On October 1, 1992, Cartoon Network launched in the U.S. as the world’s first 24/7 all-animation channel. At the time, Turner Broadcasting had recently completed its acquisition of the Hanna-Barbera library, a slate of classic, timeless cartoons that would serve as the foundation of the new channel’s programming strategy. Speaking to The New York Times about the launch in 1992, Ted Turner was realistic about the challenges of mass reach for the new service in the capacity-challenged pay-TV world at the time, calling it a “long-term play.” Twenty-five years later, Cartoon Network is a well-entrenched brand across the globe, reaching 192 countries and more than 400 million homes. Thanks to the prolific output at Cartoon Network Studios and select acquisitions, the channel has found millions of fans with signature series like Ben 10, Adventure Time, The Powerpuff Girls, We Bare Bears and more. And Cartoon Network is much more than a TV brand today, with a slew of apps that allow kids to engage with their favorite shows on phones and tablets, anytime and anywhere, while Cartoon Network Enterprises has been rolling out a range of merchandise inspired by the channel’s top original series. Christina Miller, the president and general manager of Cartoon Network, Boomerang and Adult Swim, talks to TV Kids about maintaining her portfolio’s success and evolving with the ever-changing media habits of young audiences.
TV KIDS: Cartoon Network is marking a landmark birthday this year. Tell us about the anniversary theme of “25 Years of Drawing on Creativity.”
MILLER: It’s a celebration of the past 25 years of, ultimately, connecting with our fans—that’s always at the center of everything we do—having a global mindset about how we’re doing it and then being creatively driven.
Ted Turner would often refer to us as his second greatest idea—CNN was born first—and it was a little bit of a crazy idea. All of the firsts that have come out of Cartoon Network are great examples of how we think about things. We were the first 24/7 animation network. We were the first kids’ network to launch a website, let alone a video app or a watch-and-play app. We’ve been at the forefront and have rewritten the rules for 25 years. Keeping pace with that and always fulfilling the fact that we were this crazy idea is part of what’s in our DNA. Reflecting back on our 25-year mark, we’re proud that we’ve grown lifelong fans and that we’ve done it with creativity and innovation. And for the last 25 years, we’ve made people laugh. That’s a pretty big thing to accomplish!
TV KIDS: What are the greatest challenges in targeting this mobile-first generation of Plurals. And what’s been most fun about programming for this demographic?
MILLER: Each challenge brings an opportunity. We do look at the world like that. It is very fast moving. We all feel how dynamic it is in this marketplace—the rate of change, the new platforms, the speed with which you’re able to connect with your audience. It’s very much a real-time world. It’s not a day, date and time; it’s not a moment in time, it’s all the time. So preparing for that and being aware of that is both an opportunity and a challenge. There’s not a moment when you go dark anymore. You have to have fresh content. It’s also a sharing generation, so you have to make sure you create a loop that allows them to be part of it, participate and celebrate with you. When you do that, they’ll evangelize for you. There’s nothing stronger than hearing it from a friend, and that’s true with the youngest of audiences.
TV KIDS: And if they don’t like something, you’ll hear about that too.
MILLER: They will tell you. It’s not a one-versus-many world anymore. It’s many coming back into that source. You talk about challenges and opportunities—the world is much more open-source now, and we’re IP creators, so how do you give enough of your brand, your IP, what your fans want from you, to them and turn it over to them while still managing it effectively?
TV KIDS: How has the Ben 10 launch gone? Are there other classic properties you’re looking at resurrecting?
MILLER: The relaunch is going really, really well. It has been greeted with as much love the second time around. The truth of the matter is it’s a strong, successful, global brand that was still vibrant in different places in the world. It had never collectively gone away. What we did was push it back into the global mindset and rolled out fresh content that is of this moment, and we’re being rewarded for it. We see it in the ratings, we see it in the mobile game, we’re starting to see it in the consumer products, and we’re seeing that amplified market by market. We’re thrilled with it.
With The Powerpuff Girls, the original, iconic, girl-power brand, it was the right time to reinvigorate it. The same with Ben 10. We took a step back and said, it’s still vibrant in some places, we should be committed to new content and new executions of this in a bigger way, and off we went. Those are two great examples of it. But it’s certainly not a formula or something we want to do unless the time is right.
TV KIDS: You announced a lot of returning shows at your Upfront this year. What goes into keeping those series successful year after year?
MILLER: For us, it’s really about being multiplatform by design and providing layered experiences. Some of those come out in that very first moment and some evolve. Take something like Mighty Magiswords, which over a period of time evolved by platform and technology, whether it was 15-second, random, choose-your-own-adventure style gamified content or a more linear series that also took into account an overlay of that gamification through collectability and mobile games. Loosening that thread happens over multiple seasons. That’s part of the franchise planning that we’ve been doing—really looking at a blueprint and scaling the opportunity and the audience and the platform. Sometimes that’s over multiple seasons, and sometimes it’s very much, let’s press go out of the gate. Look at OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes—we co-developed the console games and the show from the word go. They were informing each other the entire time. They are a greater collective whole because of that. And if you’re a fan of that show, you’ll like that layered, immersive approach. We believe that we can continue to do that in new episodes and in rolling out more heroes, more content, more games. That one will radiate out, but at the core, it will always be this give-and-take between a video game and a series because that’s core to the storyline and the characters.
TV KIDS: I was chatting with Mark Eyers from Turner Asia Pacific recently, and he mentioned the app that will recognize when you’re watching Magiswords and reward you with a particular sword. The number of components you have to manage on each show is pretty astonishing!
MILLER: Thank you for noticing that! Think about that list of firsts: we are the first brand working with kids that has employed this ACR [automatic content recognition] technology. The thinking there is it’s a hub and you can collect them across everything. It doesn’t have to be collecting a sword specific to that series. You can collect a Cartoon Network-branded one after you watch the premiere of something. It’s a great way to have participation, it’s highly visual and it’s a connective tissue between platform and brand.
TV KIDS: How are you using the apps and digital content to experiment with new ideas and incubate upcoming talent
MILLER: Cartoon Network Anything, which we launched in 2014, was all about that effort. Magiswords came out of that. It’s digital shorts, 15-second consumable content, some of it is brand new and some extensions of [existing shows]. We’re thinking about new ways to build brands. Mobile and short-form creative is as much about extending [brands as] it is about creating new ones. It’s really about rewarding the platform. It’s about visual storytelling and using the native tools and techniques available to us to create a more organic experience, and then seeing how people will share it across platforms, how they keep coming back to it, how they spend time with Cartoon Network video and where they’ll watch. It goes back always to the ethos of connecting and serving our fans. That’s at the core of everything we do; it’s what propels us forward every day. We know that that small device is in everybody’s hands all the time. How do we feed it in a fan-friendly way?
TV KIDS: Let’s talk about Cartoon Network Studios. How are you fostering creativity there?
MILLER: Some of it is that we’ve never lost our excitement to fulfill the vision of this being the crazy idea! It’s getting out of our adult brains and thinking about what our audience demands of us. It’s keeping that streak going of making them laugh, and giving them the tools to explore and express creativity. It’s thinking about the audience constantly, marrying that with platforms and, truthfully, being comfortable with the crazy ideas. The “let’s try this” mentality has brought us to where we are today and that long list of firsts. We’re continuing to do that around VR, AR, mobile content, and looking at the collaboration between artists, designers, content and platforms, at how you can mix and move between those things and [develop] new muscles. With Adventure Time we were the first to come out with a game in VR. That was us thinking about storytelling and building worlds and layered experiences and what’s available to us today to make some of that storytelling different and easier than maybe what was available last year or five years ago. Animation is the perfect vehicle for all of this technology. It is always about exploring and expanding what is possible. We have the creative talent, that’s the starting point. You layer on the technology. Don’t do something for technology’s sake. Do it because it facilitates a greater experience, a greater world that we can build with storytelling and characters. And create something that is rewarding for that platform. What we don’t ever want to be doing is having content up and just pushing it out because we can. That’s not enough. We do pull ourselves from end to end here. By that I mean, whether it’s Boomerang, Cartoon Network or Adult Swim, we’re propelling ourselves forward, experimenting, trying new things, all in the vein of incredible storytelling, building characters and worlds, always keeping our fans at the center of what we do.
TV KIDS: It’s been a few years since the Boomerang refresh. What lessons did you take out of that experience for managing and relaunching brands in this current environment?
MILLER: It goes back to that core goal of, let’s enter the world with a global mindset. Cartoon Network and Boomerang are global brands. We positioned Boomerang as trusted, beloved, timeless, with multigenerational appeal to it, and pushed the characters that people know and love to the forefront. That takes us back to that franchise management, thinking and articulating our brand globally and being relevant. Just because something is timeless and beloved doesn’t mean that you don’t create new content for it. If you look at the three years since we rebranded and relaunched, we’ve moved through the system in a way that is indicative of this moment, not of a library of content. We rebranded globally, we put the characters everybody knows and loves forward, we created new content based on Tom and Jerry and Scooby-Doo and The Wizard of Oz and Wacky Races. We have maintained the relevance of those core brands and then here in the U.S. we also launched an SVOD service. So we’ve taken advantage of the moment, the beloved nature of those brands and the technology to reach our audience and to give them the keys to that library from end to end.
TV KIDS: What kinds of research do you conduct to understand your viewers, and how do those analytics then inform your programming decisions?
MILLER: Research, knowing our audience, is obviously core to what we’re doing all the time. We’ve done a fair amount of generational research. You’ve heard us often talk about Plurals; most people refer to them as Generation Z. We’re looking at what the generational differences are. The audience we serve is the first mobile generation. We’re looking at how our audience’s habits are changing, and what opportunities that reveals. We have lots of historical research and ratings. Measurement is a bit of a hot button with me, and a challenge. We’re in this total consumption game, we’re seeing more time-shifted viewing, and we know we’ve led VOD consumption. We aggressively went after that and now we’re in what looks like it will be the third straight year of growing that as a platform and a reach vehicle. Looking at all of those things and trying to have insights becomes critical. Having a more macro approach has become important to us to look at how we’re delivering content, when we’re delivering it, where we’re delivering it, and then spending as much time as humanly possible with our fans and our audience to see what they’re responding to. And we’re taking a holistic view of the world as we push content out, whether that is something like Magiswords that offers the ability to collect and participate, or something like a Steven Universe or OK K.O.! You take each one of those and look at the insights and the timeline. You see why that show is on now and why it’s successful now. When we brought back Powerpuff Girls, one of the main differences there was technology—there was no such thing as a cell phone [when the show first premiered]. One of the things we did was make Bubbles quite a proficient coder, knowing that coding and technology are parts of kids’ lives. It’s really about understanding the generation, understanding their habits and looking at macro trends. And then they will tell you what they think, so it’s about always actively listening to our audience.
TV KIDS: How do you approach new technology and understand how to use it for your audience?
MILLER: It’s one of those always-be-learning kind of things. And iterating. One of the great things that technology has brought us is the ability to iterate. You’re creating something over a long period of time, and then it gets delivered and goes on air. Technology allows you, in real time, to bring people in and collaborate, to think about how we’re telling stories, to think about what that technology will facilitate. We have an advisory board around technology. We try to interact with as many leaders in as many different spaces as possible to learn what’s out there that we can be applying to our content and our initiatives. Look at the way we developed OK K.O.! We partnered with a best-in-class console video-game provider who was going to bring us a different point of view and a different skill set that we were going to marry with what we know how to do: creating characters and animation, storytelling, bringing layered experiences and reaching the audience. So it’s really about blending the lines between creativity and technology, collaborating wide, and iterating.
TV KIDS: What are some of your upcoming programming highlights?
MILLER: Summer Camp Island was a festival darling this last year; it won a lot of awards. We’re super excited about that particular short and what might come next for it. Steven Universe is of the moment and accelerating. We did great things around releasing the soundtrack, we have a console game coming, we did a music video. We’re looking at the ability to launch new shows in new ways, whether it’s mobile content, AR or VR.