Can Viacom's Reboot Strategy Revive Nickelodeon?

Illustration by: Matt Collins
Viacom CEO Bob Bakish is looking to the past to rejuvenate his network.

Amid falling viewership and stiff competition from Netflix and others, CEO Bob Bakish is hoping a new generation of kids will embrace redos of iconic properties like 'Rugrats,' 'Blue's Clues' and possibly 'Clarissa Explains It All.'

In June, Viacom dumped a proverbial slime bucket on the woman who almost single-handedly turned Nickelodeon into the No. 1 TV brand for kids. The decision to part with Cyma Zarghami, who most recently served as president of the Nickelodeon Group during a 30-year Viacom run, came less than three months after another high-profile departure: In March, Nickelodeon declined to renew its contract with hitmaker Dan Schneider, creator of ratings juggernauts like All That, iCarly and Drake & Josh.

The shake-ups are part of Viacom CEO Bob Bakish's efforts to rejuvenate the struggling Nickelodeon. While Nick had an estimated $2.1 billion in revenue from advertising and distribution fees last year, ratings in the cord-cutting era continue to decline — viewership is down 18 percent compared with last year — and amid intense competition from deep-pocketed streamers like Netflix (and soon Apple), the future of what is considered Viacom's most important brand is uncertain.

Since he was promoted in December 2016, Bakish has focused on boosting Viacom's flagship brands — BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Paramount Network — through a strategy that includes bolstering the signature content on each network, creating new partnerships and making key acquisitions, like the July 27 purchase of the youth-skewing AwesomenessTV.

Neither Viacom nor Nickelodeon would comment for this story, but it's clear that the digital space is key to Nickelodeon's future. On that front, Bakish is focusing on the ad-free SVOD service Noggin, which launched in 2015 and features library content for more than 30 series, including Dora the Explorer, with new content added weekly. In a nod to just how powerful the streamers have become, Viacom is also 
developing original content for other brands, starting with the June sale of the Nickelodeon-produced animated series Pinky Malinky to Netflix. This is made all the more significant by the fact that, while Nick currently licenses content to Amazon and Hulu, it ended its licensing deal with Netflix in 2013.

"Nickelodeon is the biggest brand inside Viacom," says Barton Crockett, senior analyst at B. Riley FBR. "It's crucial to evolve and connect with kids digitally and online and not just on a linear channel, and Bakish recognizes that. Nickelodeon is huge, but it has to change with the times."

Outside of the digital space, Bakish's strategy appears to be decidedly backward-facing. Leaning into the reboot craze currently dominating much of the TV landscape, Nickelodeon has greenlighted new versions of iconic properties, including Rugrats, Blue's Clues and possibly Clarissa Explains It All with original star Melissa Joan Hart.

It's a strategy that reportedly led 
to tension between Bakish and Zarghami. In the battle for the estimated $800 million in advertising commitments for kids programming from Madison Avenue, Zarghami pitched ad buyers a 20 percent increase in original programming as part of an effort to find the next big hit. That is vastly different from what Bakish had in mind. Sources say the duo did not see eye to eye, with Bakish focused on improving "brand awareness" through existing properties to better position Nickelodeon against Netflix and the looming launch of Disney's SVOD service in 2019.

But standing out from an already crowded kids programming pack won't be easy, notes Henry Schafer, exec vp 
at brand specialist Q Scores: "As far as image goes, they're all pretty similar," 
he says. "There is no edge for anybody in terms of image."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.