Brian Robbins walked into a meeting where executives were deciding whether kids-media giant Nickelodeon should pick up “SpongeBob SquarePants” for a twelfth cycle, and asked what he thought was a simple question: With so many characters populating the underwater city of Bikini Bottom, how come the network had never created any spin-offs?
“It really is like a mini-Marvel Universe,” says Robbins, who was named head of Nickelodeon in 2018.
Fans will get to see another part of the always optimistic sea sponge’s world soon. The ViacomCBS unit has greenlit 13 episodes of a family-oriented comedy featuring SpongeBob’s pal, Patrick Star. “The Patrick Star Show” is slated to debut this summer, and will focus on a younger version of the character, who hosts a TV program and lives with his family. Bill Fagerbakke, the longtime voice of the animated pink starfish, will play the title role.
Patrick isn’t the first SpongeBob confrere to get a new spotlight. On Thursday, a new spin-off series, “Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years” is debuting on ViacomCBS’ new Paramount Plus streaming hub, along with a movie, “Sponge On The Run.” Nickelodeon has ordered another 13 episodes of “Koral,” bringing the total to 26. The entire library of the original show is also available on the subscription service. More is in the works, says Robbins.
“There is seemingly an endless amount of stories with this franchise,” he says of SpongeBob, whose escapades have been shown on TV since 1999. “You’ll see movies with spinoff characters. I think you’ll see more shows like ‘Patrick,’ and some other characters, and some different live stuff. It’s kind of endless when you think about the cast.”
Strategists at ViacomCBS are betting that the famous cartoon character will have an easier time of convincing his followers to subscribe to Paramount Plus — and stick around for other offerings. The new entertainment hub is a signature strategy of the company under CEO Bob Bakish, and content from Nickelodeon, one of the conglomerate’s largest units, can play a pivotal role not only in luring younger viewers, but also their parents, who must agree to spend the money necessary to stay with the service. The move to streaming has also crimped traditional kids’ viewership. Nickelodeon saw its average audience between 6 and 11 fall by 36% in 2020, according to figures from Nielsen, while Cartoon Network’s viewership in that category was off by 37% and Disney Channel’s tumbled 34%.
SpongeBob has appeal for several generations. His antics are clearly for children, but his longevity likely means their mothers and fathers are familiar with him. And, as is the case with other cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck or The Simpsons, there are enough subversive elements in the series to give adults something to think about when they watch with kids. “I have always seen SpongeBob as sort of an Elmo — a character so loveable and sweet and wants to be a good friend,” says Sherri Hope Culver, a professor who specializes in children’s media at Temple University and directs its Center for Media and Information Literacy. “Over the arc of the series, he tries to be a good person, even in those moments where he is not his best self.”
Robbins didn’t hint as to whether Sandy Cheeks or Squidward might be next to get the spotlight, but there is a larger strategy behind expanding the series beyond the immediate vicinity of the pineapple under the sea that serves as the title character’s base of operations.
“Patrick Star” will debut on traditional Nickelodeon, and then move to Paramount Plus. “Kamp Koral,” which will debut on the streaming hub initially, will be made available on linear Nickelodeon once its first season has streamed on the video hub. “We want our brand to be as ubiquitous as possible, and we know that kids consume in so many different ways on so many different platforms,” Robbins explains. “The most important thing is to make sure you watch what you want to watch however you want to watch it.”
Multiple airings also mean that people who may not see episodes upon their debut will get a crack at watching them later, potentially spurring a different wave of interest. “My hope is that being on multiple platforms will allow more discovery,” says Robbins.
Viewers will also get to encounter new characters from SpongeBob’s broader world. “Patrick Star,” for example, will come with a new coterie of associates: Squidina, his eight-year-old little sister; Bunny and Cecil, his parents; and his grandpa, GrandPat. Tom Wilson will give voice to the father, and Cree Summer his mother. Jill Talley will play Squidina Star. Dana Snyder will play GrandPat. Additional cast members include “SpongeBob” veterans including Tom Kenny , Rodger Bumpass, Carolyn Lawrence, Mr. Lawrence and Clancy Brown.
No matter how far SpongeBob may travel, Robbins says Nickelodeon remains very focused on his origins. The character was originally the vision of Stephen Hillenburg, a marine science teacher who left his job to pursue a career in animation. “I think it’s very important for the creative team and all of us at Nickelodeon to be really respectful of what he’s built, and we always keep that in mind,” says Robbins.