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No. 1 Nick puts dent in cable rates

Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite has parlayed a mix of children’s programming during the day and series oldies at night into the

highest-rated network in all of cable.

For the first quarter of 1995, Nick/NAN posted a total-day Nielsen rating of 1.4, a first-place finish that represented a 56% jump over the 0.9 rating it reached during last year’s first quarter. Nick researchers say the network has continued its sign-on-to-sign-off leadership in the second quarter’s season-to-date.

Nick at Nite’s primetime growth is equally surprising, a 60% leap from the 1.0 rating in the first quarter of 1994 to the 1.6 rating for the same period this year. In primetime, it’s tied for third with TNT and the Cartoon Network, behind No. 1 USA and second-place TBS.

“We’re the unsung heroes of cable,” says Herb Scannell, executive VP of U.S. television for Nick/NAN.

Erica Gruen, senior VP of strategic media resources at Saatchi & Saatchi, who focuses on cable, says Nick/NAN “is a strong, broad-based-appeal network. Its cartoon series like ‘Ren & Stimpy’ and ‘Rugrats’ are real crossover shows that adults and kids can watch together.”

Cable operators are high on the network because it plows more money back into original series than any other advertiser-supported cable channel. Scannel says Nick has tripled its budget for original programming since 1990, and estimates from Paul Kagan Associates and other sources put the network’s production/program-acquisition expenses at about $137 million for 1995, a 25% increase from the $110 million it spent last year.

Geraldine Laybourne, president of Nick/NAN, “never stops pushing to get more original programming for the network,” says Lynne Buening, VP of programming for Falcon Cable TV, a top-15 multiple-system cable operator.

Nick regards its competition as the children’s programming on the broadcast networks, not cable rivals like the Cartoon Network.

Although it chalks up surprisingly high ratings, the Cartoon Network reaches only about 18 million homes compared to the 61 million or so households that can receive Nick/NAN.

And Laybourne says that while Nick schedules as many as 10 original series a year, Cartoon is just beginning to commission originals. (In response, Cartoon’s president Betty Cohen acknowledges that Nick has created a successful brand name, but points to such original Cartoon Network series as “Space Ghost,” “The Moxy Show,” “World Premiere Toons” and the recently announced “Big Bag.”)

Meanwhile, if Congress passes legislation that deregulates cable operators, causing a fresh infusion of investor dollars and a speeded-up timetable for expansion – which could add space for dozens of new channels – Laybourne says she’ll be able to move fast to get the new education channel into the marketplace, as well as a 24-hour-a-day Nick at Nite spinoff network devoted to TV series reruns.

Ancillary biz

Although the cable network business is the linchpin of Nick/NAN’s operation, grossing about $240 million a year in advertising revenue and $115 million a year in monthly subscriber fees, the network harvests millions of additional dollars in the licensing and merchandising of such characters as Ren and Stimpy. Among other ventures, it also runs a spinoff children’s network in the United Kingdom; publishes the successful monthly Nickelodeon magazine; markets videocassettes, CDs and CD-ROMs, and has just gone into preproduction on “Harriet the Spy,” its first theatrical movie in partnership with its sister company Paramount Pictures.

If new legislation speeds the multiplexing of Nick/NAN into related programming services, Jim O’Brien, president and chief operating officer of Jones Intercable, a top-10 MSO, says he’ll be on board. Nick/NAN and its clones will be an effective counter-weight to “the critics who say that the government has to step in and do something about programming for kids,” in O’Brien’s words.

“Nickelodeon offers a quality environment for children,” he says, “and the series on Nick at Nite tend to be family-oriented. That’s something to market and promote when people like Sen. Dole attack the media for pushing sex and violence at kids.”

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