The battle between Viacom and Time Warner has begun to look like a messy divorce.  Viacom wants a significant hike in its fees for cable companies to carry its channels, but Time Warner says they won’t pay — and have threatened to shut off Viacom’s cable channels by midnight tonight.  In response, Viacom has decided to use its children-show characters as weapons in this fight:

Tapping emotional images such as a weeping Dora the Explorer and a distraught SpongeBob, Viacom Inc. is launching a marketing blitz Wednesday aimed at demonizing Time Warner Cable over a television-programming contract dispute.

Barring a last-minute settlement on fees, Viacom’s cable channels — including Nickelodeon, MTV and Comedy Central — will disappear from Time Warner Cable at midnight Wednesday. While programmers and operators often battle fiercely over contract renewals, Viacom’s campaign is notable in its willingness to pull children into the debate.

One ad shows the cartoon Dora in tears with the words, “Why is Dora crying?” The ad goes on to explain: “Time Warner Cable has taken 19 of your favorite channels off the air!” and suggests viewers call a Time Warner Cable number to demand that the cable operator restore Nickelodeon and its siblings. That ad is paired with another suggesting that viewers can get Dora back by signing up to one of Time Warner Cable’s rivals such as DirecTV or Verizon Communications. In another, the cartoon character SpongeBob is said to be “freaking out.”

Like most divorces, both sides have legitimate points.  Viacom says it only receives 8% of all licensing fees paid by Time Warner, even though its channels get 20% of all viewership, and it deserves a raise.  Time Warner says Viacom must be smoking the drapes if it expects families in a recession to pay more for cable television service.  The fight has gone down to the wire, and now Viacom wants to frighten the kids to make Time Warner pay up.

Viacom’s argument really doesn’t add up, though.  They make money off of licensing and advertising.  If they get better viewership than A&E, then they should be able to charge more money for it.  Time Warner should pay market value for the right to broadcast the channels, but won’t Viacom lose a hell of a lot more money by antagonizing Time Warner and its subscribers, especially through a heavy-handed ad campaign?  After all, their advertisers will lose millions of potential viewers at midnight tonight — and that makes Viacom’s channels much less lucrative for spending advertising revenue, especially in this economy.  They’re cutting off their nose to spite their face.

They’re not going to get much sympathy from parents by exploiting these cartoon characters, either.  Families in a tough economy are not going to make the expensive investment in satellite dishes just to get Nickelodeon back.  Instead, they’ll find other outlets for entertainment for their children, perhaps permanently.  One parent, my friend Chad the Elder at Fraters Libertas, notes the hard sell currently under way:

This morning, Nikelodeon has been running a continuous scroll warning of the channel’s imminent disappearance for Time Warner customers and urging them to call their cable operator to avoid this horrible fate. It’s a clever ploy by Nik to go after one of parent’s critical pain points: the shows their children love to watch. All I have to say is thank God we have Comcast. Don’t get a chance to say that too often.

Settle your own problems, and keep the kids out of it.