As general manager of Nickelodeon’s all-animation network Nicktoons, Keith Dawkins knows all about the cartoons kids love. Nicktoons recently launched “The Secret Show,” an import from England that evokes memories of James Bond, “The Jetsons” and “Rocky & Bullwinkle,” but with a modern twist. With the 2007 Toy Fair in New York coming up, Mr. Dawkins spoke with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about how the network would be promoting and marketing “The Secret Show” not only there, but also across multiple platforms.
TelevisionWeek: “The Secret Show” is from the BBC, but it seems as though it will play well to American viewers, too. Is that why Nicktoons acquired it?
Keith Dawkins: When I first read the script for “The Secret Show,” I was on a flight out to Los Angeles, and I laughed out loud. American viewers have seen enough of that British-inspired stuff, whether it’s Monty Python or Austin Powers or James Bond; and in animation, there’s Aardman with “Wallace & Gromit.” American audiences get it.
TVWeek: There seem to be connections in “The Secret Show” to other pop culture hits, shows such as “Get Smart,” “The Incredibles,” “The Jetsons” and even “Rocky & Bullwinkle.” Did this appeal to Nicktoons?
Mr. Dawkins: When I saw the visuals matching up to what I read, I had the same sensibilities. Depending on what age you are, you’ll see those connections. For younger kids who may not know those references, they’ll still feel all the other current connections. It really is a mix of sensibilities, both in the writing and in the characters.
TVWeek: What demographic does Nicktoons appeal to most?
Mr. Dawkins: We’re all animation, all of the time. … Animation by its nature attracts mostly boys. Our sweet spot is about a 101/2-year-old boy. Overall, at the end of the day, we look to attract kids from 6 to 14.
TVWeek: How do you plan to market and promote products based on “The Secret Show” through the Toy Fair in New York?
Mr. Dawkins: With all of our shows, “The Secret Show” included, there are different types of rights that are attached to them. We try to get as many rights as we can to get the shows out to our audience in all the ways we can, which could be online or on other platforms, like mobile. Then there’s the toy and licensed merchandise area. It’s a tricky business because there are properties that have great on-air life that don’t have great consumer product life. And there are properties out there that may not be the biggest ratings hits but are huge consumer products. There are some that aren’t even on the air anymore, but they’re still selling pillowcases and plush toys.
TVWeek: How do you choose what to acquire for Nicktoons, and is merchandising a consideration?
Mr. Dawkins: First and foremost, we look for things that will resonate with our audience in terms of characters and stories. We don’t think toys and plush first. We think story content and character. It’s better for the kids and it’s a Nickelodeon tradition. That’s not to say that Nickelodeon hasn’t looked to sell toys in the past. Of course we have. You see SpongeBob and you see Dora the Explorer. But we have stayed true that when we make content, we look to make character, story line and those things first, and do right by our audience in that way. Over time, if we determine that there’s opportunity to tap in to what the viewers have said that they love about these characters, and we can sell other things, then so be it. That’s the way we looked at “The Secret Show.” Yes, because it’s a spy theme, because of the nature of the characters, there can be toys and games that come out of it, but that’s not the way we approach the show’s development.
TVWeek: Which success would you prefer, a show that doesn’t get the ratings but sells merchandise hand over fist, or a hit show that doesn’t merchandise well?
Mr. Dawkins: That’s an interesting question. I think if you are a media content company, putting content in so many different portals, you want great pieces of content. That’s what resonates with your audience. So I’ll take the content thing to begin with because it feels pure. It feels like you are identifying your audience’s needs, you’re building your brand, you’re developing content, story line and characters first. And that will result in your bottom-line needs being addressed. You’re a business and you have to meet the bottom line. If you do it the other way, addressing the bottom line first, you might be inclined to pick up something to sell toys, and that over time may erode your brand name. You may miss what your audience needs. You may make some short-term wins, but you may be sacrificing long-term gains. If you identify with your brand and connect that to your audience, developing story line content around that, you’ll meet your ratings goal, meet your audience needs, and sell some toys and/or DVDs. Then everyone will be happy.
TVWeek: Is the potential variety of product ever a determining factor in greenlighting a show?
Mr. Dawkins: It depends on the network and the network executive making the decision and what their agenda is. Speaking for Nicktoons, the conversations I always have are script gets in front of us, bible gets in front of us, and the first thing out of our mouths are, “Wow, that’s funny,” or, “Wow, that’s different. Haven’t seen art like that. That’s unique.”
Story line and audience and content for kids, that’s what we concentrate on for a long, long time. It takes time to get these things to air, whatever air means-online, TV, mobile, what have you. That toy thing, or that DVD thing, or that pillowcase, comes out much later.
TVWeek: Then toys and DVDs are all basically considerations after the show has launched?
Mr. Dawkins: Yes. We try to be a place where kids want to come and watch the best animation, the most varied and diverse animation that there is out there. That’s storytelling. Storytelling comes first. Nickelodeon has a long tradition of thinking that way, and all the other business needs that come out of it have worked out, whether it’s ratings based, ad-sales based, consumer product based, whatever. That’s how we think at Nicktoons.
TVWeek: Does Nickelodeon-and Nicktoons in particular-come across as cooler to a 10-year-old kid than competition like Cartoon Network, Toon Disney or Discovery Kids?
Mr. Dawkins: I think in this day and age, kids are very smart. They know what all these different brands stand for, and there’s a lot of competition out there vying for kids’ attention. And I think that competition is not just the kids’ channels, but also DVDs and video games, all the content on the Web. Many things vie for their attention, so I think you need to have a brand that is kind of distinct. You need to have unique offerings so that when they go there, they know what kind of content they’re going to get. Do we feel hipper and cooler? I don’t know. I guess you’d have to ask a kid. The one thing I’m proud of now is that Nicktoons has a distinct, unique, identifiable, branded offering and that’s what we hear out of kids when we do research on that kind of stuff. They know our network. They know our promos and the new shows. We have an environment that feels unique and distinct from Toon Disney and the others. We’ve differentiated ourselves in the marketplace and that’s important to us.
TVWeek: Are you taking advantage of other platforms, such as on-demand?
Mr. Dawkins: Yes, we do video-on-demand. It’s part of our overall Nickelodeon video-on-demand offering.
TVWeek: How soon will you know the audience reaction to “The Secret Show”?
Mr. Dawkins: We should know soon in terms of initial ratings. But even though ratings are important, we try not to judge our shows positively or negatively on initial ratings. Of course, we’re happy when our show gets off to a fast start. There’s a very crowded marketplace. It takes more work than ever before to really commit to a p
roperty, have it on the air, do brand and promo work around it to get people to know about it, keep it in a time slot for a long time so there’s a steady, consistent place where somebody can turn to see that show. We’re excited if this thing gets out of the gate fast, but we’re really looking to build and nurture these properties over the long haul.
TVWeek: If parents like a show, do they get their kids into it?
Mr. Dawkins: It’s funny, but there is sort of this joint viewing thing. It’s no surprise, whether it’s “SpongeBob” or “Dora.” Everyone loves them. I think “The Secret Show” speaks to this: You can speak to kids with a type of maturity and sophistication that doesn’t do any harm to them but at the same time respects the level of their intellect. I think that’s what makes “SpongeBob” so great, that’s what made “Rocky & Bullwinkle” so great, and I think it’s true with “The Secret Show.” There’s sophistication in the writing. It’s a fine line to ride, but when you nail it with humor, that’s when you see the adults talking about it, as well as the kids and the teenagers.