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As upfronts approach, the kids' networks were out of the gate early with events designed to underscore good times and GRPs

The open bar-fueled upfront party is making a comeback among kids networks.

To take home a bigger helping of the television ad dollar, networks are forgoing boring but thorough early-morning presentations in favor of proving to buyers they’ve got ready cash to throw around with punchy sessions awash in adult refreshment. Disney, Nickelodeon and, later this week, Cartoon Network are among networks trying out the wine-’em-and-dine-’em strategy this year.

A big upfront shindig is de rigueur for Nick. The network has been at the top of the kids’ ratings heap for so long that its celebration with Madison Avenue seems perpetual. But big bashes are not the norm for rivals Cartoon and Disney. With Cartoon seeing some first-quarter gains and Disney launching Disney Junior, a new cable network to compete with Nick Jr., those long, look-at-all-our-new-stuff presentations have vanished from the 2012 kids upfront calendar.

Disney led the charge earlier this month, kicking off the upfront season with a high-tech, bring-your-kids fête at New York’s Hard Rock Cafe on March 13 that bordered on the surreal. Amid the detritus of the lives of such notables as Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison were squeaky-clean displays of toys and licensed tchotchkes from Disney hits Phineas and Ferb and Jake and the Never Land Pirates, a series with both a cartoon component and the Never Land Pirate Band, a Raffi-esque duo singing sea shanties for kids before Disney tapped them for the show.

“The [Never Land Pirates] guys…I don’t want to say they’re happy we found them, but their mothers are happy we found them,” said Gary Marsh, president and CCO of The Disney Channel.

The network’s actual upfront presentation was brief and to the point , featuring kid-approved properties like Tron and Spider-Man, which earned the network cheers from the attendees.

Nickelodeon, perhaps feeling the need to turn things up a bit, returned to Jazz at Lincoln Center, but its presentation was more boisterous than usual, with three full-blown musical acts that included an opening number from clean-cut quartet Big Time Rush, from a popular Nick show of the same name.

Cartoon will sport what looks like its least buttoned-down upfront ever, scheduled for late afternoon on March 28 at New York’s Roseland Ballroom—a party-friendlier time than last year, and at a venue not suited to long presentations.

To be fair, the Turner network does double duty at the upfronts. Its programming block Adult Swim, effectively a separate cable channel that shares space with Cartoon, tends to feature some of the highest-profile events and talent of the upfront season, with artists like Jay-Z, MIA and T-Pain playing full sets for crowds of enthalled young media buyers and planners.

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