***This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. ’21 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 313)***
Parents and caregivers will get some much-needed help from the folks at WarnerMedia’s Kids & Family division as a new preschool block titled Cartoonito launches on HBO Max and Cartoon Network on September 13. The spiffy new block will offer a modern approach to preschool programming with its proprietary educational framework, Humancentric Learning. A growing roster of new and library series will add to a slate that celebrates individuality and originality, while championing creativity, compassion and inclusion.
On HBO Max, Cartoonito programming will be presented as a dedicated page featuring a collection of new preschool shows including Little Ellen and the second season of The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo, along with Esme & Roy, Sesame Street and other favorites. Cartoonito on Cartoon Network will be available Monday-Friday (6 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET/PT) and will include Bing, Mush-Mush & The Mushables and Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go. Preschoolers and families can also tune in Saturday-Sunday (6 a.m. to 8 a.m. ET/PT) for additional new Cartoonito shows including the Fresh TV’s much-anticipated series Lucas the Spider.
As Amy Friedman, head of kids and family programming at Warner Bros., tells us, “Cartoonito is our biggest commitment to preschool in 100 years and is designed with modern families in mind. We are not the broccoli of television nor are we the preschool fare that makes parents want to pull their hair out. Our Cartoonito promise is to offer families a content slate of high-quality, non-cringe-worthy shows that lean heavily into humor and align with our proprietary Humancentric Learning framework which encourages preschoolers to embrace their own uniqueness and treat others with compassion, respect and fairness.”
A Mix of Classics and Newcomers
Friedman points out that the block features both the tried-and-true preschool staples like Sesame Street and Thomas & Friends, as well as new voices shaping today’s generation of kids including bestselling children’s book author Mo Willems. “We have unique originals like Little Ellen and Lucas the Spider, preschool favorites like Bing and Pocoyo and a vast lineup of forthcoming shows that will introduce WarnerMedia’s legendary IP to a new generation of fans,” she adds.
So, how is Cartoonito different from other preschool blocks on other streamers or linear networks? Friedman says the sheer number of hours devoted to the content is quite remarkable: “We have 1,000 hours of programming, 20 shows at launch and 50 new series over the next two years, including our acquisitions. Second is the mix: Beloved favorites, reinventions of our own legendary library and new, inclusive voices and visions. Third is our unified approach: We consciously work as a team across platforms and around the globe. Our three diverse studios are also now unified under the inimitable Sam Register, a master of both invention and reinvention, especially with a playground that includes our legendary DC, Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera libraries.”
When asked about the type of content they are looking for from producers, Friedman says the team looks for shows that truly stand out. “We’re drawn to stunningly beautiful characters and worlds, original voices and visions, and humor and meaning that work on two levels — for preschoolers and their parents,” she notes. “Since content always teaches, the question is simply one of, ‘What are we teaching?’ We want our creators to have a mission in mind. We love both animation and live action, but we lean more heavily toward animation because it travels so well. We are open to all kinds of ideas — no two are exactly the same.”
Friedman is quick to sing the praises of WarnerMedia’s global marketing exec Tricia Melton and the team behind Cartoonito’s stand-out branding package. “Tricia and her merry band of creatives have done a beautiful job inventing a world for preschoolers,” she says. “Cartoonito is ‘hosted’ by Nito himself — a bouncy, curious, wide-eyed block — and his three pals Glob, Wedge and Itty. And if you’ve heard the musical mnemonic, ‘Oh, Oh, Oh, Cartoonito,’ you’ll likely never be able to get it out of your head. As a former brander myself, I love seeing the team who has worked so well on the Cartoon Network brand all these years flex their creative brains for a new preschool audience. They bring the humor, fun and high artistic standards preschoolers need. Nothing is cringy or condescending.”
“Our Cartoonito hosts — Nito, Glob, Wedge and Itty — are a group of unique, funny friends that help bring the brand to life,” says Melton. “We loved the idea of personifying shapes with individual personalities and idiosyncrasies … partly because shapes are universal … they literally translate anywhere in the world. When you infuse them with personality — like Glob, our neurodiverse character who doesn’t speak but can transform into any shape and finds silliness in almost every scenario — then you have a character that connects with any kid in the world.”
Melton says from the start she and her team wanted Cartoonito to feel like a younger sibling of the Cartoon Network brand. “Nito is based on the iconic block shapes that have been part of the Cartoon Network logo from the very beginning. Incorporating other shapes as Nito’s friends felt natural because of the universal appeal of toy building blocks for preschoolers. Glob, our neurodiverse shapeshifter, is partially inspired by Jake the Dog from Adventure Time and Meatwad from Adult Swim, but also embodies the liveliness and fluidity of animation while combining all our brand colors. The key was to personify each character with a unique personality and distinct attitude. Our inspiration was often drawn from our own children. One of my daughters is dyslexic and has ADHD, so it was important to me that we have a character that is neurodiverse in the mix.”
Melton and her team work with various animation studios including Giant Ant, Primal Screen and Buck to produce the indents and animated content for the block. They began working on the animation in April and continued work on it all through summer.
Making Preschool Cool
“I love that Cartoonito is built on identity and inclusion,” says Melton. “It’s one of the foundations of the brand and it’s so relevant to the world we live in today. I love that this will be a global brand — reaching and connecting kids across the world. I love that this is a brand that has the potential to help kids believe and own their value and their power and to seed that with them as they grow and develop. And I freaking love the mnemonic, ‘Oh! Oh! Oh! Cartoonito,’ as our rallying cry for preschoolers everywhere.”
As she looks back at the months she and her team spent preparing for the launch of Cartoonito, Friedman says dealing with the pandemic was one of their biggest challenges. “To launch something huge and meaningful without sitting around the same table, scribbling on the whiteboard, brainstorming through the blocks, takes incredible focus and caffeine,” she admits. “We certainly laughed a lot, but I can’t help but feel a little sad that we didn’t get to see each other’s shoes!”
When we ask her to leave us with a fun two-sentence pitch for Cartoonito, Friedman smiles. “Cartoonito is the preschool brand you wish you had as a kid,” she says. “Come for the art and the endless laughs, stay for the meaning!”
We have a feeling few will be able to resist that wonderful invitation.
Cartoonito premieres on Cartoon Network and HBO Max on September 13.
The Global Picture
Veteran animation exec Adina Pitt, VP of content acquisitions and co-productions for Cartoon Network and Boomerang, also oversees the global acquisition aspects of Cartoonito. She was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about the new block:
Can you tell us a bit about how you got involved with the Cartoonito brand?
I’m thrilled to be part of the WarnerMedia Kids & Family team. Cartoonito delivers on one of our key content strategy priorities which is to build a modern preschool brand for today’s parents and kids. It’s exciting to find new shows that exemplify Cartoonito’s mission to be a space where young kids are free to be who they are and where compassion and inclusion are championed. I’m really proud of our burgeoning slate.
How is that different from other acquisitions you oversee for Cartoon Network International?
Finding shows for Cartoonito is an expansion on the content search we have previously done, and that is exciting. Historically, we focused on content targeting kids six to 11, and now it’s wonderful to also take pitches for preschool content from all over the world. We work as a global team and it has been terrific to collaborate on ideas and new shows with our sister networks and global partners.
What do you look for in global animated shows?
We look for creator-driven, universal stories that are diverse, authentic and beautiful. We love shows that make us think, make us laugh, make us pause, and ultimately connect us. There are many considerations when acquiring or producing IP. Regardless of the demo we’re targeting, we keep our consumer front and center 100 percent of the time.
What are some of the trends you have seen in animated content this year?
This year, I’ve seen a true mix of content including retelling of classics, stories about the environment, community, adventure, outer space, game-oriented IP, diversity and family.
What do you love about your job?
I love my coworkers and our brands and what we stand for. I love our partners yesterday, today and tomorrow. I love the promise of meeting new talent and working with dear partners. I love building brands and identifying new partnerships. I love being part of a collective brain trust that produces content that makes kids happy. Every day is a new adventure and I’m grateful.
What is the important thing for creators to remember when pitching a show to you?
Remember to relax, I’m on your side and cannot wait to be inspired by your idea(s).