So That's Why They Call Them Superheroes

Their leader is part wolf and cuts through metal with his claws. A normal day at the office involves protecting banks from a giant robber, the Juggernut, who can crush buildings three times his size. But that's small potatoes compared with the work the X-Men have done for their employer. In just nine weeks on the air, the marauding gang of do-gooding animated mutants has made Fox Broadcasting Co. a kids' TV superhero in its own right.

The X-Men are the latest phenomenon of Saturday morning television. An estimated 4.3 million children, age 2 to 17, tune to the half-hour cartoon series each week. In February, that gave the network a rare ratings victory, as X-Men and the seven other offerings on Fox Children's Network (FCN) edged past longtime Saturday morning leader CBS Inc. in the race for the estimated $165 million worth of network advertisements that kiddies watch before lunchtime.

CRITICAL BATTLE. Fox needs the lift. After years of viewer growth, ratings for the network's newly expanded prime-time lineup are off by 1% this season. Its stronghold of younger viewers has weakened, and ratings of two of its prime-time anchors, Married...with Children and In Living Color, are down from a year ago.

In late March, Fox faces a critical battle for children's advertising, as sponsors commit to up-front deals for the year ahead. Some $500 million is at stake, and FCN should collect from 10% to 20% more than the $105 million it sold last year, figures Jon Mandel, a senior vice-president at Grey Advertising Inc. A 30-second spot on X-Men could fetch $13,500 to $27,000.

Fox's good fortune comes as the cartoon world undergoes a mutant turtle-like metamorphosis. In the past year, advertising on all Saturday morning shows has jumped an impressive 15%. But now, the Big Three networks account for just 45% of the overall market, down from 60% last year. And NBC Inc. has pulled out of cartoons altogether, to focus on sitcoms and other shows appealing to teenagers. The networks' worst enemy has been cable, especially Nickelodeon and the five-month-old Cartoon Network. With the plethora of cartoons on Saturday mornings, "there was nothing unique or special about us anymore," says NBC Executive Vice-President John D. Miller.

ROGUE AND CYCLOPS. Enter Fox, which first launched its Saturday schedule in 1990. Its big break came when FCN President Margaret Loesch persuaded Spider-Man creator Stan Lee to license for TV the X-Men characters that have been hot comic-book sellers since 1963. Headed by wheelchair-bound scientist Professor X, the heroes and heroines possess mutated genes that give them special powers. One, named Rogue, can absorb the powers of things she touches; another, Cyclops, destroys enemies with a laser-like beam from his eye.

The superheroes got a boost from promotional mentions on Fox's muscular three-hour weekday-afternoon cartoon block. Now, the show is top-ranked among viewers age 6 to 17, and third overall. Better yet, the X-Men effect has rippled through the Fox lineup, helping elevate ratings for its following show, Super Dave.

That has been enough to give Fox a robust 6.4 rating (chart) in the Saturday market. It also has made fans of such advertisers as McDonald's Corp. and Hershey Chocolate. And, while the X-Men's action exploits appeal especially to younger boys, advertisers of girls' products also have given the show a chance. In one recent episode, Mattel Inc. placed ads for its Barbie lookalike, Party 'N Play Stacie. Says Vicki Kline, senior vice-president for national broadcasting at Dewitt Media Inc., who buys time for client Reebok International Ltd.: "You always want to go with the No.1 network."

How long Fox will stay on top? Kids are notoriously fickle about their cartoons. But for now, Fox is flying high with its superheroes--and no doubt hoping someone else doesn't mutate a worthy challenger.

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