Nickelodeon Doubles Preschool Programming With 4 New Series, 3 Specials (Exclusive)

The network has a slate of programming in the pipeline that's set to roll out, along with other digital and consumer products initiatitives, in a big summer push.
Courtesy of Nickelodeon
'Blaze and the Monster Machines'

Nickelodeon is making a big push into growing its preschool business, ramping up its programming targeting kids 2-5 with a slew of new series and specials slated to roll out starting this summer.

The move is part of a multiyear strategy that has resulted in Nick doubling its preschool programming over the past five years.

"We believe that if we can create a relationship with preschoolers at an early age, hopefully we can keep them much longer," said Viacom Kids and Family president Cyma Zarghami, who oversees Nickelodeon. "The great thing about them is that you can actually deliver curriculum while telling great stories and being incredibly innovative."

Nickelodeon currently has 15 preschool properties in development, including 10 shows in production, with six of them set to debut by 2018. The present slate, which includes shows like PAW Patrol, Blaze and the Monster Machines and Shimmer and Shine, has boosted Nickelodeon to No. 1 in preschool (kids 2-5) for first-quarter 2016 and year-to-date in full-day.

The Hollywood Reporter has learned exclusively Nickelodeon has ordered four new animated series, all of which are in production:

Nella the Princess Knight, which marks Nick's first co-production with U.K.-based corporate sibling Channel 5, centers on an unconventional heroine who goes on marvelous quests to show the world that there's more than one way to be a princess or a knight. Created by Christine Ricci (curriculum consultant on Blaze and the Monster Machines and Team Umizoomi), Nella features a social-emotional curriculum highlighting relationship development and positive messaging that empowers preschoolers to be courageous.

Top Wing, a co-production with 9 Story that focuses on a team of eager young birds as they flock together to help their community and earn their wings as full-feathered rescuers. The action-adventure series teaches preschoolers the importance of teamwork and models successful problem solving. It was created by Matthew Fernandes and executive produced by Scott Kraft (The Fresh Beat Band, PAW Patrol).

Abby Hatcher, which follows a top-notch monster-catcher who helps friends and monsters solve their problems. It was created by Rob Hoegee and is produced by Spin Master Entertainment (PAW Patrol).

Butterbean's Cafe, about a fairy who runs a neighborhood cafe with her friends. The series will feature creative cooking, a farm-to-table philosophy and a social-emotional curriculum that focuses on leadership skills. Created by Jonny Belt and Robert Scull, the creators of Bubble Guppies, the series is produced by Brown Bag Films in Ireland.

Also this summer, THR has learned exclusively, Nick is debuting two new shows and three specials: The previously announced Rusty Rivets is premiering at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT on Aug. 22, while the new version of classic series Teletubbies is set to bow at 8 a.m. on May 30 on Nick Jr. (Also on the slate is the previously announced series Sunny Day; a premiere date has not yet been announced.)

Meanwhile, Nick has ordered two Blaze and the Monster Machines specials along with a PAW Patrol special, all of which will air this summer.

The Blaze specials will feature the guest voices of NASCAR star drivers Danica Patrick, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne and air at 1:30 p.m. on May 30 and June 2. In the episodes, Blaze transforms from a monster machine into a sleek aerodynamic race car and visits the racing town of VelocityVille.

The PAW Patrol special, All Star Pups/Pups Save a Sports Day, featuring the heroic pups in all-star sports costumes, will air in primetime, premiering at 7 p.m. on Aug. 22 on Nickelodeon.

In addition, current shows Mutt & Stuff, Blaze and the Monster Machines, Shimmer and Shine and PAW Patrol all have been renewed for additional seasons, with Shimmer and Shine's second-season premiere set for noon on June 15 with a new look employing 3D CG animation. A consumer Shimmer and Shine products line is launching in July in conjunction with Fisher-Price.

Elsewhere, a live PAW Patrol stage show is set to hit 90 cities across the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico this summer. PAW Patrol was the No. 1-licensed preschool property last year, with products aimed at both boys and girls. Blaze was the top new preschool licensed property of 2015, according to NPD Data.

"There is incredibly strong business off of preschool properties, and not all of them work, but when they do work, they last a long time," said Zarghami, adding that her team doesn't develop content with consumer products in mind. Rather, "we look for great properties first, and when we see what's in development, we identify the ones we believe can move into the consumer products lane. We don't want to do it with everything, but we definitely are on the lookout for good play patterns. It's more important that every property has curriculum."

Zarghami also noted the importance of reaching viewers, and their parents, via different platforms. On the digital side, video service Noggin is launching on Roku this summer, following its expansion to Apple TV and Android last year, and will feature the original Teletubbies series as well as adding episodes of Go, Diego, Go! and Blue's Clues. And the Nick Jr. app will launch on Android in August.

"We want to be everywhere kids are," said Zarghami. "We know millennial moms are using other platforms with a lot of energy and that a lot of viewing on other platforms happens in the home. What we've found is that success on TV is mirrored by success on digital platforms, which is mirrored by success at retail and also internationally. We have momentum around the globe; it's a testament to the quality of the content our teams are delivering."

Zarghami added that Nick has development teams in New York, Los Angeles and London — "We're working around the globe to find the best stuff" — and noted the importance of the international audience. Overseas, Milkshake! — Viacom-owned Channel 5's top-rated weekly preschool destination — is home to such Nick properties as PAW Patrol, Peppa Pig, Thomas the Thank Engine and Bob the Builder.

Asked how to successfully stand out amid other networks that target the same demographic, Zarghami said Nickelodeon has been able to build on the success of previous properties. The network has a history of success in the preschool space with such classic shows as Blue's Clues (1990s); Dora the Explorer (2000s), which spurred a spinoff, Dora and Friends: Into the City!, featuring the Latina heroine at age 10; and current hits including PAW Patrol and Blaze. Zarghami noted that, at the preschool age, boys and girls both tend to watch the same programming. She added that there is even some overlap with a slightly older age group that has moved on to shows like SpongeBob SquarePants but hasn't yet stopped watching the younger-skewing series.

"We have quite a bit of awareness based on already established leadership with the 2- to 5-year-old audience," she said. "The marketing is more important than it's ever been, and making sure we target millennial moms is really important. The programming that is innovative and smart and unique-looking is the stuff that's going to break out. We have learned that if the audience likes something, they like it right away."

Zarghami added that a recent study found that 45 percent of millennial moms watched Nickelodeon while they were growing up.

"To be able to deliver quality content to an audience that already has a relationship with our brand is one of our biggest assets," she said. "We're working hard to make sure we acknowledge them as Nickelodeon fans and give them stuff for their kids that doesn't look like what they had when they were growing up but still has the quality and attributes and integrity that we've had forever."

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