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Monday, November 15, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Popular Shows On Cartoon Put A Nick In Rival's Edge

New York Daily News

One of Cartoon Network President Betty Cohen's favorite animated shows is "Dexter's Laboratory," about a boy genius who creates fantastic inventions out of a secret laboratory in his bedroom.

"It shows little guys can be powerful," Cohen said.

She can certainly relate.

Long overshadowed by children's TV titan Nickelodeon, 7-year-old Cartoon Network is finally giving the tough kid on the block something to worry about.

After several years of steady strides, the Time Warner-owned cable channel enjoyed a big growth spurt over the summer, with ratings surging 20 percent, thanks to popular original shows such as "Dexter's Laboratory," "Johnny Bravo" and "Powerpuff Girls."

Now carried in nearly 60 million households, the all-animation network was the second highest-rated basic-cable channel in the third quarter of this year, behind Viacom-owned Nickelodeon. With momentum building, analysts expect Cartoon's profits to leapfrog by 27 percent this year to $50 million.

"We're finally getting the playground buzz," Cohen said.

She's hoping the buzz will get even louder with the addition of two more original Friday-night shows: "Mike, Lu and Og," a fish-out-of-water tale about a street smart New York girl stuck on a primitive island, and "Courage, the Cowardly Dog," about a paranoid canine that Cohen describes as "Droopy Dog meets the X-Files."

Looking to exploit Cartoon's rich animation library, Cohen will launch a spinoff network on April Fool's Day. Boomerang will target baby boomers with classic cartoons like "Yogi Bear," "Magilla Gorilla" and "Huckleberry Hound."

"Boomerang enables us to have a cradle-to-grave strategy," Cohen said.

Even with such big-shot ambitions, Cartoon is still a small fry compared with "Rugrats' " home, Nickelodeon, whose estimated $865 million in revenues is more than four times that of the Time Warner-owned network, according to Paul Kagan Associates.

"The kids market is dominated by one player - Nickelodeon - but Cartoon has become an important competitive force," said Bill Carroll, director of programming for Katz Television Group.

While Cartoon lags behind Nickelodeon, it is beginning to narrow the gap: Cartoon's share of kids who watch children's programming - a closely watched measure in the tot TV biz - rose to 29.5 percent this year compared with 25.6 percent last year, while Nickelodeon's share has dropped to 42.5 percent from 44.4 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research supplied by the Cartoon Network.

Cartoon has come a long way since 1992, when it launched with just 2 million subscribers and was known for relying exclusively on reruns, mostly from the Hanna-Barbera library acquired by the network's founder, media mogul Ted Turner.

Cohen, a 43-year-old former marketing executive at Nickelodeon and TNT who has been with Cartoon from Day One, shifted the tide several years ago when she began investing in original cartoons with a contemporary edge.

These are not your dad's "Flinstones." One of Cartoon Network's highest rated shows, "Johnny Bravo," follows a muscle-bulging skirt-chaser who thinks he's God's gift to women, while "Powerpuff Girls" features three bug-eyed preschoolers who often ask to be excused from school so they can save the world from evil.

Cartoon has committed $450 million over the next five years to foster originals, which now make up 25 percent of the network's schedule.

"Betty took a chance on a different type of animation," said Julie Friedlander, media buyer at Ogilvy & Mather, whose clients include Mattel and Hershey's. "The cartoons have a more modern look, with far-out characters."

Kids aren't the only ones watching. Adults make up about a third of the audience and Cohen wants to keep them coming.

Hoping to lure a hip audience, Cohen recently launched an on-air promotion called "The Scooby-Doo Project," a scene-by-scene spoof of the mega-hit movie "Blair Witch Project," starring the Scooby-Doo gang.

Expanding Cartoon's audience is key as the competition grows fiercer than ever.

"People love cartoons, whether they are 6 or 60," Cohen said. "They are a great form of escape."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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