Rivals Unafraid to Borrow, or Steal, From Each Other
The New York Times
February 24, 2009
Early in his tenure as chairman of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner said he became so frustrated with the competitive advantage that Nickelodeon held over the Disney Channel among young cable viewers that he set about poaching a cadre of Nickelodeon executives, including Rich Ross, who now oversees the Disney Channel.
“Although Disney has its own ethos,” Mr. Eisner said in a recent interview, “Nickelodeon was a model.”
For Nickelodeon, it seems, turnabout has been fair play. Cyma Zarghami, the longtime president of Nickelodeon, has been fighting some of the recent successes of the Disney Channel — including the hit series “Hannah Montana” and the “High School Musical” movie franchise — with some Disney fairy dust of her own.
This summer, in its prime-time Nick at Nite program block, Nickelodeon will introduce “Glenn Martin DDS,” an animated series about the dysfunctional family of an eccentric dentist that was presented to Ms. Zarghami by Mr. Eisner, who left Disney in 2005 and now works part time as an independent producer.
Next month Nickelodeon will introduce “Penguins of Madagascar,” a Saturday-morning animated series featuring some of the characters of the “Madagascar” movies, which was brought to Nickelodeon by Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is now chief executive of DreamWorks Animation but who was for many years the head of Disney Studios. And in the most direct, tip-of-the-mouse-ears to its rival, Nickelodeon began trying to build its own “High School Musical” when “Spectacular” — an original, feel-good musical about a high school show choir — had its premiere on Nickelodeon on Feb. 16.
“I think they tapped into a genre that had been sleepy,” Ms. Zarghami said, referring to the global audience that Disney has corralled with “High School Musical.” “Now, it’s a genre that is open for everybody.”
While much of Nickelodeon’s daytime and weekend night programming is aimed at children 2 to 16, those efforts — which Ms. Zarghami, 46, has led for nearly a decade — have produced grown-up revenue.
Viacom, the parent of Nickelodeon, does not disclose the channel’s earnings, but the research company SNL Kagan estimates the combined revenues of Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite to have been $2 billion in 2008. That, by Kagan’s math, represented an increase of nearly $140 million, or 7.4 percent, over 2007, and $240 million, or 13.7 percent, over 2006.
And yet, however much she may be nodding to Disney, Ms. Zarghami’s broad strategy for the main Nickelodeon channel has centered on the philosophy that has guided Nickelodeon since soon after its founding three decades ago: capturing viewers from “cradle to grave,” as Judy McGrath, the chairwoman of MTV Networks (and Ms. Zarghami’s boss) put it in a recent interview.
As “Hannah Montana” became a phenomenon on the Disney Channel, Ms. Zarghami found a means of counterattack within Nickelodeon’s own stable: she built a show, “iCarly,” around the actress Miranda Cosgrove, then 14 and a co-star of the hit Nickelodeon series “Drake and Josh.”
That move has paid off: last year, according to Nielsen Media Research, each episode of “iCarly” drew an average of 2.6 million viewers, nearly 350,000 more than “Hannah Montana,” though still not as many as “SpongeBob SquarePants,” the goofy cartoon that has anchored the Nickelodeon lineup for a decade. (Because both channels show multiple episodes from their series throughout the day, those averages include original episodes and repeats.)
In an effort to build on the success of “iCarly,” Ms. Zarghami introduced the series “True Jackson VP” last fall. It stars Keke Palmer as a 15-year-old executive in a fashion company. With each episode drawing an average of 2.2 million viewers since September, according to Nielsen, the audience of “True Jackson” has itself been competitive with “Hannah Montana.” “True” has, however, lagged behind “The Suite Life on Deck,” a recent spinoff of Disney’s “Suite Life of Zack and Cody.”
In a further indication of how hard it can be to replicate the Disney buzz, the estimated 3.3 million viewers who tuned in to the premiere of “Spectacular!” on Nickelodeon on Feb. 16 represented about 1.3 million fewer than watched the premiere of a competing original movie, “Dadnapped,” on the Disney Channel at the same time.
Meanwhile, to ensure that the parents of children tuning in to Nickelodeon’s daytime fare gather together in front of the TV at night, Ms. Zarghami added the syndicated series “George Lopez” to the Nick at Nite lineup in September 2007. It was originally shown on ABC but struggled to find an audience.
To put the success of Ms. Zarghami’s bet on “George Lopez” in perspective, consider that the 1.4 million viewers who, on average, watched each episode of the series on Nick at Nite in 2008 represented more than twice as many as watched “Sex and the City” in syndication on TBS, and nearly three times as many as watched “The Sopranos” on A&E, according to Nielsen.
When asked by phone recently whether he could have imagined doing so well against such competition, Mr. Lopez said, “I’m not as beautiful as the women on ‘Sex and the City,’ but I am as dysfunctional.”
He added, “It was a risk that a show that wasn’t incredibly successful in production could have a life in syndication, and that decision right there was the big one Cyma made.”
In an attempt to extend the association of the Nickelodeon brand to two sister cable channels, Ms. Zarghami is expected to announce soon that it intends to change the name of one channel, the N, which is aimed at teens, to TEENick, and that another, Noggin, will henceforth be known as Nick Jr.
Ms. Zarghami brings to Nickelodeon the perspective of a lifer: she joined the channel in 1985 as a data-entry clerk, a year after graduating from the University of Vermont. Since then she appears to have been guided as much by the shows she watched growing up as by the tastes of her family. (She has three sons, ages 12, 6 and 2, with her husband, George, a former Nickelodeon production executive.)
Ms. Zarghami is the second-oldest of four children of an Iranian-born doctor and Scottish-born nurse, and was born in Iran, before moving eventually to Englewood, N.J. “Ours was the typical Friday night of my generation,” she said. “It was ‘Love American Style,’ ‘The Partridge Family,’ ‘The Brady Bunch,’ ‘The Odd Couple.’ ”
Mr. Katzenberg, the DreamWorks executive, said that “being a mom is so invaluable” to Ms. Zarghami’s “understanding of her constituency out there.” But he added that in watching her response to the Disney Channel, he had noted other traits.
“She will look at that and say, ‘Nice for them, here’s how I’m going to beat them,’ ” he said. “She then puts on the flak jacket and the crash helmet, puts the bayonet in between her teeth and heads into the trench to do battle.”