Kids’ channel, struggling to find viewers, looks to ‘SheZow’ to help boost ratings


LOS ANGELES — Television’s latest animated superhero sports a purple skirt and cape, pink gloves and white go-go boots.

She is also a he.

Meet SheZow, the star of a cartoon debuting Saturday on the Hub, a kids’ cable channel co-owned by cable programming giant Discovery Communications and toy manufacturer Hasbro Inc.

In “SheZow,” a 12-year-old boy named Guy uses a magic ring to transform himself into a legendary crime fighter. When evil lurks, Guy says, “You go girl!” and becomes SheZow.

“When I first heard about the show, my reaction was ‘Are you out of your minds?’” said Margaret Loesch, chief executive of the Hub. “Then I looked at it and I thought, ‘This is just funny.’”

The Hub is hoping some of SheZow’s magic powers rub off on it so it can better battle the giants of children’s television: Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network.

Launched in October 2010, the Hub has barely registered a blip in the highly competitive kids’ TV marketplace. It has a few minor successes including “My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic” and “Transformers,” but overall its ratings are tiny. Among kids 2 to 11, the Hub’s primary target, it averages 56,000 viewers a day, according to Nielsen. Disney and Nickelodeon each average 934,000 kids in that group.

“Obviously they have not grown as fast as we’d hoped,” said Darcy Bowe, a media director at Starcom, an advertising firm whose clients include kid-friendly brands like Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods Group Inc. and Crayola. “They have a long way to go.”

Executives counter that although the ratings are small, they are on the rise. Its ratings among kids 2 to 11 is up 45 percent from last year and 75 percent from launch. The Hub is even within striking distance of Nicktoons, which averages 80,000 kids 2 to 11.

“We’re making a lot of progress,” Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav said. “Launching a cable channel in America is never a sprint.”

Speaking from her toy- and memorabilia-filled Burbank office, the well-regarded Loesch, who headed Fox’s kids’ programming unit during its “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and “X-Men” heyday, acknowledged that the Hub is not where she wants it to be.

“It is harder than I ever envisioned to rise above all the competition,” she said. “Kids have access to so much content from so many sources.”

Another problem for all networks targeting kids is a decline in spending by advertisers. According to Nielsen, advertisers spent just under $900 million in 2012 on kids’ TV, a drop of almost 25 percent from 2010.

Advertising has fallen in large part because kids’ networks, concerned about being accused of aiding and abetting childhood obesity, have become much more restrictive about accepting food-related commercials.

To make up for those dollars, the Hub has started running family fare and movies such as “Ice Age” at night, which has broadened its audience and brought advertising aimed at families, such as vacation spots and cars.

But the Hub also faces its own unique advertising challenge. The Hasbro co-ownership keeps some big toy advertisers, including giants Mattel and Lego, from buying commercials on the network.

“There is a lot of sensitivity with toy manufacturers supporting a network that is half-owned by Hasbro,” said Bowe of ad firm Starcom.

Loesch countered that the Hub has more than 250 advertisers and only a couple of holdouts.

Rival toy companies aren’t the only ones leery of the Hub because of Hasbro. Several former Hub and Hasbro executives, who declined to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the matter, charge that shows that performed well for the Hub but weren’t in line with Hasbro’s toy sales objectives have been canceled or had their episode orders reduced.

Those shows include the cartoon “G.I. Joe Renegades” and “Family Game Night,” a program in which kids and parents play life-sized versions of Hasbro games. The former was canceled because Hasbro did not have a doll that went with the show on the shelves of stores, these people said. The latter had its episode order cut when board games became less of a Hasbro priority.

Hasbro President and Chief Executive Brian Goldner denied those assertions, saying programming decisions are “up to Margaret and the team.” Loesch said those moves were made for “business and budget considerations” and not because of pressure from Hasbro.

“They do not tell us how to run the business,” Loesch said. “They of course share with me which of the properties they think would tie in best with their strategy, which is a win-win for us.”

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Another source of tension between Hasbro and the Hub has been the network’s website, initially controlled by Hasbro. There were immediate concerns that the programming was getting the short shrift in favor of Hasbro products. After much debate, Hasbro relented and turned over control of the site to the Hub.

“We felt and they ultimately agreed that we need to make the site more about marketing and public relations support for the Hub,” Loesch said.

Hasbro’s watchful eye is not surprising given how much it has at stake. The toy company shelled out $300 million for 50 percent of the channel and has pumped an additional $150 million to $200 million into beefing up its Hasbro Studios, which supplies much of the Hub’s programming.

Last year Hasbro’s loss on the Hub narrowed to $6 million, from $7.3 million in 2011. Goldner indicated he’s pleased with the channel and pointed to the merchandising success of “My Little Pony” as proof of synergy between Hasbro and the Hub.

“We believe the value of the Hub has grown, we are absolutely on track and have very positive momentum,” Goldner said, adding that he had anticipated it taking up to five years for the Hub to be competitive and that it doesn’t need to be in first place to be a winner.

“We always said we didn’t have to be No. 1 to be successful,” Gardner said.

Not all analysts are convinced that getting into the TV business was a smart move for Hasbro.

“The real concern is, are they trying to run a business they don’t know how to run,” said Jaime Katz, an analyst at Morningstar. “I’m on the fence with it.”

Loesch points to the 14 Emmy nominations it recently received and its ratings growth as proof that the Hub is building momentum. “We just keep chugging,” she said.

And who knows, maybe if “SheZow” is a hit, Hasbro can start merchandising her white go-go boots and her ring.

“We’ll see, won’t we?” Loesch said.