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Nickelodeon Rouses SpongeBob, Green Slime, ‘Lip Sync Battle’ and Gwen Stefani to Lure Upfront Dollars

TV’s annual upfront sales season isn’t child’s play to the executives who run Nickelodeon.

The kids-focused media unit, the largest division of parent Viacom, moves into the TV industry’s ad-sales haggle with some wind at its back – no small feat at a time when getting kids to watch content in ways that can be measured for ad dollars has grown exponentially more complex.

“Obviously, there’s a tablet and a smartphone in almost everybody’s hands,” Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Group, told Variety. At the same time, she noted, Nickelodeon’s target audience “has not left television.”

Nickelodeon on Thursday afternoon made the case to Madison Avenue that its TV shows – and the social media and digital usage they influence – are worth greater consideration. Zarghami says Nickelodeon’s cable networks have notched audience among kids between 2 and 11 at a time when overall viewership in the category is shrinking. And yet, viewers’ migration to new venues allows for the creation of new businesses: In 2018, the unit will launch “Nickelodeon SlimeFest,” a multi-day festival for kids featuring signature characters and its famous green slime, part of an emerging initiative at parent Viacom to create tangible links to some of the company’s flagship media brands.

Executives have reason to be aggressive. They see a robust pipeline of product coming from two types of advertisers who need kids to thrive. Toy makers and movie studios who want younger viewers are expected to spend in the year ahead, said Sean Moran, who oversees marketing and partner solutions for Viacom. The company sees 21 movies in 2017 that will aim for younger audience, compared with 18 last year and 14 in 2015. A growing interest by consumers in family time suggests new activity from makers of games and puzzles. “We do expect to grow” in this year’s upfront market, he said. Moran also wants to work harder to bring in advertising from companies that may not think of kids’ programming as their primary target.

At stake is what might be the largest share of approximately $800 million in advance advertising commitments from Madison Avenue for kids TV. Nickelodeon vies regularly with Disney’s suite of kids outlets as well as Time Warner’s Cartoon Network for Madison Avenue attention. Disney has already been holding private talks with advertisers, but Nickelodeon’s presentation today will mark the cap gun going off for upfront sales season, the period when TV networks vie to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season.

Nickelodeon will tout fare for pre-schoolers, which, Zarghami said, is one of the biggest drivers of current operations; live-action standbys including “Henry Danger”; a kid-focused spin on the “Lip Sync Battle” format; and, of course, familiar programming like “SpongeBob SquarePants.” But the company will also underscore themes of diversity and understanding in its programming, she noted. “Kids say that they want friends who look different from them, friends who have different religions and backgrounds,” she said.

Among some of the new ventures: an animated “Henry Danger” spinoff featuring characters from the live-action series; a talent deal with social influencer and performer Jo Jo Siwa that involves media and consumer products; and a new 26-episode reboot of flagship property “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Nickelodeon will also nod to a second-season pickup of “Kuu Kuu Harajuku,” the animated series about a musical quintet of girls inspired by co-creator Gwen Stefani. The No Doubt front woman told Variety she was interested in creating a story about “my fantasy dream posse” based on the concepts featured in her 2004 solo debut  “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” Stefani says she had long been interested in animation – her brother even worked on “The Simpsons” and “Ren & Stimpy” — and she has spent more time watching cartoons as she raised her children.

“It’s really a girl’s perspective,” Stefani said of the series. The pop star develops story concepts by sitting with a team of producers who come to her house,  pitch her concepts over snacks, and then ask her to throw out her own suggestions. “I do not know how I managed to have a project like this,” she said, “I never really thought it would happen.”

On Thursday, “Kuu Kuu” will be among the new properties getting a big push as Nickelodeon tries to capture advertisers’ imagination.

(Pictured: Nickelodeon Group president Cyma Zarghami)

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