How Nickelodeon is turning up the volume

With ratings soaring, and Viacom focused on kids brands like never before, Nick execs offer a glimpse into how the kidsnet is keeping the momentum going.
September 11, 2017

They say good things come in threes, but for Nickelodeon, that principle may need a much higher number. In this year’s fiscal third quarter, the US kidsnet owned nine of the top 10 shows for kids ages two to 11, and four of the top five shows for kids two to five, according to Nielsen Media Research. Led by the number-one and number-two animated kids shows on all of TV (new comedy The Loud House and perennial hit SpongeBob SquarePants), as well as the top two live-action series across television with kids two to 11 in Henry Danger and The Thundermans, Nickelodeon is riding a wave of momentum that it hasn’t experienced in years.

Considering Nick’s significant ratings decline just two years ago, the increasingly competitive content landscape, and the ongoing impact of cord-cutting on traditional linear broadcasters, the kidsnet’s recent success—and inclusion as one of Viacom’s six flagship brands—is a testament to the current strength of its brands, according to Chris Viscardi, SVP of production and development, animation.

“It also says a lot about how powerful the brands have been for Viacom over the last bunch of years, and maybe throughout the history of Nick and Nick Jr. The restructure, however, has not really changed how we do our day-to-day business on the animation side and how we necessarily look at properties,” says Viscardi.

“We’re all about making emotional, hilarious animation for kids that hopefully lasts the test of time like some of the animation we made many years ago. If we get there through comedy, action or a mix of the two, that’s fantastic. If we create something that works on linear, for digital or in theaters, that’s great, too. We’re exploring all of these genres and distribution options. For me, where we’re going to be in the next six months, year or five years is what I’m most excited about.”

A strategy that has changed for Viscardi is Nick’s extra commitment to audience engagement, especially as kids’ viewing habits constantly evolve. “We really need our shows to work for kids in this increasingly fragmented world,” he says. “What they want is more important than ever before, so we have to ensure that the tone, sensibility, emotional component and subject matter really connects with them. We’ve always done it, but we’re more focused now.”

Although Viacom’s turnaround plan was announced in February, a bigger spotlight was placed on Nickelodeon last November when longtime Viacom exec Bakish took the reins after serving as president and CEO of Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN), and its predecessor company MTV Networks International, since 2007. As Bakish became CEO, the media conglomerate also reestablished its Kids and Family Group as Nickelodeon Group to zero in on Nick and leverage additional growth opportunities around its kids business. Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami continues to lead the division, which is now comprised of Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., TeenNick, Nick at Nite and NickToons. (TV Land and CMT moved to new Viacom Global Entertainment Group business unit.) Bakish, who in his previous role was instrumental in doubling Viacom’s international revenue and expanding the reach of the company’s 200-plus TV channels to a combined 3.9 billion subscribers, has been quick to reinvigorate Nick by investing in new content and expanding distribution efforts.

In Nick's forthcoming Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, fans will finally learn the whereabouts of Arnold's missing parents

In Nick’s forthcoming Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, fans will finally learn the whereabouts of Arnold’s missing parents

Getting animated

For its 2017 upfront lineup of nearly 700 episodes of new and returning series, Nick announced a raft of potential new hits including: 40-episode order Sunny Day, a preschool series produced by Silvergate Media (Peter Rabbit) that follows the life of a 10-year-old problem-solving hair stylist; animated Henry Danger spin-off The Adventures of Kid Danger from veteran Nick hitmaker Dan Schneider (Game Shakers, iCarly); and Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (working title), a 2D-animated reimagining of the global TMNT franchise.

Nick’s new state-of-the-art Burbank studio, in fact, is currently in production on a record 17 different animated properties for Nick and Nick Jr. spanning TV series, specials and movies. (The studio can accommodate 20 simultaneous productions in total.)

Viscardi points to the newly launched TV version of digital short-form series Welcome to the Wayne and upcoming social media-influenced mockumentary Pinky Malinky as two great examples of Nick’s ongoing commitment to quality original content. “We win the most when we generate our own original IPs, and comedy is always the great unifier,” he says. “Welcome to the Wayne is a great new show based on the successful digital series, the same way Henry Danger and Kid Danger both come from a popular digital-first version of the IP. Having a digital training ground for new properties has proven to be extremely invaluable.”

Pinky Malinky, meanwhile, comes from co-executive producers Chris Garbutt, Rikke Asbjoern and Scott Kreamer, who are all members of Nick’s Artist Collective, a group of experienced content creators who mentor new talent. The series follows the everyday adventures of an infectiously optimistic hot dog that lives in the human world and navigates school and life with his two best friends. “Within the show, Pinky and his friends are always creating social media content, so that whole culture is very baked into the series, which, in turn, will help make the show even more relevant for today’s kids,” says Viscardi.

spongebob-halloweenspecial

SpongeBob gets the stop-motion treatment for a second time with Nick’s upcoming Halloween special The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom

As for animated TV specials and movies, production is underway on an untitled, original one-hour Rocko’s Modern Life special based on Nick’s beloved ’90s hit of the same name, as well as Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie and Screen Novelties-produced stop-motion Halloween special SpongeBob SquarePants: The Legend of Boo-Kini Bottom. “The approach with library properties is to take them one at a time. We don’t move forward on any reboot unless we know we can do it right,” says Viscardi. “One of the ways we can do this is by having the original creator on board, but we will only jump in if the creator has a story that they want to tell.”

Hey Arnold! creator Craig Bartlett, for example, had part of the original series he wanted to wrap up—whether or not Arnold would find his parents—which offered an organic way for Nick to jump back into the property without having to reconfigure something new.

Another evergreen that continues to stay fresh is SpongeBob. Along with its upcoming Halloween special, the first-ever SpongeBob Broadway show will bow in New York later this year, and the iconic show’s 12th season will air in 2019, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the property. The yellow sponge’s social media game has also received a boost in the last 18 months, thanks to a community manager hire for the brand. “It’s the first time we hired for this role on SpongeBob, and we have one for TMNT, too. We’re finding that the dialog with the social audience is very different than the one happening on television, and in some cases, in our apps,” says Pam Kaufman, Nickelodeon CMO and president of global consumer products. “The strategy has definitely contributed to SpongeBob’s ongoing success.”

Original live action

Along with new projects featuring teen influencer JoJo Siwa (see “Influencer influx,” below), other new live-action shows on Nick’s slate include AI-themed I Am Frankie, recently launched tween mystery series Hunter Street and all-new episodes from Henry Danger, Game Shakers, The Thundermans, School of Rock and Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn.

According to Bronwen O’Keefe, SVP of live-action television series and movies, Nickelodeon will, in fact, produce a record 300 live-action episodes within the next year. “For the past couple of years we’ve really diversified the live-action slate, which is one of the things that differentiates us from the competition,” O’Keefe says, citing Hunter Street as a prime example. Launched in February, the series is the English-language version of Nickelodeon Netherlands series De Ludwigs, and has already been snapped up for a second season. It follows the story of five foster kids who band together to solve the mystery of their parents’ disappearance.

“It’s produced entirely out of Amsterdam in collaboration with our Nickelodeon International partners. It has equal parts mystery, comedy and adventure, and taps into a lot of our research insights around the importance of family and kid empowerment,” says O’Keefe.

I am Frankie, meanwhile, tells the story a teenager who is forced to hide her true identity as an experimental android—or risk being switched off forever. Produced at Nick’s Miami studio, the series is the English version of Nickelodeon Latin America’s hit show Yo Soy Frankie, and replicates the production model that worked for Every Witch Way, the American version of teen telenovela Grachi.

Additional live-action projects include Knight Squad, a new scripted series slated for March from Thundermans creators Sean Cunningham and Marc Dworkin, and JoJo Siwa’s latest star vehicle Inside Voice, which features virtual reality sequences created by Nick’s innovative new Entertainment Lab and will hit screens in 2018.

Hi-tech storytelling

The Lab, under the direction of Nickelodeon Animation Lab’s former creative director Chris Young, is a bold new venture for the kidsnet that’s experimenting with ways to integrate storytelling across new technologies. Think real-time rendering, virtual cinema, location-based virtual reality, augmented and mixed reality, and artificial intelligence.

Located at Nick’s Burbank studio, the Lab touts close connections with many of the kidsnet’s creators, producers and executives, including Viscardi, O’Keefe and Kaufman. “Having Chris and the Lab embedded in Burbank is incredibly helpful because it creates a real sense of collaboration with all of our show creators, both on the live-action and animation fronts,” says O’Keefe. “It also opens up the door for us to think about different kinds of storytelling, production models and values. Before Inside Voice, we collaborated with the Lab on VR moments in TV movie Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, which launches next month.”

Loud House creator Chris Sevino worked closely with the Lab on its first linear project earlier this year, Lincoln Loud Live. Using a real-time puppet version of the show’s star built from a new Adobe character animator tool, the Lab let fans engage in unique, real-time conversations with Lincoln on social media. The division also recently created Slime Zone—a social VR experience that was introduced during the opening party for the 2017 Kids’ Choice Awards. The demo puts kids and their families inside a giant Nick play space where they can watch cartoons, compete in multiplayer games, create art and run around with slime blasters.

Going forward, Viscardi hopes to collaborate with the Lab on real-time rendering animation and find properties that could work in that type of pipeline. “We did a fair amount of exploration with the real-time game engine last year, so we know we can do it a certain way, but how can we do it at the right cost and with the right pipeline so that high-quality content can be turned out on more of a series type of order?” Viscardi asks.

Popcorn fare

With tech innovation firing on all cylinders, and its animated and live-action television series, movies and specials diversified like never before, Nickelodeon is also ramping up its theatrical slate following February’s four-movie deal with Paramount Pictures. The first co-branded feature, Amusement Park, is set to premiere in summer 2018 and will be followed by a Nick TV series adaptation in 2019. A third SpongeBob movie will also arrive in 2019, while film adaptations of The Loud House and Henry Danger round out the deal.

Viacom’s commitment to Nick and Paramount co-branded kids movies comes as the company’s Filmed Entertainment revenue grew 36% to US$847 million in Q3, with domestic revenues rising 19% to US$388 million and international revenue skyrocketing 56% to US$459 million.

More good news on the movie front came in June with the announcement that former DreamWorks-owned AwesomenessTV founder and CEO Brian Robbins would serve as president of Paramount Players, a new production division of Paramount Pictures. Homing in on talent and properties to develop into co-branded feature films across all of Viacom’s flagship brands, the movies will be marketed and distributed by Paramount Pictures with a major emphasis on digital and social media campaigns.

“Bob’s strategy is to focus the organization and build a more collaborative culture, so working with Paramount is a top priority,” says Kaufman. “Going forward, Nick global CP will be handling all licensing and promotions for our co-branded films around the world.”

Although it’s early days, O’Keefe is also optimistic about the potential opportunities stemming from the new Paramount arrangement. “It’s exciting to think about how we can take our IP and seamlessly move them between different screens. How this can help extend the life of a franchise is a gigantic opportunity,” she says.

Influencer influx

jojosiwa

In terms of its new live-action content slate, Nickelodeon is integrating social media star, singer, dancer and actress JoJo Siwa further into its realm with a gig as a commentator on its new spin-off series dubbed Lip Sync Battle Shorties.

Meanwhile, an untitled docu-style special that gives viewers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look into the life of the 14-year-old influencer has also been greenlit. The projects are part of a broader multiplatform talent deal signed by Nick and Siwa during this year’s upfronts that spans consumer products, original programming, social media, live events and music.

Siwa previously made several TV appearances on Nick shows including TeenNick Top 10 and the kidsnet’s Ultimate Halloween Haunted House special. Nickelodeon Consumer Products is also looking to sign merchandising and promotional partners in categories including apparel, home furnishings, toys, accessories and publishing. “We’re launching products right now in the US and we’ll definitely take JoJo around to markets where it makes sense. She’s a great ambassador for us to connect to a wider audience,” says Pam Kaufman, Nickelodeon CMO and president of global consumer products.

For Bronwen O’Keefe, SVP of live-action television series and movies, the deal marks a new type of talent strategy for Nickelodeon, and she expects the kidsnet will secure similar deals in the future. “It’s about delivering on the audience’s desire to connect on a deeper level with the talent that is interesting to them,” she says. “YouTube and social media stars are number three and four in our research around kids’ preferred role models. More than 50% of kids, in fact, believe social media stars to be their friends.”

O’Keefe adds that Siwa’s own point of view about her brand is particularly alluring. “You don’t get four million YouTube subscribers without having a strong vision, and the last thing we want to do is change that,” O’Keefe says. “As a creator-friendly network, the DNA of a hit is a vision and perspective that is unwavering, so we look at social media stars the same way, but they should have an affinity for the Nick brand, too.”

When asked about the intricacies of picking the right influencers at the right time, O’Keefe says it varies. “Sometimes it’s about the age of the stars themselves, and sometimes it’s about the age of their fan bases. JoJo is just 14 and her fan base skews really young, which is a huge opportunity for us to capture a wider band of audience. And what’s great about JoJo is that she’s in no hurry to grow up,” she says. “Whether we’re looking at 10-, 14- or 18-year-olds, it’s about their tone, perspective and vision, and how that connects with our audience.”

About The Author
Jeremy is the Features Editor of Kidscreen specializing in the content production, broadcasting and distribution aspects of the global children's entertainment industry. Contact Jeremy at jdickson@brunico.com.

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