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Nick at Nite targets families

Ratings increase with 'Home', 'Lopez' reruns

The glory days of Nick at Nite as a refuge for baby boomers seeking to bathe in the nostalgia of sitcom oldies like “I Love Lucy,” “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” may be coming to an end.

Executives at the Nick at Nite laugh factory are studying new scheduling blueprints, highlighted by a lineup of half-hour family comedies aimed at getting kids and their parents to watch the shows together.

Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite, says the image of the network as “the place for grownups to click on when the kids have gone to bed” is due for an overhaul.

The shakeup is warranted because audiences have, until very recently, tuned out of Nick at Nite in steady streams, beginning almost two years ago.

The alarms started sounding in 2006, when Nielsen’s report card gave an F to Nick at Nite in primetime, its ratings for the year plunging by double-digit percentages in the key 18-49 and 25-54 demos it targets and by 21% in total viewers. Similar declines showed up in the first two quarters of 2007.

In total primetime viewers, Nick at Nite toppled from an average 1.88 million in 2005 to 1.49 million last year.

One of the reasons for Nick at Nite’s fall was the emergence of a tough competitor. “Turner has successfully branded TBS as the network to go to for comedy,” says Tim Brooks, co-author of “The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network & Cable TV Shows.”

TBS vaulted over Nick at Nite in the ratings in 2006, averaging 1.64 million viewers in primetime, thanks to a high-octane lineup of proven sitcom reruns, including “Seinfeld,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Friends” and “Family Guy.”

Against such powerhouse comedies on TBS, Nick at Nite had continued to rely too heavily on sitcom warhorses including “Roseanne” and “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” which played multiple times each day for months and finally began to run down, shedding viewers who were looking for something fresh.

But the beginnings of a turnaround have brightened prospects for Nick at Nite, which is quick to tout the November ratings, its best Nielsen book in a long time. The network’s primetime ratings in the three key adult demo groups (18-49, 25-54 and 18-34) shot up by more than 20% in November.

Take a bow, Tim Allen and George Lopez. The main reason for Nick at Nite’s November reversal of fortune comes down to multiple runs a day, seven days a week, of “The George Lopez Show” and “Home Improvement.”

“Lopez,” which ended its ABC run earlier this year, is up 46% in adults 18-49 and up 32% in total viewers in November compared with the same period last year; “Improvement,” an ABC powerhouse in the ’90s, has gained 25% in the demo and 17% in overall audience.

Brandishing the November gains, Zarghami points to what she regards as a significant trend among Nick at Nite reruns: more kids in front of the camera. As an airplane-factory manager, the Lopez character has a wife and two kids (13 and 9 years old). And as host of a local Detroit cable show on how to fix things, Allen’s alter ego has a wife and three kids (10, 9 and 6).

These family-oriented shows “resonate with all viewers, parents and kids,” says Zarghami, adding that comedies like these may well be changing the behavior of Nick at Nite’s viewers.

Instead of frogmarching the kids to bed at 9 o’clock, parents are brewing coffee for the tots. In a Whitman-sampler image of togetherness, parents and kids are bonding as families, blissfully absorbing the lessons imparted by the scriptwriters of the Allen and Lopez shows.

“Between 8 and 11 p.m. is beachfront property for Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite, and kids are going to bed later than ever before,” Zarghami says.

The value of primetime to the network can’t be overstated, because it has helped to make Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite the most profitable cable network in the U.S. Its cash-flow projection for 2007 is $1.24 billion, according to SNL Kagan.

But Nickelodeon is still the engine that drives Nick at Nite, which is why kid-oriented series such as “Drake & Josh” spill over into primetime by a half-hour Monday through Thursday, until 8:30; by 90 minutes on Friday and Sunday, through 9:30; and sometimes into all three primetime hours on Saturday.

“We want kids to invite parents to watch shows on Nick at Nite,” Zarghami says. She’s convinced it was kids who turned programs like “American Idol” into such a cultural event that adults started watching it.

Brad Adgate, head of research for Horizon Media, says Zarghami may be on to something. “The broadcast networks are scheduling a record-low number of comedies,” particularly family-oriented sitcoms, he says. “Nick at Nite is filling a real programming need with shows like ‘Home Improvement’ and ‘George Lopez.’ ”

“And parents have got to be happy,” Adgate says, “that they can sit down with their kids and watch something that’s not so embarrassing that they want to put their hands over the kids’ ears.”

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