When Nickelodeon grows up, Cyma Zarghami, who was named MTV Networks’ Kids and Family Group president in January, hopes the top-ranked children’s network will become an omnipresent family brand.
At 26 years old, Nick already has expanded its family-friendly brand well beyond television screens. But now Ms. Zarghami has determined it’s time for some of the network’s boldest jumps yet. Nick will break out of the kids department-and start targeting parents. The network also plans to debut the bulk of its pilots exclusively online.
Ms. Zarghami is preparing a parenting-themed initiative with an online ad-supported parents community to be launched later this year. The effort might be expanded into a parents broadband channel, then possibly debuting as a linear channel as well.
“The first Nick viewers are now parents of Nick viewers in our core demographic,” Ms. Zarghami said. “Parents are going to play an important role in the new strategy for us.”
Ms. Zarghami intends to launch about 20 upcoming pilots on TurboNick, the network’s broadband channel, to help promote and test future shows prior to a linear launch. “We’re going to try them first on the Internet-not just as a research tool, but as a way of delivering fresh content,” she said.
Ms. Zarghami, who reports to MTV Networks Chairman and CEO Judy McGrath, sees the strategy as part of an overall Nickelodeon empire expansion. At the network’s upfront presentation last month in New York, she presented the channel’s multiplatform plan-allowing content to migrate to and from the Internet, selling shows on iTunes, and other initiatives that have recently become new media boilerplate among the MTVN brands.
But Ms. Zarghami’s underlying strategy for the channel involves moving beyond mere content distribution. With onetime Nick viewers having kids of their own, five years ago MTV Networks experimented with attracting parents by launching Nick Jr. Family Magazine, a publication for parents with preschool-age Nick Jr. viewers. Then, last year, the company opened the Nickelodeon Family Suites in Orlando, Fla., a Nickelodeon-themed hotel near Walt Disney World-a venture that brings whole families into a Nick-branded experience. And in December Nickelodeon acquired GoCityKids.com, a guide for parents looking for activities and events for their children.
Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media, said the idea of a parents channel-broadband, linear or both-could be inspired. “Parenting is a pretty successful magazine category; I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “Obviously they are a pretty attractive target for advertisers and marketers-parents are young and going out and buying new products. It would particularly make sense to launch broadband, because most parents are in an office during the day.”
Focus Group Inspiration
Ms. Zarghami was inspired for the brand expansion during a focus group test, she said. In the test, one of about 300 conducted by the channel each year to track the shifting subtleties of children’s preferences, kids were given a gift box labeled “Nickelodeon.” They were told there was a special present from the network inside and were asked to guess what it was.
A few years ago, Ms. Zarghami said, a child would guess a toy, probably a SpongeBob doll. But now kids were guessing tickets to the Kids Choice Awards or a vacation at the Nick hotel.
“What struck me was here was a bunch of kids that had a relationship to Nickelodeon that wasn’t necessarily about a show on the air,” she said. “The hotel and awards were manifestations of the brand come to life, which makes me think more hotels is a good idea. It makes me think we have many more opportunities to build the brand off of television-live tours, movies and magazines. It’s really new territory.”
The most obvious route of expansion, she said, was through the primary influence in kids’ lives-their parents. “There are a lot of things we can do to build our relationship with parents,” she said.
For another source of inspiration, Ms. Zarghami had only to look at her own staff.
Two weeks ago during a Nickelodeon meeting at MTV Networks’ Los Angeles headquarters, about 250 aggressively cheerful Nick staffers crammed into a conference room built for maybe 100. Many of the staffers grew up on Nick, and several had kids of their own who are graduating from watching Nick Jr. to the more mature, flagship Nick. One department head joked about her office being hamstrung by an endless series of maternity leaves.
On stage, Ms. Zarghami told the group it must focus on the “five pillars” that support the Nick brand-television, international, movies, consumer products and new media. For effect, the 20-year kids network veteran threw the F-word into her speech, causing startled laughter, and later confessed “absolutely” enjoying profanity.
“I feel like it’s a great way to make a point,” she said.
Finding Her Groove
Nickelodeon has been the top-ranked total day basic cable network for more than a decade, besting longtime competitors Cartoon Network and Disney Channel. Last year the network owned all of the top 30 kids shows on broadcast and basic cable television among the 2 to 11 demo.
One reason for the network’s success is the aforementioned 300-plus focus groups each year. With kids often being easier than adults to inexpensively coax into lending honest opinions for network programming and marketing purposes, the channel engages in constant testing of every aspect of its brand.
When Ms. Zarghami joined the network in 1985, the channel had considerably fewer resources and, at first she didn’t think she would last long. She was hired to perform data entry, and fell asleep her first day on the job.
“I sucked at it,” she said. “I made so many mistakes.”
She must have done something right, because she was promoted to a scheduling position, where she literally cut and pasted shows into a desk calendar to form the Nick schedule.
“Studying scheduling I found to be my groove,” she said. “Finding the correlation between research, our competitive position and our content was a knack I had. I still do it today.”
One key learning experience for Ms. Zarghami was examining the Nick schedule from the point of view of an advertiser-not a programmer.
“If you’re a media buyer and you’re trying to buy airtime for a new game, you say to Nick, ‘I need this demo with this many gross ratings points over this many days,'” she said. Along the way, she crafted the Nickelodeon brand: kid-centric, funny and gender-neutral-that last, she said, has been particularly key to besting the competition.
“Cartoon Network was heavily anime in the afternoon, which is a boy-targeted genre, while Disney has a high concentration of girls from shows like ‘Lizzie McGuire,'” Ms. Zarghami said. “We try not to alienate anybody, and that’s one reason we’ve stayed so far ahead.”
With the network having stayed the leader for so many years, can she ever imagine a time when Nickelodeon is not the top kids network?
“Not on my watch,” she said.
Turbonick’s the Place For Pilots
At Nickelodeon, pilot testing is going public.
In a move that exemplifies Nick’s penchant for meticulous audience research and parent company MTV Networks’ desire for fresh broadband content, Nick will debut 20 pilots online this year.
The pilots will premiere this summer on the network’s broadband channel, TurboNick. Though the network has experimented with the concept by debuting “Go, Diego, Go!” and “The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” online, both premieres were done in conjunction with a planned launch on the linear channel.
The new Nick strategy, however, brings pilot testing right to the audience. By monitoring message boards and viewer impressions, online piloting allows Nick executives to determine on a large, yet inexpensive scale which shows are working, which are failing and-most importa
ntly-why. If successful, sources said, the strategy could be adopted by the other MTV Networks brands as well.
“It’s exciting because it gives us the opportunity to put more pilots into the pipeline,” said Cyma Zarghami, president of MTVN Kids and Family group. “There will still be some pilots that follow the traditional path, but there’s a lot of content that will now go to TurboNick first.”
Among the new pilots are “Triple Threat,” about a musical reluctant superhero, created and executive produced by Butch Hartman (“Fairly OddParents” and “Danny Phantom”).
Another is “Sheen’s Planet,” where a boy and his super-intelligent monkey are sent to Mars and hailed as the new Martian leaders. The show is a spinoff of Steve Oedekerk’s “Jimmy Neutron.”
Both will debut as a series of two-minute shorts created with Flash animation.