During his 10 months as Nickelodeon’s president of content development and production, Russell Hicks has helped turn around the ratings fortunes of the kids-targeted network with a focus on original, comedy-driven animated and live-action series targeted at a “postmillennial” audience of kids born after 2005. Hicks recently spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the network’s ratings resurgence — Nick’s projected 11% increase in its target demo of kids 2-11 during second-quarter 2013 would be its biggest quarter-to-quarter gain since 1997 — as well as its plans to compete and thrive in a very crowded kids’ programming marketplace.
MCN: What’s been the biggest focus for you in your new position at Nickelodeon?
Russell Hicks: We’ve been focused on our creator-driven philosophy and finding the next generation of hit makers, and we’re focused on understanding this new generation of kids that is coming of age into our demo, which is post-millennials. We want to know what makes them tick and what makes them laugh, because the Nick brand is about making kids basically fall on the ground laughing, and our shows have always been based in that, and we’re going to keep true to that. It’s always been our mantra to put kids first, and to do that you have to understand who you’re talking to. Every generation is different — the past generation grew up on us and now we are reinventing ourselves for the new generation of kids.
MCN: What have you learned about these kids and how are you positioning Nickelodeon to speak to them on all platforms?
RH: I like to say we’re trying to make the most indemand content for this on-demand generation. They are growing up with every device handed to them, and they’re able to use them seamlessly. But we’re finding out that family is really important to them and they’re really close to their mothers and fathers — they almost live in a bubble society with their parents, who are really involved in their lives. What the characters are doing and saying should reflect what [post-millennials] are doing and saying in their lives.
MCN: Nickelodeon’s ratings struggles over the past year have been well documented, although the network is showing signs of a ratings recovery. Have you been satisfied with Nick’s recent ratings performance during your tenure?
RH: We’re been up for 22 [consecutive weeks in ratings] and we’re happy about how things are going. We currently have two shows working well in Sam & Cat, which just launched and has done great out of the box, and we have [animated] series Sanjay and Craig, which is doing really well. We’re about to launch another new series, The Haunted Hathaways. You’ll see in these new shows that they’re reflecting the research that we’ve been doing against this generation which says that they want to laugh. They want comedy in every form — not just verbal comedy and smart scripts, but physical comedy.
MCN: There seems to be a lot of competition in the kids’ space not only on the cable front, but also from companies like Netflix and Amazon. How do you differentiate Nickelodeon from your competitors?
RH: I think great content drives viewers, so my main focus at this job is to find the best thing that we can deliver to our audience. We’re putting a lot of energy and time into finding the next generation of creators. … I’m not looking for the guy who has the hit show; I’m looking for the guy who’s working for the guy that has the hit show.
MCN: Will we see more live-action or animated comedy from Nickelodeon over the next few months?
RH: You’ll see a lot of everything — animated, live action and also sketch comedy, which we’re looking at as an incubator lab for new ideas and new creators, writers, actors and actresses. We’re using our Nick app as a great place to try out content in short form. We’re trying every which way we can — it’s all about finding fresh voices and talent to put on-air.