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Cyma Zarghami, Giant in Kids’ TV, Steps Down From Nickelodeon

Cyma Zarghami, who rose from a job in 1985 as a scheduling clerk at Nickelodeon to become president of the unit and one of the leaders in children’s television, will leave the Viacom-owned outlet after working there for more than three decades, the company said Monday.

Viacom said Sarah Levy, chief operating officer of Viacom’s global entertainment group, and an executive close to Viacom CEO Bob Bakish, would run Nickelodeon on an interim basis, while the company conducts a search for a successor.

Nickelodeon is one of Viacom’s main financial tentpoles, and Zarghami leaves the unit as the challenge of monetizing programs designed for a generation of young consumers accustomed to surfing through content on-demand is only intensifying. Zarghami’s position at Nickelodeon has been under scrutiny since February, when Viacom expanded Levy’s role to give her oversight of select functions at Nickelodeon that had been under Zarghami’s purview. Levy has responsibility for everything from business development to research and production management and also advises on legal affairs, human resources and content distribution.

She leaves as Viacom has made changes among many of its top programming executives. Debra Lee left her job as chairman and CEO of BET Networks on May 28.

When asked by Variety in March whether she expected to stay at the company, Zaghami replied, “Well, I’m definitely still here, and we have a lot of work to do, so that’s what I’m focused on.” When asked if people could assume they would see her at Nickelodeon’s 2019 upfront, she said, “I assume.” The Wall Street Journal in February reported that Viacom had discussed the idea of enlisting an outside executive to take the top role at Nickelodeon. A company spokesman declined to offer more information about when Viacom may have started seeking a new leader for its kids-TV unit.

Nickelodeon is nothing to toy with. The unit includes not only the flagship kids’ network, but also Nick Jr., a cable network aimed at preschoolers. The duo have been some of Viacom’s best performers, even as the company has grappled with the migration of young viewers to other forms of video entertainment.  Nickelodeon has in recent years rolled out new franchises like the live-action series “Henry Danger” and the animated “The Loud House” even as it has retooled old favorites like “Blue’s Clues,” “Double Dare” and “Hey Arnold” for new modern iterations. The company has also worked to bring its intellectual properties to new venues, including a Broadway play based on “SpongeBob Squarepants” and a new “Slimefest” event slated to debut later this week.

Viacom doesn’t break out operating results at its subsidiaries, but noted in its most recent earnings report that U.S. advertising revenues fell 3% in the first three months of the year, to $841 million, owing to reduced viewership. Nickelodeon typically has better ratings than its main rivals, Walt Disney’s Disney Channel or Time Warner’s Cartoon Network. In 2017, Nickelodeon drew an average of 609,000 kids between the ages of 2 and 11, according to Nielsen, compared with 306,000 for Cartoon Network and 364,000 for Disney Channel. All three networks shed viewers compared to 2016.

Zarghami had been plotting a strategy that involved generating more content to keep her unit’s young audience engaged. Nickelodeon in March unveiled plans to release more than 800 new episodes of its various TV series, a jump of about 20% over last season’s output of around 700 new episodes. “Your odds of getting a fat hit are greater if you have more at-bats,” Zarghami told Variety at the time.“We are filling more platforms, between apps, and the international business and other channels. We have a new energized relationship with the [Paramount] movie studio. We have a lot of mouths to feed, so more is obviously better.”

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