Nickelodeon’s new programming strategy is simple: When viewers are easily distracted, it’s important to give them more of what they want.
The Viacom-owned kiddie-media empire intends to unleash 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,” explained Cyma Zarghami, president of the company’s Nickelodeon Group and a kids-media veteran, in a recent interview. “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.”
Nickelodeon is unveiling its programming plans as the TV industry’s annual “kids’ upfront” gets underway in earnest. The annual battle for ad dollars — valued at approximately $800 million in advance advertising commitments from Madison Avenue for kids’ TV — has become a tougher battle to win, owing to younger viewers’ increasing predilection to get video where they want it, whether that be on demand or via new-tech venues like Netflix or YouTube.
“We have, against the odds, managed to maintain a leadership position and a growth position in an unsettling marketplace,” said Zarghami. “TV is still the biggest platform. Kids are definitely migrating to other places — we don’t pretend they don’t love Netflix and they don’t love YouTube — but what we are able to do is set up a mass simultaneous audience, which is still important to a lot of people.”
Nickelodeon continues to win more viewers than its two main competitors, TimeWarner’s Cartoon Network and Walt Disney’s Disney Channel. 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 shed viewers year over year, but Zarghami said Nickelodeon’s viewership is up season to date and noted the network has lured more viewers than its competitors for ten consecutive quarters.
Zarghami said she felt good about two of Nickelodeon’s biggest advertising categories: movies and toys. Executives feel the studios have a healthy pipeline of family films they will want to advertise, she said. And while some toy manufacturers are battling tougher conditions, Nickelodeon’s share of that business, should remain intact, she added.
The executive said she hoped to be around to see next steps for the big Viacom unit. A recent shuffling of duties put some business processes under the aegis of Sarah Levy, chief operating officer of the unit that includes the company’s cable networks. That move set off speculation about Zarghami, who is said to be nearing the end of her current contract.
“Well, I’m definitely still here, and we have a lot of work to do, so that’s what I’m focused on,” she said. When asked if people could assume they would see her at Nickelodeon’s 2019 upfront, she said, “I assume.”
The kids’ outlet will focus on series that present broader families and more characters from a broader array of backgrounds, said Zarghami, noting that modern kids want to see shows that mirror the people in their lives. “Multicultural, authentic and diverse,” are the themes they seek, she added.
Nickelodeon will serve that up in “Los Casagrandes,” a companion series to its new animated mainstay, “The Loud House,” about a small boy and his many sisters.. The new program will show Lincoln Loud’s friend Ronnie Anne and her brother Bobby Santiago living in the city with a chaotic multi-generational family. Another new animated series is “Pony,” a buddy comedy featuring Annie and an excitable pony who comes to live with her family. “Pony” is the first animated series to be greenlit for the U.S. from Nickelodeon Intl.
In the live-action category, “Keep It Spotless” is a new competition series, executive produced by WWE Superstar Jon Cena, that features real kids competing in a variety of physical and paint-filled challenges while trying to stay as clean as possible. Nickelodeon has also renewed “Lip Sync Battle Shorties” for a new 10-episode cycle. Nick Cannon will return as host along with sidekick JoJo Siwa.
The company will also create content for non-linear venues. In a first, Nickelodeon will launch the short-form competition series “Musical Dares” on its YouTube channel, created in partnership with Viacom Digital Studios and executive produced by Nick Cannon.