As the opening strains of the Ryan’s Mystery Playdate theme track start to play on this San Fernando Valley soundstage, comically accompanied by a refrain of kazoos, the Nickelodeon present’s Eight-year-old namesake star bursts onto the set, operating at full velocity, together with his arms held excessive, proclaiming, “I’m here.”
The frenetic second grader has earned the victory lap. His present, which Nickelodeon renewed on Monday for a 3rd season, is the top-rated TV program amongst preschoolers. It’s additionally a much-needed hit for the struggling children community, and early proof that ViacomCBS Kids and Family Entertainment President Brian Robbins’ wager on social media phenoms like Ryan Kaji, together with his 24 million YouTube followers, is paying off.
Emboldened by Ryan’s success, Robbins, who was tapped to turn out to be Nickelodeon’s president 18 months in the past, is doubling down on social media-led programming with a purpose of creating the cable community “home to the biggest and buzziest franchises in kids’ lives.”
On Monday, Nickelodeon introduced it forged one other social media sensation, Annie LeBlanc (the 15-year-old finest referred to as the star of the YouTube sequence Chicken Girls), to star alongside actress Jayden Bartels in a scripted buddy comedy sequence Side Hustle. Together the ladies have 38 million followers throughout social media platforms. Nickelodeon additionally has a film challenge within the works with Dance Moms phenom JoJo Siwa, whose authentic music video Boomerang has been seen greater than 800 million occasions on YouTube.
Robbins’ workforce spent 10 months negotiating a take care of the Korean academic model Pinkfong to develop an animated sequence primarily based on the YouTube preschool phenomenon Baby Shark, a Ok-pop rendition of a well-recognized camp track that has been performed Four.6 billion occasions. It’s anticipated to air early subsequent yr.
The stakes are sky excessive — ViacomCBS reported a loss within the ultimate quarter of 2019, the primary time it has reported outcomes since Viacom accomplished its merger with company sibling CBS. Analysts pressed CEO Bob Bakish about Nickelodeon’s rankings decline, which appeared to speed up for the reason that November launch of the Disney+ streaming service. Long believed to be the one largest supply of Viacom’s income, previous to the December CBS merger, Nickelodeon has misplaced 44% of its viewers since 2015, based on Nielsen.
“Nickelodeon continues to be a work in progress,” Bakish acknowledged within the February 20 investor name.
The community inadvertently planted the seeds of its personal rankings decline when it licensed reruns of such common exhibits as SpongeBob SquarePants, Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer to the then upstart streaming service, Netflix, in 2009.
But it’s not only a Nickelodeon drawback. Children’s tv has misplaced practically 70 % of its viewers since its peak in 2011, in accordance Bernstein Research analyst Todd Juenger’s evaluation of Nielsen rankings knowledge (see graphic). He declared children’ TV the primary sufferer of the streaming period again in 2017. In January, he wrote, “We continue to believe there is nothing Viacom can do to compel kids and teenagers to put down their iPads and their TikTok and sit in front of a TV set to watch a show ‘when it comes on.’”
Robbins is extra optimistic, thanks partially to his personal early victories navigating these adjustments. The former baby actor (he appeared as leather-jacketed robust man Eric Mardian within the 1980s sitcom Head of the Class) whose first break-out tv hit was the Nickelodeon sketch comedy present All That, which he co-created, wrote and government produced, realized greater than a decade in the past that youngsters’s viewing habits had been altering radically. Robbins supplied many of the financing for a 2010 movie primarily based on some of the common web characters at the moment, the squeaky voiced Fred Figglehorn (performed by teenager Lucas Cruikshank). When it debuted on Nickelodeon, Fred: The Movie drew 7.6 million viewers, making it the highest cable TV film of the yr amongst 2 to 11-year-olds.
That success knowledgeable Robbins’ determination to launch the digital media firm AwesomenessTV with Joe Davola in 2012 to create YouTube exhibits for teenagers and preteens who had drifted away from TV. Some of the exhibits had been short-form net diversifications of acquainted TV codecs — akin to “IMO,” a chat present that includes social media standouts of the second. It didn’t take lengthy for conventional media to take discover. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation acquired AwesomenessTV for $33 million in 2013. Robbins left 4 years later to run Viacom’s Paramount Players unit. Just a yr later, Viacom picked up AwesomenessTV, returning it to Robbins’ orbit.
Viacom CEO Bakish tapped Robbins in October 2018 to steer Nickelodeon’s turnaround, betting closely on his social media savvy. One of the very first issues Robbins did in his new publish was recruit his Four-year-old’s favourite YouTuber: Ryan.
“When I got here…the disruption was happening at such a rapid pace, I was like, ‘What’s our next ‘Fred’ movie?’ ‘Who’s our audience interested in?’” remembers Robbins. “Literally within the first week here I was like, ‘We gotta do a show with Ryan.’”
It’s not clear who picked up the cellphone first. The studio Pocket.watch had repeatedly approached Nickelodeon about bringing the YouTube sensation to TV — however till Robbins’ arrival, the pitch fell on deaf ears, says Pocket.watch CEO Chris Williams. The new Nickelodeon president put the challenge on fast-track, counting on the confirmed manufacturing chops of Pocket.watch’s chief content material officer, Albie Hecht, the previous Nickelodeon Entertainment president who oversaw the event of SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues. Hecht says he accomplished a pilot in six weeks. After testing it in January of final yr, Robbins ordered 20 episodes — a blistering tempo of growth for a preschool present.
Ryan’s Mystery Playdate debuted on April 19, 2019 at No. 1 within the time interval amongst viewers ages 2 to 11. It continued to draw viewers throughout the weekend, reaching an viewers of 5.5 million. Indeed, 40% of the viewers had been new to Nick. Less than per week later, Robbins ordered a second season.
“Brian Robbins obviously understands a thing or two about influencers and the ability to bring influencers to these more established platforms,” says Judy McGrath, the previous chair and chief government of MTV Networks, who at one level had oversight of Viacom cable networks, together with Nickelodeon. “A lot of the success with Ryan, with his show, brought a new audience.”
Migrating expertise from different platforms is simply a part of Robbins’ technique to revitalize Nickelodeon. He’s additionally growing exhibits that the household can watch collectively — akin to an American model of the British recreation present The Crystal Maze, and ensuring that the expertise displays the nation’s various inhabitants.
Robbins isn’t naive sufficient to suppose that Nickelodeon will deliver again 100 % of the viewers. Although it boasts such top-rated exhibits as PAW Patrol and Henry Danger, ViacomCBS is seeking to attain the 60% of children who aren’t tuned in to its cable community. So Nickelodeon is growing a spin-off of its tremendous common SpongeBob SquarePants sequence for Netflix, and Paramount Pictures plans to launch The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run in May. Nickelodeon additionally will probably be a part of a streaming service deliberate for later this yr, and provide 30,000 TV episodes and as much as 1,000 films.
Nickelodeon already distributes exhibits by way of a pair of streaming apps, preschool-focused Noggin and NickHits, which collectively command greater than three million subscribers. It launched two podcasts, Listen out Loud and The Casagrandes Familia Sounds, for followers of its animated sequence The Loud House and The Casagrandes, respectively. Dedicated Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. channels appeal to some 18.6 million YouTube followers. And it’s seeking to create stay experiences that reach its manufacturers, such because the weekend-long “Slime Fest” that precedes its Kids’ Choice Awards Show on March 22.
“I’m very open to our brand living everywhere,” Robbins says. “I think it’s really important, in the world that we live in, that we’re not just making shows. We have a brand and our brand needs to reach our audience wherever they’re consuming content.”
Cover photos by Tim Pannell for Forbes.
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