ABC battles Fox for Saturday morning supremacy

Dharma & Greg star Jenna Elfman may be ABC‘s prime-time savior, but Saturday morning has its own Joan of Arc: an awkward string bean of a girl named Pepper Ann. In addition to battling peer pressure, puberty, and her parents’ divorce, the animated 12-year-old is leading the Alphabet’s crusade against Fox for Saturday-morning supremacy.

While cable’s Nickelodeon continues to rule kids programming, second place just recently went up for grabs. Fox‘s X-Men, Power Rangers, and various other superheroes had driven Saturday mornings for four years—until this season, when ABC began to win the Cap’n Crunch set: Besides Pepper Ann, the Alphabet’s One Saturday Morning block includes the cartoon series Brand Spanking New Doug, a new version of the Nickelodeon classic, and Recess, from the creator of Rugrats (all produced by ABC parent Walt Disney); interspersed are vignettes hosted by Aladdin‘s Genie (voiced by Robin Williams), the classic Schoolhouse Rock, and live-action shorts.

The mastermind behind ABC’s kinder, gentler strategy is the net’s head of cable and children’s programming, Geraldine Laybourne, a former Nickelodeon architect who has discovered Saturday morning’s Achilles’ heel: Not much was aimed at girls. ”Fox programs to boys and hopes to pull in a few girls. We try to be relevant to the broadest base of kids, young and old, girls and boys,” says Laybourne.

”You could call it kinder kids fare. We call it reality,” adds Pepper Ann creator and exec producer Sue Rose.

How optimistic are ABC and Disney? Very. The network hopes to beat even Nickelodeon before long. But clearly they have a way to go. Currently, ABC averages 1.4 million kids every Saturday versus Nick’s 2 million (and that’s despite Nick’s reaching 30 million fewer homes than the broadcast nets). Still, there have been gains this season. Compared to a year ago, ABC is up 39 percent in the 2-to-11-year-old demographic. On the other hand, Fox, which still wins its share of Saturdays, is down almost 25 percent to 1.5 million. Among the other broadcast nets there’s little competition: The closest also-ran is The WB, which has upped its kiddie viewership 24 percent to 840,000. NBC, which gave up tots for teens years ago, pulls in 460,000 of the little buggers, while CBS is in dead last with a mere 250,000 tykes.

Maureen Smith, Fox Kids Worldwide senior VP of scheduling and planning, acknowledges the ABC threat: ”It’s one of those seasons where there have been stronger alternatives. ABC has been very successful in branding and creating an environment. We need to fine-tune our image.”

From a business standpoint, ABC’s rise couldn’t have come at a worse time for Fox. In an attempt to take over the kids biz, the net recently partnered with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers creator Saban Entertainment to create Fox Kids Worldwide. The newly minted company just bought the Family Channel in a $1.9 billion deal, hoping to create a competitor for Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, and Time Warner’s Cartoon Network (Disney also just announced its own all-animation cable channel, Toon Disney). But Fox’s ratings are falling at the same time the company is out pitching its venture to Wall Street. Furthermore, no one is minding the network store. President Margaret Loesch—credited with creating Fox’s Saturday-morning powerhouse—is exiting in light of Saban founder Haim Saban’s recent appointment over her, as chairman/CEO of Fox Kids Worldwide. Saban recently tapped Nick at Nite and TV Land president Rich Cronin as president and CEO of the Fox Kids Network and the Family Channel, but Cronin’s old bosses at Viacom are suing to block his departure.