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Adult Swim Wants to Control the TV Universe

Photo: Adult Swim

Adult Swim will soon open up the pool an hour earlier: The network announced Tuesday that, starting March 31, it’ll begin its programming at 8 p.m. each night. At least initially, this won’t be a dramatic change for Adult Swim junkies; the network will simply shift King of the Hill back an hour to 8 p.m. and add a second episode at 8:30 p.m., and move its reruns of The Cleveland Show up a half-hour, to 9 p.m. But in the long-term, Adult Swim says it will use the extra real estate to showcase more of its original programs, such as Robot Chicken, Eagleheart, and new hit Rick & Morty. This is all good news for lovers of offbeat comedy, but it’s a potentially worrisome development for Adult Swim’s rivals. That’s because, while Adult Swim doesn’t get the buzz of some bigger networks, it has actually turned into something of a ratings giant with younger viewers in recent years. And that giant now seems poised to get even bigger.

As we noted a few months back, Adult Swim ended 2013 on a Nielsen high. It finished the second half of the year as cable’s No. 1 network in prime time among all adult viewers under 35, something it had never done before 2013. That development only helped the network solidify its dominance in late-night, where for years it has been beating Jay, Jon, Jimmy and Dave among viewers under 50. And it also convinced execs at Adult Swim parent Turner Broadcasting that the timing was right to expand the channel’s reach. “We started to think about if it was time to expand,” Stuart Snyder, who oversees Adult Swim as part of his role as president of Turner Broadcasting’s animation and young adult unit, told Vulture via e-mail. “And if so, how would we continue to grow and still make sure the essence of what made it successful in the first place was still there? In the end, there was an audience and advertiser demand, and we decided to move forward.”

Snyder says that the expansion isn’t simply about competing in the eight o’clock hour. By kicking off an hour earlier, “It gives momentum and enables us to build [audience] throughout the night.” (This is the same theory behind all those marathons you see on cable: Woo viewers in for one episode, you might just keep them for a whole night.) Though he’s not willing to talk specifics just yet, Snyder does confirm that Adult Swim will look to add more first-run fare now that it has the extra space. “We have several original shows in development, and the plan will be to eventually move the appropriately rated shows into the right time slots earlier in prime,” he says. As for whether the expansion means a shift toward more live-action programs or an increase in animated shows, Snyder offered no hints: “Whatever the genre, it will be all about the right program and what makes sense for the brand,” he says.

The Adult Swim expansion comes as the network faces a potential challenge from an upstart challenger: FX Networks’ new FXX. The latter network is aiming at the same young adult audience, with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League, and other dude demo faves having relocated from mothership FX. And in August, FX Networks is expected to put a massive promotional push behind FXX as the network begins a new life as the exclusive cable home to reruns of The Simpsons, which have previously not aired on cable. It’s unclear how well Homer & Co. will do on FXX, of course, but the potential for FXX to chip away at Adult Swim’s audience dominance is there. Snyder, however, dismisses the notion that The Simpsons’ arrival on cable has anything to do with Adult Swim’s expansion. His one-word answer when asked if FXX’s play was related to supersizing Adult Swim: “No.”

Snyder’s confidence is probably justified. In addition to strong numbers for first-run programs, Adult Swim’s collection of reruns of Fox animated shows — King of the Hill, Family Guy, etc. — all do remarkably well with younger viewers — particularly young men. Case in point: A random rerun of American Dad that aired this past Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. on Adult Swim ended up being the No. 1 show in prime time among men under 35 that night. It didn’t just beat everything on cable, but everything on the broadcast networks Tuesday — including a fresh episode of ABC’s heavily promoted, expensive-to-produce Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. This sort of performance wasn’t a fluke. It happens regularly, though usually on nights where there’s no dominant network show. In general, young viewers under 35 are fleeing from broadcast — or at least not watching broadcast shows the same day they air. Megahits such as The Walking Dead justifiably get lots of ink for their performances. But it’s now common for VH1 or FX or ABC Family shows to also dominate key demos, either among women 18 to 34 or men 18 to 34. By fully committing to three hours of prime time, Adult Swim is just serving an audience that’s already proven it wants what it’s delivering.

One last thing: While we had Snyder’s attention, we asked him about the fates of a couple of Adult Swim shows. While Adam Scott has suggested there will not be another Greatest Event in Television History, Snyder hinted the network still wants to be in business with him. “They’ve been actually doing well for us,” Snyder says of GEITH. “I love the talent that Adam is able to bring to each of these. I am sure [Adult Swim creative director] Mike Lazzo and Adam are discussing what may be next.” Snyder also seemed to suggest what at this point seems a no-brainer, namely that Rick and Morty will be back for season two. “It is a big hit for us,” Snyder says. “Stay tuned!”

Adult Swim Wants to Control the TV Universe