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CARTOONS VS. REALITY

Scrambling to regain viewers, the Cartoon Network defies its name - to the disbelief of its loyal fans.

Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD, Calif.

When 14-year-old Ashley Rosario went looking for her favorite Cartoon Network shows such as Chowder and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack and instead found reality programs, she did what any normal teenager does these days. She made a video complaining about it and posted it on YouTube.

"I'm scared for Cartoon Network," said Ashley of Melbourne, adding that she was "outraged" by the channel's new direction and that she wasn't "the only one who feels this way."

She's right. Since launching several live-action reality shows in June and moving away from its animation roots, Cartoon Network, owned by Time Warner Inc.'s Turner Broadcasting, has been playing a game of hide-and-seek with its audience. Few of its new shows - which include Survive This, a knockoff for kids of CBS'Survivor; The Othersiders, about a bunch of paranormal-obsessed ghost-hunting teens; and Brain Rush, a quiz show with contestants on roller coasters - are catching on with viewers, and none is among the network's top 10 series. Only one - Destroy Build Destroy, whose title is self-explanatory - is gaining any traction.

Cartoon Network's audience has been declining for years. From January to August, the network averaged 370,000 viewers ages 9 to 14 in prime time - a drop of 30 percent from four years earlier, according to Nielsen Media Research. The new shows haven't reversed the slide. In July, the network had the fewest viewers in that target age range since May 2000 and its least-watched month overall since June 1998.

There is internal tension, as well, with many veteran animators either quitting or being handed their walking papers. There are even whispers inside the channel's Burbank animation studios that the network might drop "Cartoon" from its name.

Simply being unique isn't cutting it anymore for the brass at Cartoon Network. Launched in 1992 on the back of the Hanna-Barbera library, Cartoon Network has struggled to stand out against rivals Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Disney's new XD network.

"Mean and nasty" is how Stuart Snyder, the Turner executive who oversees Cartoon Network, describes audience feedback about the network's programming after he joined the company in 2007.

The move toward live-action and reality shows with a tilt toward preteen and teenage boys is not happening on a whim. Snyder said the network's research told him that kids want a diverse slate of content. "Our network was 100 percent cartoons, and our audience is saying we also want to see ourselves," he said.

There are financial considerations, too. Although Cartoon Network is profitable, it pales in comparison with Nickelodeon and Disney Channel.

Furthermore, advertisers that used to spend heavily on kids' programming are cutting back, particularly snack and beverage companies that are sensitive to criticism about hawking junk food to children.

Leading Cartoon Network's makeover is Rob Sorcher, a veteran cable programming executive who joined Cartoon Network last year after a stint at AMC.

"All these changes are painful," Sorcher said. "The people who are deep fans don't want it." He recalled that when running AMC, he "took a very bad beating" from viewers who were upset that he changed the channel's old movie format. Now, Sorcher added, "no one would question it."

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