Why Are Nickelodeon Ratings Slimed?
In 2009, I told a former Nickelodeon executive and spouse of one of the network’s biggest producers that the Internet was going to take over the entertainment Industry. She laughed. Back then, dictating which shows would be popular from an ivory tower worked. Cable TV had little competition in the 9-13 demographic. Boy, has that changed! It’s not a secret to anybody that Nickelodeon ratings have been down for a very long time. For the past three or four years, traditional kids’ content distributors and media reporters have been telling us that poor ratings (execs prefer “ratings softness”) and revenue nightmares should be blamed on Netflix, YouTube, Minecraft, poor measurement systems and just about everything other than internal issues. While nobody will argue that the Net isn’t having an impact, Nickelodeon’s issues stem from its failure to resonate with its demographic and maintain its brand.
Nick’s current shows are well produced (particularly when comparing some of the MCN material). They’ve got great writers, talent, and crews. That’s what makes things difficult for execs in the tween demographic. Adults find it difficult to understand why “good content” doesn’t resonate with their demographic. It takes knowing and understanding the audience, not just a well-produced show. A comment posted in imdb forums on a current Nick show succinctly sums up the problem:
This is pretty much like all other shows on Nickelodeon nowadays. A tween [show] about tweens doing some random stuff. The stuff that happen in this show [is] stuff that would never happen in real life. It isn’t like one of those shows you can relate to, or at least enjoy. It doesn’t give you some kind of feeling when they are in bad or good situations….
I went deep into analysis and backstory in my original draft, but, with a storm brewing at Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, there’s little time to spare. Let’s fast-track Nick’s recovery. In this patented (not really), 3-Step Plan to Nickelodeon Network Success, I’ll touch on the main issues behind Nick’s mass exodus of viewers. (Elevator pitch: it’s a plan designed especially for getting networks, like yours, back on track!).
ONE: Understand and Listen to Your Demographic
Recently, I had the chance to do a quick survey of two seventh grade classes. Only one kid in each of two big classes watches Nickelodeon. Seventh graders (twelve to thirteen-year-olds) are in, but on the upper-end of Nick’s demographic. We’re seeing that younger kids have moved in the same direction. In the iCarly days, seventh graders were big Nick fans. Those were millennials. Tweens today are generation Z (aka “iGeneration” or just “iGen”). They’re children of older millennials and the younger end of Gen X-ers.
Gen Z is consists of kids born from roughly 1995 to the present. They’re generally more mature (millennial parents may debate that), more accepting, and more determined to make a difference. They don’t remember a pre-9/11 world or a world without smart devices. Gen Z-ers want shows that reflect their reality, not an unrealistic version of it. (Watch for more on gen Z.) The Nick line-up is overloaded with shows that don’t reflect gen Z life.
While many younger gen Z girls are fans of Jace Norman (cuteness and fame is still “a thing”), star of Henry Danger, they aren’t as fanatic about the show concept (a boy without powers who becomes a superhero’s sidekick). For a company accused of not generating new ideas, Nick could have done without a second live-action show about superheroes to compete with The Thundermans, Nick’s show that launched just a few months earlier. 100 Things to Do Before High School has a great cast, but is filled with ultra-quirky examples of what the commenter above would call “unrelatable.” The audience that watched the equally-quirky Big Time Rush hit, from the same creator, is mostly in upper high-school and college now. (I think I was the only one in my group at college who knew what Nickelodeon was up to.) Another example, Game Shakers, seemed like a sound concept, but in 2016, kids understand a lot more about the videogame industry. Two twelve-year-old girls starting a multi-million dollar game company with a faux rap superstar just doesn’t fly in this demographic, particularly when the writers didn’t graduate from the video game industry.
Since 2008, we’ve received feedback, opinions and requests about Nick, Disney, Cartoon Network, and pretty much everybody else’s content at Piper’s Picks. I’ve read it all…in addition to endless forums and other places where teens and tweens post their opinions. That is the real, hard core data, not random surveys that nobody you know has heard of or Nielsen ratings that you probably have never been a part of.
Nickelodeon is living the same life it did four, eight, and twenty years ago. It’s is still trying to dictate what “shall be” the shows tweens and teens will watch (talking) and not asking what shows kids want to see (listening.) Back then, Nick had a slate of innovative, fun shows. If you don’t listen, you lose your audience. Gen z kids are looking for 90’s style shows like Friends, Full House, and Boy Meets World. (By the way, I asked about Disney’s Girl Meets World. The kids were not fans, to put it mildly.)
Today, there’s plenty of competition for Nick in the content space. Netflix is both delivering what kids want (i.e. Fuller House) and taking kids away from cable TV, into a proprietary platform at the same time. Netflix responds to demand. At Nick, dollars, not demand, leads the way (hence the celebration over revenues being down only 2%).
TWO: Get off Your High (Concept) Horse
For years, Nick and Disney have been myopically focused on very “high concept,” comedy programming. It’s not working for Nick because the shows have become ubiquitous, formulaic, and untimely, with jokes being recycled from one series to the next. In short, high concept has been played out.
You can think of “high concept” simply as concepts that can easily be pitched and communicated. One sentence can often explain what the show is about, making the show an easy pitch for creators and development VPs. In the tween/teen world, high concept shows typically answer “what if” type situations: What if ghosts inhabited a house that you just moved your family into? What if a superhero allowed a regular boy to be his sidekick? What if a family adopted a dog that could secretly talk and type? If you’re seeing the pattern, you’ll likely recognize the monotony in the demographic.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have “low concept” shows. (Don’t let the wording mislead you. From the outside, “high concept” sounds as if it takes more intelligence than low concept. Both shows need intelligent, talented writers to keep generating good stories that keep the show moving forward.) Low concept shows are more difficult to convey because they typically can’t be communicated simply, such as Seinfeld, Parenthood, and The Middle. The shows are more about character development. I recently read an article that described low concept shows as “[n]ot the kind of concept invented while stoned.” Two of the most popular low-concept shows in the tween/teen sectors were Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens. The shows were huge Disney Channel successes because of their ability to resonate with the public.
Lizzie McGuire was one of the tween genre’s biggest hits, a show that transcended Disney Channel, landing a theatrical movie, airtime on ABC, and Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award for Favorite Movie Star (Hilary Duff). Yet, when I mentioned the show in meetings at Nick and, more surprisingly, Disney Channel, I got blank stares. High Concept shows are failing. Gen Z wants relatable shows. What’s the solution? Look at some successful relatable shows. Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens are perfect roadmaps for today’s audience, much like Mean Girls remains the holy grail of teen girl comedies that all others are compared against twelve years later. A strong brand requires having top talent who know their shhhh-ssstuff. That brings us to our final step.
THREE: Solidify the Brand
Consider this: a twenty-five year old today was sixteen when iCarly launched, eight when Spongebob tossed his first crabby patty, and was born the year Clarissa began “explaining it all.” A thirty year old would have been eighteen (in college) when Drake and Josh launched. Yes, it’s been that long. Nonetheless, development VPs in the teen/tween sector are often in that age range, where they don’t know the recent history of content at their own network, let alone the competition. Maintaining a brand requires knowing where it came from. Any strong retail company has training videos explaining the company and its history to new employees. Nickelodeon has professional, scripted shows that figuratively show the brand’s history. Who’s watching?
One of the reasons for hiring younger executives is the expectation that they will “get” current trends, particularly in the digital world. The problem for Nick is that their audience is beyond what their upper 20’s execs were doing in college. My youngest relatives aren’t on SnapChat or Instagram. I tried to get into a discussion about current social networking trends and how to tie in traditional satellite/cable TV with online content (something Disney and Nick have been struggling with for years) during a meeting. Again, I got the blank stare. That conversation would require the marketing team.
Where Nick Jr. audiences are reliant upon their parents putting on the TV or an iPad (for now), Nickelodeon’s audience is independent and seeks out content in many platforms. Viacom and Nickelodeon executives need more knowledge today to have the savvy and capability to see the big picture (no pun intended).
Finally, Nick has to figure out where it fits into the teen/tween demographic in 2016. There seems to be consensus among producers, directors, and writers that Nick is too busy looking over its shoulder at Disney. Recently, Disney let my team know that it didn’t want any more shows featuring kids at school or at home. (Yes, you’re on track if you’re thinking “ummm…where would kids be?”) Weeks later, Nickelodeon sent back the same bizarre response. Coincidence? Nick’s Haunted Hathaways is considered Wizards of Waverly Place (Disney) with ghosts instead of wizards. The pattern goes back to High School Musical days. Nick responded with Spectacular! (which….didn’t live up to the title.) An underrated exception is Nick’s 2015 Ho Ho Holiday Special (which notably had the powers behind Disney’s Austin & Ally in the writer’s room.)
Prior to 2009, it was easy to distinguish a Nick show from Disney Channel. Aside from the style, the content was generally more family-friendly. That was a reason Jennette McCurdy’s family went with Nick over Disney (arguably one of the most talented actors in Nickelodeon history.) In just the past couple of years, I’ve been amazed at what Nick has let fly in the face of their brand.
Just a few months ago, typically super-liberal YouTubers were “grossed out” when Game Shakers sardined its two lead tween girls in bathing suits between two huge, older (upper 30s to mid-40s) guys in a hot tub. The adult actors understandably looked uncomfortable. To take it a step further, a young teen boy was then invited to sit between the two adult guys. His line: “here I come” as he wedged his way into the hot tub. Henry Danger’s early episodes were loaded odd comments from Captain Man related to hooking up with Henry’s Mom.
Looking up the Viacom Ladder
I have met some dedicated artists and enthusiastic, experienced executives at Nick. They have people who are dedicated to the brand, for now. Nick recently cleaned some of its house. I think more needs to be done. I get the impression that the big changes need to be made at the Viacom level, specifically in the New York offices. The disconnect there would explain why several other Viacom properties are suffering (i.e. Nick’s sister-company, MTV). Clearly, I’m not alone.
At the time of this article, Viacom and its CEO Philippe Dauman, are facing internal fire from Vice Chairwoman Shari Redstone. Ms. Redstone’s family owns National Amusements, which has controlling interest in Viacom. While Mr. Dauman is undoubtedly focused on Viacom’s stock prices, as he noted in February, the focus may be better served on the audience and programming. Advertisers don’t like spending dollars on even the best shows when nobody is watching.
Nickelodeon has great properties and a very colorful, orange and slime-green history. The fan-base runs several decades deep. It’s going to take executives who live the brand, know how to connect with its demographic, and can leverage the digital world to get Nickelodeon’s ratings back on track and make the network victorious (pun intended) once again.