve also announced Incredible Crew here in the States, which will be coming out in 2013, and that’s by Nick Cannon. And in the past we’ve had some great live-action shows like Dude, What Would Happen and Hole in The Wall, and they’ve all found their level of success. Another special event that we’ve had nice success with is Hall of Game, which is our kids sports award show – an annual event – last year it was hosted by Shaquille O’ Neal, and it’s just a fun, light entertainment show – kids will vote for their favourite sports events or celebrities of the year. It’s been two years going and we’ve had growth year over year. We’re excited about the third edition coming up in February 2013.
Q: Some of the programmes that you developed – some were successes and some were not. For those that were not successful, what lessons did you learn?
A: You know, the nature of television business is that there’s a statistic that we use in our heads, which is two out ten shows are successful. If you look across the board, across all of TV – the average is 2 out of ten. So we’re all playing some kind of a batting average game, to do the best that we can, to beat the batting average. So you’re always developing shows and you want all of them to hit but you know not all of them are going to hit. So you just try to figure out what works – it’s about taking the right risks. So we took some risks early on. An example of that are two LIVE-action shows that we put on the air early on. And what we tried to do was we tried to actually counter-programme the nature of the kids business and also counter-programming ourselves. And we did that because when I took over Cartoon Network, our ratings weren’t the highest. We were not doing our best and that was recognised. So we said “Let’s really take some big risks. Let’s try to think completely different.” And I think the mindset of taking big risks was right but I think it was just a little bit miscalculated for our brand – we went too far. The two shows, which I’m very proud of by the way – one is called Unnatural History and the other is Tower Prep. They were 60 minutes first of all in length. We tried to do 60 minutes instead of 30. Audience kind of said “mmm” and didn’t quite accept that. They were more, what I would say, action-mystery shows or action-adventure shows and I think they were too jarring for our audience and for our brand. So people would come to Cartoon Network and they would see these two shows, “Mmm that’s not Cartoon Network, that doesn’t fit under Cartoon Network.” And we didn’t draw a large enough audience. The audience that watched the shows, loved the shows. I’m still getting emails today from fans of both shows who want us to bring them back. But there just weren’t a large enough audience. Having said all of that, I’m proud that we took the risk to try things differently because I think that’s the key and that’s one of our keys to success. Taking big risks brought us Adventure Time, Regular Show, Gumball and Level Up. So it’s really continuing as an organisation to find those shows and take big risks. I think what those shows did were just help us refine the antenna to what we should be taking great risks on.
Q: Speaking about programmes that didn’t fit the brand in terms of animation, I think there’s a certain style and look that you can say is distinctively Cartoon Network. A lot of it is still 2D animation. When it comes to 3D and CGI, there are associated costs. Is that factored in when you decide whether you should do predominantly 2D or venture into the 3D CGI space?
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