EXCLUSIVE: After months of upheaval following the close last April of WarnerMedia and Discovery’s $43 billion merger, Michael Ouweleen sees a much more settled operating environment taking shape in 2023.
“We’re all feeling more possibility this year,” the president of Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Boomerang and Discovery Kids told Deadline in an interview. “Last year was hard” for the entire media sector.
Ouweleen took on his current role in June 2022 after having previously overseen kids and family networks during a 27-year run at Warner Bros Discovery, WarnerMedia and Time Warner. He is now spearheading an expansion of Adult Swim programming by one hour a day, starting nightly at 7 p.m. as of May 1.
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The step-up for the Cartoon Network block is headlined by Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, a new show from Genndy Tartakovsky, who directed the first three Hotel Transylvania films and created previous Cartoon/Adult Swim shows Primal, Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack. (Watch a trailer for the new series above.) The first two Unicorn episodes premiere May 4 on linear and will stream on HBO Max the next day.
Throughout his three decades at the company, Ouweleen said, animation has always occupied a unique place in the corporate portfolio. “We’ve always, in every iteration of this company, been this little animation operation in Atlanta, Georgia,” he said. “We sort of invented our own set of rules because we weren’t in New York and we weren’t in LA.”
The arrival of WBD CEO David Zaslav and his largely Discovery-based management team has generated headlines for decisions to jettison a number of film and TV projects, even some fully produced titles, in the name of attaining $4 billion in overall cost savings. Streaming service HBO Max has seen sections of its library pared down ahead of the launch this spring of a rebranded service that will include components of Discovery+.
“The DNA we share with Discovery is, they fully understand certain genres, so they understand how we operate in that way. They understand strong brands,” Ouweleen said. “They’re surprised at our strength. It looks on the surface like it’s a niche thing, but it’s not, it’s mass. … The one learning curve for them, and for me, conversely, is that most of Discovery’s content is very quickly made and they can make tons of it. Animation takes two years and hundreds of people. It’s still hand-made, though obviously we have digital tools. … Our stuff takes longer to make, but also airs forever.”
About 4% of the total 2022 tune-in to Adult Swim last year, for example, was accounted for by Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which has not had original episodes produced since 2015. “The long tail of animation is one that’s interesting to the company, and it’s one I need to keep repeating because it’s so bizarre to them. So, it’s been an education on both sides.” When it came to adding more programming to Adult Swim, Ouweleen said WBD management told him, “‘This thing you do is really good — please do more of it!’ So, they’re very bullish.”
Certain trends at the kids and family networks have fit into the overall WBD strategy, which is to seek a balance between still-lucrative linear operations and the emergence of streaming. Adult Swim, which debuted in 2001 as a programming block on Cartoon Network, generated 3.3 hours a week of viewing among all viewers in 2022. Adults have gravitated to the network in early fringe, well before the previous 8 p.m. start to Adult Swim. From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., 68% of Cartoon Network viewers were over the age of 18. HBO Max data is kept closer to the vest, but Adult Swim and Cartoon are set to be foundational elements in the rebranded service.
Competition in the animation sector has long been fierce and a major push by Netflix and Apple in recent years has ramped up the intensity. Still, Ouweleen sees 2022 as the peak of the competitive free-for-all. “Now, I feel there’s been a correction,” he said. “The animation bubble hasn’t burst but it’s certainly calmed down a little bit. We’re not having problems seeing projects or talent.”
Unlike pure streaming rivals, WBD’s mix of linear and digital can allow for more comprehensive research on audience segments and how best to position shows. Ouweleen invoked a cornerstone series as an example. “If we were launching Rick & Morty today, on any one platform, I don’t know that we could make it a hit,” he said. “The benefit that we’ve had is, we can use linear and use Max over seasons to build fandom. Season 2 of Primal, the engagement levels both on linear and streaming jumped up quite a bit because we are serving a couple of different audiences.”
Sometimes, he added, the results can be completely unexpected. “We’ve had titles that skew female on linear and skew male on streaming or vice-versa,” he said with a laugh. “It’s title-dependent and I can’t make heads or tails of it!”
With consolidation the order of the day in 2022, Ouweleen says Cartoon Network and Adult Swim teams have been working closely together in recent months, mainly under the same roof in Atlanta. But the operation is still just synergizing with — and not combining with — WBD divisions like Warner Bros Animation or DC. The key to his networks’ sovereignty and durability, the exec says, goes back to the origins of Cartoon Network in the 1990s.
“There still is an audience for us in linear and it’s not who maybe people presume, but it’s never been who people presume,” he said. “I joined four years in, in 1996, and even back then people were like, ‘Oh, you’re running cartoons, so it must be kids all the time.’ But we were a third adult, and without kids. And that’s why we launched Adult Swim.” More than two decades later, he continued, “We still have people showing up, we still are bucking the trends.”
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