It’s no secret that Nickelodeon loves kids. Whether it’s Nick Jr., Noggin or Nickelodeon, the same rules apply: Kids first.
Children are the network’s bread and butter and, according to Nickelodeon Executive VP and General Manager Tom Ascheim, one of the keys to its success is multicultural programming.
“We’ve done research with kids, and what we hear back very consistently is that it’s important for them to see people like themselves on the screen,” Mr. Ascheim said. “That’s sort of true of every ethnic group we speak to. They continue to tell us it’s important, and we continue to produce it, and they continue to make us the No. 1 kids channel on television.
“When you’re working in children’s television, you realize that kids demographically are actually different than grownups statistically. They are the most diverse ranks and are on the leading edge of the demographic trends of our country. Our country is getting more and more diverse.
It’s been clear to us for a very long time that if we want to be true to our promise to the audience, which is that every kid is a member of Nickelodeon, by the very definition of our brand, our air has to look a lot like the people who watch.”
Across the board, diversity reigns supreme on Nickelodeon’s shows. “It’s been a long belief that diversity is fundamentally good for our business, and we put it in everything that we do. It’s spawned lots of different kinds of television shows and even stuff that goes off the network,” Mr. Ascheim said.
If there’s one program that has had the greatest impact, it’s “Dora the Explorer,” starring a curious young Latina and her friends. In each episode, Dora solves a problem and invites the viewer to help her, speaking both English and Spanish along the way. “Dora” has become a worldwide phenomenon: Since 2000, the show has generated more than $3 billion in retail sales of associated licensed products.
“Dora the Explorer became such a huge success that in some ways it has dominated the landscape in this discussion,” said Mr. Ascheim. “It’s the No. 1 show for preschoolers and draws a very wide audience. She’s an icon not only to the Hispanic community, but also to all children across America. It’s a great story of how having a diverse show does not mean that you are in any way narrowing your appeal.”
Multicultural programs such as “Dora” are popular with children, of course, but advertisers also have been drawn by Nickelodeon’s commitment to shows with a broad ethnic appeal.
“Advertisers turn to us for our expertise in reaching our audience, and they welcome and enjoy our environment,” Mr. Ascheim said. “They like that they are really reaching kids in a genuine way, in a diverse way. It’s something they really embrace.”
A major element in Nickelodeon’s multicultural success is interactivity. “It’s a big element of all of our programming,” Mr. Ascheim said. “It’s something we discovered particularly through ‘Blue’s Clues.’ One of the hallmarks of watching kids who are watching Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. or Noggin is that they’re noisy. They yell at the screen, they talk to the screen, they very much feel like they are participating along with the story.”
While “Dora” is a show that emphasizes language, “El Tigre” is a Nickelodeon show that’s steeped in culture and heritage. “Different creators have different interests they want to explore,” said Mr. Ascheim. “We have a new show called ‘El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera,’ a cartoon for older kids, our 6-11 audience, that we introduced this winter. The two creators, Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua, are from Mexico and they talk about how the show is a love letter to their culture. They use all different parts of Mexican culture in the way that they’ve crafted the show, whether it’s the art style, architecture, the holidays that they talk about, the accents of the characters, the names of the characters.
“What we hear both in research and anecdotally is that kids begin to have a little bit of Spanish in their vocabulary and parents credit it to Dora,” said Mr. Ascheim. “It’s really a great achievement for us. But it’s funny—Dora has traveled around the world. She’s on in many, many, many countries. In most of the world, Dora’s second language is actually English. So in France, Dora’s a big, big hit in French, but her second language is English. She’s teaching English to little French children.”
In October, a new show called “Ni Hao, Kai-lan” premieres on Nick Jr.; like “Dora” and “El Tigre,” it’s both interactive and multicultural. “Ni Hao” weaves Chinese language and culture into lead character Kai-lan’s mini-adventures. In addition to the Chinese dumplings she eats, the lanterns that hang in her home and her toy dragon boats, Kai-lan intersperses the Mandarin Chinese language with English.
As with all multicultural shows on Nickelodeon, whether educational or entertainment programming, authenticity is essential. “Sometimes the curriculum is about the culture that we’re talking about, so we’ll have a Chinese expert for Ni-Hao,” said Mr. Ascheim. “It depends on serving the needs of the show.”
For each daypart, Nickelodeon serves the multicultural viewer in every age range. “In the morning, we have Nick Jr. on for preschoolers when the big kids are in school. Starting at 2 o’clock we ease into regular Nickelodeon, and some of that day is populated by live-action shows and animation. Diversity is just as important for our 6-11 audience as it is to our 2- to 5-year-old audience,” said Mr. Ascheim. “Our core audience is 2-11, and it’s divided into different parts of the day.”
Diversity extends beyond the TV set for Nickelodeon. “The Internet is a huge part of where our brand is growing, but it’s also in DVDs, toys, all our platforms,” Mr. Ascheim said. “We’re on iTunes, on computers, on mobile phones, live tours and games and clothes. In all of those iterations, we pretty much follow the same playbook. It’s all about kids first. We build off of the same great characters that are on our television network. We find different ways to best express them on the medium in which they appear. On the Internet, you can find ‘El Tigre’s’ home. It’s a place you can explore as a game. It looks the same way and sounds the same way and feels the same way as the character does on TV.”
Nickelodeon has no plans to move away from its multicultural commitment. “I think the audience continues to get more diverse because the population is more diverse. We will continue to reflect our audience, so I think this will only expand our audience,” Mr. Ascheim said.
“On our best day, I always feel that diversity is like eating in New York City, by which I mean there are so many great restaurants, so many different flavors that are available to you every given day. Some days you feel like Chinese food, some days you feel like Mexican food. You fill in the blanks. Nobody sits around New York and goes, ‘It’s diversity day.’ It’s just the great flavors that make eating in the city really terrific.
“I hope our networks continue to feel like that. We see ourselves on the forefront because our audience is on the forefront. We’ve done enormously well by following our audience.”