The veteran producer who was named Nickelodeon’s president in October hasn’t spent his first months in the role noodling over the formula for the network’s famous green slime. He’s been working to fill its programming pipeline with new shows, even as he and other executives realize Nickelodeon’s target audience is more likely to be watching video on YouTube and Netflix via smartphones as they are to watch the TV set in the family room.
Robbins’ goal — simple to state but hard to achieve — is to make hit shows that viewers will seek out on any screen.
“There are definitely headwinds, and for all of linear television. In many ways, the kids’ business has been more affected by it,’” Robbins told Variety, pointing to young viewers’ quick adoption of streaming and mobile devices in recent years. Still, he notes, “if you make content and shows that kids want to watch, they will show up for it.”
The Viacom-owned cabler is ready to take some big swings after a long ratings slump. Nickelodeon’s fortunes are central to the earnings of the parent company, which makes Robbins’ mission of rehabilitating the brand that much more urgent.
Among the new properties heading to Nickelodeon is the first-ever spin-offs of characters from its mainstay animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Nickelodeon has acquired the rights to develop series featuring Paddington, the popular British bear, and characters from the recent spate of Lego movies. There are some revivals of Nick favorites in the works as well – and new moves to make Nickelodeon content available on platforms that kids like to watch.
Robbins unveils his first Nickelodeon programming slate just as the TV industry is looking to the start of its annual “upfront” derby, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season. Kid-focused networks have suffered in recent months: Nickelodeon — which still boasts a larger total audience than its primary linear competitors, WarnerMedia’s Cartoon Network and Disney Channel — saw its audience between 2 and 11 years of age decline 24% in the fourth quarter compared to the year-earlier period. Cartoon Network’s audience in that age range was down 37% in that time period, while Disney Channel’s was off 30%.
Robbins brings with him, however, a long history with Nickelodeon programming. He was a co-creator and producer of the channel’s popular sketch program, “All That” and its many spin offs, as well as series on other networks, such as the WB/CW dramas “Smallville” and “One Tree Hill. More recently, Robbins founded AwesomenessTV, the teen-focused content factory that was acquired by Viacom in 2017.
Millions of dollars are at stake for Nickelodeon as upfront season begins. Nickelodeon nabbed approximately $729 million in advertising revenue in 2018, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence. The Nickelodeon empire, which also includes Nick Jr. and other cable networks is the largest division of parent company Viacom and thus its performance is highly scrutinized by investors.
“Brian Robbins is a terrific executive who, thanks to his work at Awesomeness, understands the psyche of his audience,” said Michael Nathanson, a media-industry analyst with the firm MoffettNathanson. “But his challenge on the linear side is quite large.”
Robbins realizes Nickelodeon must make changes that acknowledge the big changes in its audience’s viewing habits.
”The cable model was a rinse-and-repeat model. Today we live in a binge-viewing world. Give me a fresh show. Give me another fresh show. I want to watch it, eat it up and go on to the next show,” Robbins said. “What used to be OK was having one or two hits, then making a zillion episodes of them, and then repeating them. That was enough to satisfy the kid audience because they didn’t have choice. I think today we need to make a volume of quality franchises, but not necessarily feed a million episodes of those shows. We need to keep a constant number of new shows coming, and not necessarily make one show with 80 episodes.”
He plans to bring new talent to the network from some of the venues that have lured young viewers elsewhere. “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate,” for example, is a live-action series that follows Ryan, the kid star of the “Ryan ToysReview” on YouTube, along with his parents and some animated pals. The series features its players working through physical challenges as well as puzzles to reveal the mystery in the title. “Playdate” is slated to debut in the spring.
And he’s hoping to lure kids with some star power. WWE’s John Cena will host new episodes of game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader.” Producer Simon Fuller and OneRepublic singer Ryan Tedder will produce a scripted music series set in a boarding performing arts high school, with all-new music and performances in each episode. The Lego series, “Lego City,” is a CG-animated comedy that follows many characters as they seek to stop a master criminal. “Paddington,” featuring actor Ben Whishaw as the voice of the title bruin, follows the famous bear through adventures in London.
Some franchises are being readied for new venues. Nickelodeon already unveiled a deal to make movies featuring “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “The Loud House” characters for Netflix. A live-action “Dora The Explorer” movie is slated for release in August, with Isabela Moner in the title role and Benicio Del Toro as her nemesis, Swiper. “We know that linear television is the most important thing to us, but beyond that, the idea is to fill up every screen of every size,” said Robbins.
Robbins is eager to broaden Nickelodeon’s slate of shows that kids and parents watch together, to deliver the co-viewing demographic that is prized by some advertisers. One such entry is “The Substitute,” a hidden-camera prank show that has celebrities go undercover as substitute teachers; a $25,000 donation will be made to the school hosting each new episode. “America’s Most Musical Family” will mount a nationwide search for the most talented family in America. And Nickelodeon intends to revive “Are You Afraid of the Dark,” the anthology series that boasts scary stories, as a new miniseries that will coincide with a movie based on the show slated for Oct. 20.
Robbins also aims to bring more diversity to Nickelodeon’s air. “Santiago of the Seas” is an interactive series slated for 2020 that follows the adventures of a kind-hearted, 8-year-old pirate, and features a Spanish-language and Latino-Caribbean culture curriculum. “The Casagrandes” is a companion series to “The Loud House,” and focuses on a chaotic multi-generational family.
The decision to broaden “SpongeBob” may be Robbins’ most surprising move. The series has been a staple of Nickelodeon since 1999, which means it has multiple generations of fans to reach.
“That’s our Marvel Universe,” Robbins said. “You have this amazing show that’s run for almost twenty years.”
While he pledged that Nickelodeon will always make “SpongeBob,” Robbins sees ample room to explore other characters. Among the options on the table are to “tell an original story about SpongeBob and Patrick, or maybe tell a Sandy Cheeks stand-alone story, or can Plankton have his own?” Robbins mused. “I think the fans are clamoring for it.”
(Pictured: “SpongeBob SquarePants”)