Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network banking on virtual reality

SlimeZone is a multiplayer VR experience that came to select IMAX VR centers in March. (Nickelodeon/Viacom)

For kids programming giants like Walt Disney, Viacom’s Nickelodeon and Turner’s Cartoon Network, massive audiences can still be reached through TV and multi-platform viewing.

Despite declines in traditional pay TV subscribers, cable networks at Turner, Disney and Viacom have for the most part been able to offset those declines with increases in affiliate revenue. But recent announcements from Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney show that the companies are still bracing for the future by banking further on emerging entertainment technologies like virtual and augmented reality.

Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network just announced big new programming slates for the upcoming year. Nickelodeon’s promised 800 new episodes of TV marks a 20% annual increase and Cartoon Network said its new slate is the biggest it’s ever done.

“With our share growing and content pipeline in overdrive, we are reinventing ourselves to best serve the new and next generation of audiences on new and next-generation platforms,” said Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Group, in a statement.

“Cartoon Network continues to see growth in time spent on video and gaming platforms as kids are enjoying our content across a vast array of environments,” said Donna Speciale, president of Turner Ad Sales, in a statement. “The best way for brands to reach and engage our fans is through a total audience approach that captures all of these relevant spaces.”

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Tucked in amongst Viacom’s and Cartoon Network’s expanded programming rollouts are efforts to meet audiences in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) environments.

Nickelodeon announced a new partnership with IMAX to bring SlimeZone, a “multiplayer, social VR experience,” to select IMAX VR centers this month. The company also added a new AR mode for its mobile game Sky Whale, which it said averages two million active monthly users.

Cartoon Network announced plans for "Ben 10 Alien Experience," an ad-supported augmented reality game that will launch on mobile platforms in August. In the past few years, Cartoon Network has also launched VR games and headsets based on its series “Adventure Time.”

Away from the kids' upfronts, Disney was also sharpening its focus on VR and AR. This week, Disney Studios announced StudioLAB, an entertainment innovation initiative on which it’s partnering with Accenture Interactive. The primary focus for the initiative, at least at first, will be immersive entertainment (i.e. AR, VR), artificial intelligence and the IoT.

“Technology is an essential component of how we make characters, stories and worlds come alive at Disney, and we’re looking forward to the possibilities of what we can imagine and build together,” said Jamie Voris, CTO of Walt Disney Studios, in a statement.

The television networks are still the primary focus for Disney, Turner and Viacom, but it’s clear that on the kids programming front, the potential of AR and VR is being taken seriously by all three.