As Nickelodeon turns 40, the kids’ network is finding ways to rely on its past as it presses boldly into the future.
“My goal is to fill up every screen of every size to make Nick kids’ first and last stop for everything they want in entertainment,” says Nickelodeon Group president Brian Robbins, who succeeded long-time Nick veteran Cyma Zarghami last year in Viacom CEO Bob Bakish’s reorganization of the media conglomerate. Robbins has a long history with the channel, dating back to his role as co-creator of “All That” in 1994.
“There’s no doubt kids are consuming a ton of content in many different ways,” he says. “The good news is we live in a world where brands still matter, and Nick is absolutely a giant brand that still matters.”
While ratings have been on the decline on the linear channel — down 29% in total viewers in 2018 — as they have been for most of Nick’s competitors, Robbins’ goal is to extend the Nick brand much further beyond traditional television. That includes creating “The Loud House” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movies for Netflix.
“We still have the largest share of linear television eyeballs for kids 2-11,” Robbins says. “But we’re also making sure we expand our movie business, making sure we expand our digital content, making sure we expand our live experiences and making sure we touch our audience wherever they are.”
One way to achieve that goal, Robbins says, is to re-embrace the creative-led culture that distinguished Nick in its early days.
“I didn’t come here to be an accountant,” he says. “I came here for one reason and one reason only: To make sure this place really is a creative-driven company from the top down because ultimately this is a creative business and your brand is your content and your content is your brand.”
Former Nickelodeon executive Albie Hecht says long-running hit “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer and may soon spin off characters into new series, grew out of an early ’90s-era desire for such a creator-driven culture.
“One of the reasons for creating the studio in Los Angeles [in 1998] was so we would have a place for creative people to sit and be safe and experiment and come up with all their great, creative ideas,” Hecht says. He notes that “SpongeBob” creator Stephen Hillenburg had been working on “Rocko’s Modern Life” in another building at the time, but putting him in the same building as other animators and giving them “a safe place” to create allowed for the “amazing pitch” that was “SpongeBob.”
In addition to a creative safe space internally, Nick was an early pioneer in outward-facing pro-social causes for children, including on-air series “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee” (1991-2015) and initiatives such as “The Big Help,” which encouraged volunteering; Worldwide Day of Play, which pushed kids to leave the TV and get active; and Nick Jr. Beyond the Backpack to help preschoolers prep for kindergarten.
Hecht, whose tenure at the network ran from the early 1990s to 2003, says a theme of kids’ empowerment runs through Nickelodeon programming, from the sports fantasies of “Nickelodeon Guts,” to the Indiana Jones fantasies in “Legends of the Hidden Temple,” to the permission to get dirty in “Double Dare.” This is an approach that echoes through Nick today in the revived “Double Dare,” hosted by Liza Koshy and featuring original host Marc Summers as a commentator.
And Hecht intends to extend the kids’ empowerment theme through his company, pocket.watch, which produces “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate,” debuting in spring. The live-action series features the 7-year-old star of YouTube’s “Ryan ToysReview,” which has 18 million subscribers. He completes challenges (including unboxing challenges, as on his YouTube channel) to try to figure out the identity of his mystery playdate, who could range from an astronaut or fireman to a musician.
Hecht credits Robbins’ background as a child star, director, producer, and especially his work as co-founder AwesomenessTV in 2012, with an understanding of the power of digital franchises. “This whole generation, their primary screen is a tablet or mobile device they control,” Hecht says. “Their primary viewing is on YouTube. … Nick recognizes that through this show… [It’s] a big deal for them to stay relevant.”
Robbins also plans for Nick to catch the reboot wave that’s currently sweeping through all media companies with new takes on Nickelodeon classics “All That,” “Rugrats” and “Blue’s Clues.”
“It’s still a small percentage of our slate,” Robbins says of the reboots. “That said, we live in a world where awareness and IP matters. There’s just so much content it’s harder and harder to cut through. It’s nice to start with a piece of IP people know and we’re fortunate at Nick over our 40-year history to have created some of the most iconic shows in kids’ lives and it makes sense to bring some of those shows back.”
In the case of “All That,” Robbins hopes the reboot may help inspire additional programming for years to come, just as the original did.
“When we did it 20 years ago we created stars in front of and beyond the camera,” he says. “It led to ‘Kenan & Kel,’ to ‘The Amanda Show,’ to ‘Drake & Josh,’ to ‘iCarly’ and on and on. … So we’re excited about finding new talent and creating the next generation of Nick stars, and we’re off to a great start in casting.”
Paula Kaplan, executive vice president of talent for Nickelodeon, says the rise of YouTube offers another place to look for talent, as in “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate.” But while casting someone with a social-media following can prove helpful, it’s not the be-all, end-all of modern Nick casting. She expects the rebooted “All That” series regular cast will be populated with fresh faces without tapping into the YouTube ecosystem.
“We have to find that spark in somebody, that certain something that connects for whatever character or role,” Kaplan says. “They have to be able to do the job, same as it was 50 years ago or five years ago, with or without the internet.”
One change from Nickelodeon’s early years is its approach to parents, both as portrayed on its shows and as members of the audience. Kaplan notes parents are now written in Nick shows in a more respectful manner: They’re in on the joke rather than being the butt of the joke.
That shift behind the scenes parallels an increase in co-viewing among kids and parents. As of 2018, 44% of kids’ viewing was with an adult, the highest it’s been in 10 years, according to Nielsen. Robbins pays attention to that change as he moves Nickelodeon forward.
“Millennials’ best friends are their children, and the TV in the living room has become the meeting place,” he says. “We need to open up our aperture to what’s happening in the world and not be dug in.”
That fits his plan to push Nickelodeon forward by taking another page from its past.
“When I first came here to make ‘All That,” this was a very exciting place, very free creatively and it wasn’t a very structured environment,” Robbins says. “Like any company, as you grow things change over time. I want to get back to that company where we were looser and not scared and making big, bold decisions based on creative choices.”