News

Basking in the Sun

4/19/2008 2:00 AM Eastern

Spring break fever is in the air — and one kids’ network is poised to celebrate a report card on its performance over the past quarter.

Four of the network’s original productions are among the top 20 most-watched programs on cable this year, each generating more than 6 million viewers.

Its suite of Web sites drew 2.3 billion page views in March alone — more than double its closest competitor. Music CD releases featuring the network’s homegrown on-air talent have sold hundreds of thousands of copies to date. Its brand is quickly becoming synonymous with family-vacation excursions, through cruise lines and hotels.

Disney Channel? Nope. Nickelodeon.

The network’s original series, such as iCarly, have scored with tweens and teens and that show, starring Miranda Cosgrove, is outdrawing the Disney juggernaut Hannah Montana. The Mouse House continues to score high grades for its ratings, with such hits as Montana and new stars, such as Selena Gomez from The Wizards of Waverly Place. But it’s Nick that has landed on the honor roll, with original specials and movies based on established series such as The Fairly OddParents, SpongeBob SquarePants and Zoey 101, each of which have drawn more than 6 million viewers.

In addition, Nick is going beyond the TV screen with entertainment partnerships such as a deal with Sony Music Group to create music-based series that would make the brand more appealing and relevant not only to its target 6-to-14-year-old audience, but to all members of the family.

Here’s the report card:

  • On TV: The network increased its total-day audience by 6% in first-quarter 2008 (2.2 million vs. 2.1 million) to finish first among all basic-cable networks for the 52nd straight quarter. It also posted increases among tweens 9-14 (522,000 to 473,000), whereas Disney experienced a slight decline in that key demo (453,000 from 454,000 a year ago).

  • On the Web: Nickelodeon Kids and Family’s suite of 17 kids-targeted sites last month attracted a company record 27.9 million viewers, outpacing the 27.3 million pulled in by Disney Online’s 14 kid-related sites including disneychannel.com, according to Nickelodeon-supplied figures from Internet measurement firm ComScore.

  • On the Sea: The network’s maiden Nick-branded cruise-ship voyage in August — part of the network’s partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruises — is already 60% sold out after only eight weeks in the market.

  • In the Hotel: In 2010, the network is scheduled to open its first Nickelodeon-branded hotel under its recent partnership with Marriott Hotels.

  • In Song and Music: The network’s first tween and teen CD — the soundtrack from its hit show The Naked Brothers Band — is closing in on 500,000 record sales.

“We’ve always looked hard at ourselves and hard at the audience, and then we decide where to go and follow a plan,” said Nickelodeon Kids and Family president Cyma Zarghami said. “Our intent was to be more innovative and put a lot of new content on the air and in the digital space, as well as create some great partnerships that would help extend the brand.”

SMALL WORLD, AFTER ALL

Nickelodeon may have Disney to thank for its recent success, according to Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. Nickelodeon’s recent flurry of activity has been spurred in part, he said, by the success of chief competitor Disney Channel and the cultural success of such repeatable programming franchises as made-for-TV singer Hannah Montana and teen basketball/love-story movie franchise High School Musical.

Thompson said Disney has also done a strong job of extending those franchises beyond cable into sold out concerts and top selling CDs. Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour grossed more than $49 million during a live concert run this past October and a 3-D theatrical release of the concert drew an additional $65 million at the box office in February.

The soundtracks from both High School Musical movies have sold more than 15 million copies.

“If you were to compare not the ratings or the numbers, but the zeitgeist — I think Disney still has the edge based on the two phenomena, Hannah Montana and High School Musical,” said Thompson.

Indeed, Disney Channels Worldwide Entertainment president Gary Marsh said the network isn’t competing so much with Nick for viewership as it is for buzz among young viewers. “We’re really competing for a share of mind, and in that battleground we’ve won,” he said.

Showing how popular Disney’s branded stars are, during Nickelodeon’s own Kids Choice Awards show three weeks ago, kid viewers voted Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus as their favorite TV actress and favorite female singer against such formidable talent as Beyoncé and Alicia Keys. Disney-based rock band The Jonas Brothers also won as the kids’ favorite music group, besting such popular bands as Linkin Park and Fall Out Boy.

While not referencing Disney specifically, MTV chairman and CEO Judy McGrath acknowledged that Nickelodeon is playing in a very competitive kids arena, but added the network is up to the challenge.

“You always appreciate other buzzworthy competitors out there and we never take any of this for granted, even though Nick has held onto that No. 1 perch for so long,” she said. “You appreciate what you see in the marketplace and you think about what it means to me and my place with my audience — not to imitate, but to innovate and find a new place to go.”

MEETING THE PARENTS

Over the past year, Nickelodeon has sought to extend the brand beyond its core 6-to-14-year-old viewers by pulling parents — many of whom grew up watching Nickelodeon themselves — into the fold, Zarghami said. It aims to do so not only with TV programming, but also through other entertainment venues.

“We found that four out of 10 parents with preschool children grew up watching Nickelodeon, so we really talked about building our brand relationship from kids to kids and their parents,” Zarghami said. “Our strategy, from Nickelodeon to our off-channel businesses, was to treat families as the primary consumer.”

To that end, the network last May entered a partnership with the Marriott Hotels chain to create at least 20 worldwide Nick-themed hotels beginning in 2010. The Marriott deal builds on the network’s Orlando-based theme hotel, which launched in 2005.

This January, Nickelodeon forged a deal with Royal Caribbean Cruise lines to set sail on a seven-day cruise in August. After eight weeks of sales, the 4,000 passenger “Nickelodeon Family Cruise with Royal Caribbean” is only 60% occupied.

Just last month, Nickelodeon launched its first ever indoor-theme park in Bloomington, Minn.’s Mall of America as part of a partnership between the two parties.

Zarghami believes the deals give Nickelodeon an appealing sales proposition to families looking to spend time together in an environment that’s familiar to kids and adults.

“We know from all of our research that the number of single-parent homes, divorced homes and two working parents adds up to a different take on family time than there ever has been before, so kids really want to spend time with their parents,” Zarghami said.

The family union also applies to the network’s TV-scheduling strategy. Zarghami said Nickelodeon and its adult-targeted Nick at Nite primetime service are looking to create and to acquire content that works across all age groups during the 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. time block.

Programming aimed at kids under the age of 18 on Nickelodeon ends at 9 p.m. weekdays and 10 p.m. on Saturdays to make room for Nick at Nite and its adult-targeted acquired sitcoms, including such classic fare as The Jeffersons and off-network hits such as Everybody Hates Chris.

To that end, Zarghami said the network will look to create original, family-targeted movies and specials that she hopes will draw both kids and parents to the television. The first of such projects is Gym Teacher: The Movie, a telefilm starring Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) and Nathan Kress (iCarly) which debuts this summer.

In a first, Nick at Nite will run ads for Gym Teacher, featuring Meloni, in an effort to draw older viewers to the premiere on Nick, Zarghami said.

“I think there’s a great place between Nick and Nick at Nite where they can really do some interesting things,” said McGrath.

'ZOEY’ & 'ICARLY’ RULE

Of course, kids don’t always want mom and dad watching their shows, and Nickelodeon of late has delivered programming that has captured both kids and tween audiences.

The network received a huge rating boost from its top tween show Zoey 101, despite the controversy surrounding the announcement of 16-year-old Zoey star Jamie Lynn Spears’ surprise pregnancy last December. Spears plays a level-headed teen attending boarding school.

Three weeks after her pregnancy was revealed, the show’s third-season-ending cliffhanger movie set a series record, generating 7.5 million viewers. Despite pressure from some media outlets that felt Spears’ pregnancy sent a poor message to young, impressionable teens, Nickelodeon decided to air the fourth and final season of the series in February. The season debut pulled in another 6.25 million viewers and through April 13 the show is averaging 3.5 million viewers.

“We talked a lot to our audiences and internally and we really believe that the audience, who we respect immensely, understands the difference between what happened to a character and what happens in real life,” Zarghami said.

Zoey 101 isn’t the only show extending its audience. Live-action series iCarly, starring Nick child star Cosgrove of Drake & Josh fame, has drawn more viewers than Disney’s big hit Hannah Montana since its September 2007 launch. The show, which solicits user-generated content from viewers for a fictional Webcast, has averaged 2.6 million viewers for both original and repeat episodes to date since its September launch, besting Hannah Montana, which averaged 2.4 million viewers during the same period — although Hannah has aired nearly twice as many episodes during the period.

In addition, Web site iCarly.com has drawn 2.1 million unique visitors a month and 100,000 user-generated content submissions, according to Nickelodeon.

“I think we have been smart in thinking about true convergence for the audience,” Zarghami said. “iCarly and iCarly.com are an innovation and a brilliant execution of bringing the audience back and forth between a narrative show and a Web site.”

The network has also hit ratings paydirt this year with several original specials based on popular series, such as SpongeBob SquarePants. The nine-year-old animated series featuring the lovable, yellow-colored, hamburger-flipping sponge continues to draw significant viewers: 6.1 million households tuned in for an April 11 movie special, Spongebob SquarePants: Pest of the West.

The series itself drew 2.7 million viewers for its primetime airings during first-quarter 2008.

Nick’s Feb. 18 original movie The Fairly OddBaby, based on long-running animated series The Fairly OddParents, was the most-watched entertainment show on cable thus far this year, garnering 9.4 million viewers.

“A rising tide raises all boats, so I do think it’s the cumulative effect that we’ve done together that’s bringing [Nick’s ratings] up,” Zarghami said.

MUSIC 101

Nickelodeon is also taking a page from Disney Channel and stepping into the music business. It has partnered with Sony Music Group last spring to develop several albums based on Nick talent, such as the pre-teen rock group the Naked Brothers Band and iCarly’s Cosgrove.

The first release from the partnership, the soundtrack album The Naked Brothers Band, has almost gone gold, selling close to 500,000 units since its debut last October. A second Naked Brothers album dropped last Tuesday, although no sales numbers were available at press time.

Still, the Naked Brothers will be hard-pressed to match the sales performance of Disney Channel’s High School Musical franchise, which has racked up 15 million in combined record sales for two soundtracks.

Nevertheless, Sony Music Label Group chairman Rob Stringer said he hopes to take advantage of television to help build and market young musical talent. Sony is teaming with Nick to create a new series, One 4 All, which follows the exploits of a fictional boy band and expects to release a soundtrack or two from the show.

“If you look at American Idol, Hannah Montana or High School Musical, television is a platform where [musical] talent ends up becoming much bigger than just through radio or going to the press,” Stringer said. “With Nick, they have their own brand and they’re discovering talent the same as we are, so it’s a great partnership.”

St. Petersburg Times TV media critic Eric Deggans says Nickelodeon’s ventures into music, as well as other non-television entertainment platforms, allows the cable programmer to take full advantage of the various platforms and outlets in which kids and parents partake.

“You have all these platforms on the table, why wouldn’t you leverage your brand across that — it’s almost like leaving money at the roulette table if you don’t make an effort,” he said.

Nickelodeon is now on these platforms and Zargahmi said it will continue to dive into other relevant businesses, like video-on-demand, high-definition television and mobile services.

“Nickelodeon is a big platform with permission to do lots of great things,” added McGrath. “They have their hands on a number of things that really touch an audience and culture.”

And, they’re holding some flashy grades in their hands, going into the spring break season.

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