Networks target the lost boys

They’re almost like an endangered species: The elusive male TV watcher. Sure, they can be found in large numbers watching sports or “South Park,” but when you move beyond that, it’s more difficult to get them to tune in.

In Ben 10

They’re almost like an endangered species: The elusive male TV watcher. Sure, they can be found in large numbers watching sports or “South Park,” but when you move beyond that, it’s more difficult to get them to tune in.

Boys, especially, have proved a tough sell for some cable networks targeted at children. Disney Channel may draw girls with Hannah Montana, but that’s not going to cut it for boys, especially when their age approaches the double digits.

In an effort to bring boys into the Disney fold, the company re-branded its Toon Disney network as Disney XD earlier this year, making a concerted effort to target boys 8-12.

Cartoon Network already has success with this demographic, and this week both channels make their latest pitches with their target audiences as they each premiere a new original movie.

Cartoon Network offers the second live-action movie in the Ben 10 franchise and Disney XD attempts to launch a franchise with Skyrunners (think: Flight of the Navigator for a new generation).

In Ben 10: Alien Swarm (7 p.m. EST Wednesday), Ben (Ryan Kelley) and his friends must ward off an alien threat. In Skyrunners (5 p.m. Friday), two brothers find a UFO, hide it from authorities and take it for joy rides. Both films hew closely to what appeals to target viewers: The sense of a team.

“If you can create a TV show that has the themes of being on a team, it can have the same appeal without it having to be about sports,” said Sharon Ross, assistant chair of the TV department at Columbia College in Chicago. She attended an International Radio and Television Society Foundation conference on Disney this summer. “According to the research, boys are receptive to brands for actual physical products as opposed to people as brands.”

And that means Disney can’t necessarily win with the same formula it’s used to make Disney Channel stars such as Miley Cyrus, whose appeal has been across multiple platforms: TV, music, movies. But it doesn’t mean Disney won’t try.

Actor Kelly Blatz, who stars in the Disney XD series Aaron Stone, also headlines Skyrunners. In addition, his band, Capra, is signed to the Disney-owned Hollywood Records label and one of their songs, Low Day, is used in Skyrunners.

“The relationship between the brothers is what really drives the movie,” Blatz said. “It needs to have that to capture the audience and keep people emotionally invested.”

“(Boys want) stories and characters that are their world,” said Richard Loomis, senior vice president of marketing and creative for Disney Channels Worldwide, noting that Skyrunners makes a point of introducing humor and gadgetry.

“Boys are very much into shows that tap into the video-game mentality of always being able to get to the next level,” Ross said. “That explains why there are many shows in the action-adventure genre: The (characters) solve a problem and then another one.”

At this point, Cartoon Network, which has branched out beyond animation to live-action scripted and reality shows, has the male market cornered, not only during the day but extending into late-night with Adult Swim.

This fall the network launched the second season of Star Wars: Clone Wars and the Ben 10 franchise continues to evolve.

“The key with our male viewers is to blend action and comedy,” said Stuart Snyder, who oversees Cartoon Network. Ross said Cartoon Network also benefits from having so much animation that “doesn’t get quite as gendered in the same way live-action does.”

Since its launch, Disney XD has drawn a large number of girl viewers as well as boys.

“I think they’re finding out there’s a substantial market of girls who are sick to death of the overly girly image offered on their regular channel,” Ross said. “Part of what they found is that boys didn’t watch the regular Disney Channel because it’s associated with young girls.”

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