Nickelodeon once ruled kids TV, but can it make comeback?
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Nickelodeon once ruled kids TV, but can it make comeback?

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Twenty-five years ago, Brian Robbins was an aspiring young producer, scouring the country for talent.

He assembled a troupe of teens for a sketch comedy show, "All That," which became all that and more for Nickelodeon. The goofy show helped usher in a period of peak imagination for the children's channel along with "Rugrats," and then, "Blues Clues," and "SpongeBob SquarePants." Now, Robbins is back at the Viacom cable network in a much different role — and in a much different world.

As president of Nickelodeon, Robbins is trying to rescue the beloved operation from becoming a casualty of the streaming wars. Earlier this month, Viacom announced that Robbins soon will be segueing into a larger role as president of kids and family entertainment for the soon-to-be merged ViacomCBS. Robbins is tasked with not only turning Nickelodeon around, but also helping the entire company craft a comprehensive strategy to survive, and thrive, in the hypercompetitive streaming era.

The challenges are daunting. Back in the 1990s, Nickelodeon's competition was Cartoon Network, PBS and Disney Channel. Now, the network is struggling to fend off incursions from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Disney+, the just-launched streaming service that secured 10 million customers in its first day. Disney has enlisted Mickey Mouse, Marge Simpson and Woody, the "Toy Story" cowboy, for its family-friendly, $6.99-a-month streaming service. WarnerMedia grabbed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for its upcoming HBO Max service, and Apple TV+ is hoping to gain altitude with "Snoopy in Space."

"We have to move fast, and continue to evolve as the business evolves," Robbins said in an interview this week. He added that for the last 13 months, since he became president, his priority has been to recreate the excitement that once defined Nickelodeon. "We want to get back to that creative-driven culture that used to exist here."

Indeed, for much of its 40-year history, Nickelodeon has been a leader in kids entertainment. When it launched in 1979, pay-TV operators correctly surmised that offering a dedicated children's channel would lure parents who would pay for a TV subscription.

Nickelodeon grew in popularity and was distributed in nearly 100 million American homes. "Rugrats," "SpongeBob SquarePants," "Dora the Explorer" and other shows became multibillion-dollar merchandise franchises ("SpongeBob" once attracted more than 3 million viewers an episode). Nickelodeon was so popular that pay-TV distributors, and millions of parents, found that they couldn't live without it, so Viacom extracted premium fees for its programming.

Then came Netflix. The cable channel began licensing reruns of "SpongeBob" and other popular shows to the budding streaming service, which Netflix then offered commercial-free to its subscribers. Netflix quickly became a destination for kids. As cord-cutting accelerated, Nickelodeon's ratings slide intensified.

The children's network has lost nearly 60% of its audience since 2010, according to Nielsen ratings data. And in Viacom's recently ended fiscal year, Nickelodeon's viewership among its core audience of children ages 2 to 11 slumped 28% compared to fiscal 2018, according to Bernstein & Co.

"Nickelodeon is in a tough spot because of the switch to online viewing, and then you have the launch of Disney+," said Derek Baine, longtime cable TV analyst with S&P Global Market Intelligence. "It's not a good time to be a cable network."

That's why Robbins hesitated when Viacom Chief Executive Bob Bakish approached him last year about becoming Nickelodeon president.

At the time, Robbins was happy working at Paramount Pictures on Melrose Avenue, where he was in charge of Paramount Players, a unit that mines MTV and Nickelodeon for film projects. Nickelodeon's problems seemed enormous. Even his 5-year-old daughter watched as much content on YouTube as television. (Although she is a big fan of "Paw Patrol" on Nickelodeon.)

"I knew that there were enormous headwinds confronting television," Robbins said. "But then my wife asked me the question that I like to ask everybody, which is: 'Why not?'"

Nostalgia also played a role. It was his first TV show, "All That," the kids version of "Saturday Night Live," that Robbins produced for Nickelodeon, beginning in 1994, that helped launch his producing career. (The show also was comedian Kenan Thompson's breakout hit).

"It's a big responsibility that I don't take lightly because the brand is so beloved and treasured," Robbins said.

After taking the job as Nickelodeon president in October 2018, Robbins discovered just how much work needed to be done.

"The cupboard was sort of bare," Robbins said. "We still have some hits, for sure, in 'SpongeBob,' 'Henry Danger' and 'Loud House,' but we needed new hits because we live in a world where we are competing with so much fresh content all of the time."

As part of Robbins' efforts to ramp up production at Nickelodeon Studios, the company announced that it had signed a multiyear output deal to provide Netflix with original feature-length animated movies and TV shows, creating spinoffs using supporting cast members from "SpongeBob" and other Nickelodeon shows. The deal doesn't include reruns of the original productions.

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