In his first interview since taking over kids and family programming for Paramount+, Nickelodeon president and CEO Brian Robbins talks with THR about his strategy for streaming vs. linear, pushing further into features and YA programming (a LeBron James pic) and his former 'Head of the Class' co-star/network hitmaker Dan Schneider: "We are not contemplating working together right now."
Brian Robbins is leaning hard into the franchise strategy he used to reinvigorate Nickelodeon as he takes formal oversight of kids and family content for Paramount+ as part of ViacomCBS’ global streaming push.
The Awesomeness TV exec who took over Nickelodeon in October 2018, filling the void created by the exit of three-decade veteran Cyma Zarghami in ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish’s first round of executive changes. In the three years since arriving at the kids-focused network, Robbins has revived key Nickelodeon franchises including SpongeBob SquarePants (spinoffs Kamp Koral on Paramount+ and The Patrick Star Show on linear), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (see the Seth Rogen-produced feature and The Loud House Movie (due next month on Netflix).
Now, Robbins is tasked with bringing the Nickelodeon brand to a global streaming audience as part of Bakish’s latest executive restructuring. Robbins is one of a handful of executives who recently received global stripes and greenlight power at Paramount+, the former CBS All Access that was rebranded in March as ViacomCBS — like every other media titan — looks to put its best foot forward in the streaming world. Bakish hopes the moves help bring the best of all of ViacomCBS’ brands to streaming, with Robbins having already spent much of the past year prepping a content pipeline that includes reboots and spinoffs of beloved (read: profitable) franchises like SpongeBob SquarePants and iCarly.
Robbins, in his first interview since gaining global and streaming oversight of Nickelodeon, tells The Hollywood Reporter that “Nick had lost its way for a while” in the years since the cabler parted ways with hit-maker Dan Schneider. Nickelodeon parted ways with the creator of lucrative shows as iCarly, Drake & Josh, All That and Victorious six months before Robbins — who once starred with Schneider on ABC’s late ’80s comedy Head of the Class — took over the network from Zarghami. Nickelodeon bought Schneider out of his contract following allegations of abusive behavior and a cloud of suspicion of other questionable behavior from its top creator.
Now, Robbins hopes to replicate the franchise strategy he employed to better position Nickelodeon to compete with Disney and Netflix in the ultra-competitive kids programming space. The exec, who developed Netflix’s To All the Boys franchise, Hulu’s PEN15, The CW’s Smallville and MTV YA pic Varsity Blues, plans to bring Nickelodeon back into the feature film business with new movies from LeBron James (Fantasy Football, starring Black-ish‘s Marsai Martin) and genre drama Hush, Hush set to bow in 2022 as part of a planned slate of a dozen features. While Fantasy Football and Hush, Hush are earmarked for Paramount+, Robbins says others — beyond the upcoming Paw Patrol and Seth Rogen’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — will get a theatrical debut.
Building on his franchise strategy, former Nick hit The Fairly OddParents is coming back as a live-action series for Paramount+, where Robbins hopes it will also revive interest in the show’s library on the platform. (Don’t worry, some original stars from the animated original will return for the new take, which is already in production in L.A.) Also coming back is Blue’s Clues with an original animated movie — Blue’s Clues & You! — going into production this summer to mark the franchise’s 25th anniversary. While it’s unclear where the new Blue’s Clues film will live, Robbins does plan to play more with windowing between Paramount+ and the linear network. To that end, JoJo Siwa’s live-action musical The J Team will make the move from Nickelodeon to Paramount+ for its Sept. 3 bow.
Below, Robbins opens up about his YA and film push, how Nickelodeon will use competitors like Netflix to bolster its franchises and if his old friend Schneider — who recently told the New York Times that he’s plotting a return to kids programming — could ever return to ViacomCBS: “We are not contemplating working together right now.”
Now that you’re overseeing kids and family for Paramount+ and linear on a global scale, how does your mandate change?
At the beginning of the pandemic, Bob Bakish, myself, George Cheeks, David Nevins, Chris McCarthy and Jim Gianopulos dove in as the Paramount+ launch was looming. We’ve been working on the streaming strategy for well over a year now. But now with a global eye, it does change the eye that we had when we were only thinking linear first.
Do you have green light power to get shows on Paramount+? Are you the one to say you’re doing a Fairly OddParents show and it’s straight to series on the streamer?
That’s pretty much it. Bob’s relying on all of us who are the experts in our lanes to deliver not only the content, but hopefully the audience with the content to the service. Within our areas, we definitely have the authority to make what we think is right.
You’re charged with bringing the Nick brand fully into streaming. How do you do that without cannibalizing linear? Obviously, The J Team moving from Nick to Paramount+ is a great example.
Linear is still our biggest reach vehicle. And it is still extremely important to our business and most importantly, to our brand, but we’re going to play with how we window content. Some of our content, like The Patrick Star Show — the second spinoff of SpongeBob Square Pants — debuted on linear and down the line that will go to streaming. The first spinoff, Kamp Koral, premiered in March at the launch of Paramount+ but will arrive this fall on linear. We’ll definitely play pitch and catch between linear and streaming. That gives us the opportunity to have more programming in both places because now we’re dealing with two different budgets feeding these pipelines and it allows us to reach more audience. Ultimately, our goal at Nick is for our brand to be ubiquitous and to have our content be everywhere where kids and family are consuming. The lines are really blurred now.
How focused are you on keeping content internally, be it for Paramount+ or Nickelodeon versus selling elsewhere? Tyler Perry’s Madea Homecoming went to Netflix instead of Paramount+, which was a surprise given his ViacomCBS deal. What’s the right balance?
We’re focused on Nickelodeon and Paramount+ for our content. That doesn’t mean we still won’t license library content to different players here and there on a non-exclusive basis or a co-exclusive basis. But we’re focused on our own platforms right now.
I reported a story last year about how Bakish’s strategy was to license to third-party outlets in a bid to expose content to bigger audiences before ultimately taking it back as an exclusive. Is that your strategy as well?
That’s been my strategy from the start. There’s two great examples of that. Avatar: The Last Airbender was a series that ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon and was never a huge show, but had an amazing following. We licensed that show to Netflix and it exploded. Then we put this spinoff of Avatar, The Legend of Korra, on Paramount+, and it crushed it. That led us to our new relationship and bringing the creators of Avatar back to Nickelodeon to form Avatar Studios. We are now on our way to a full-fledged franchise strategy, creating films and spinoffs out of Avatar.
The second example, which actually has paid off this month, is iCarly. We knew we were going to do a reboot of iCarly, it just took us a while to put it together. Once we knew we had it going, we licensed just a season or two of iCarly to Netflix and it exploded with new kids discovering it for the first time, and fans who grew up on it rediscovered it. The demand for the new show was at such a fever pitch by the time [the new show] launched that it propelled iCarly to be, if not the most successful show on Paramount+, one of the most successful shows.
In fact, what’s driving the success of iCarly is the young adult audience. It’s a white-hot space for us. Adjacent to the kids programming, YA is a sweet spot for me in my career — obviously in my previous life, founding Awesomeness and making things like To All the Boys franchise and PEN15 and bunch of stuff for streaming — or shows like Smallville and One Tree Hill and movies like Varsity Blues. It’s something I’m always interested in. Another film that we’re making for Paramount+ this year is called Hush, Hush, which was based on a New York Times best-seller. We’re going to lean heavily into YA to really propel streaming, not only domestically, but globally.
Eventually, I’d imagine, Avatar and iCarly will be taken off of Netflix and come home to Paramount+ as an exclusive.
Yes. And it’s not like this is some secret that we’re pulling the wool over anybody else’s eyes on other services. They’re happy to have the content and they understand the strategy. We’re very upfront about it.
How do you determine which content runs on which platform first? How much will Nick still get first window considering the streaming priority? The Blue’s Clues movie doesn’t have a home just yet.
It’s a balance; look at Kamp Koral and The Patrick Star Show. Driving new subscribers to Paramount+ is a huge priority for Nickelodeon and the company right now. And our kids’ content is a giant magnet and has been really successful in not only driving subscriptions, but retaining subscribers on the service. People are consuming our content at a great clip right now on Paramount+ so we are a big part of the strategy.
You mentioned iCarly has been a big breakout on Paramount+ since its launch last month. What have you learned about Paramount+ subscribers since it was rebranded in March?
Our content has really risen to the top. We have a lot of the top performing shows on the service from a stream, minutes watched and consumption point of view. Our shows have been a top acquisition driver. The franchise strategy is working. You launch iCarly and then the iCarly library also rises to the top, creating this one-two punch of new and old. The same with the SpongeBob universe. SpongeBob is probably the biggest franchise on the service. You launch the Sponge on the Run movie, Kamp Koral and then you have 12 seasons of SpongeBob library all being consumed graciously by the audience. The sneak peak of Kamp Koral on linear was the highest-rated show of the year for us on linear.
This pitch and catch is working by using the franchises with the library to get a ton of consumption happening. Same with Rugrats and the new Rugrats we launched. And we expect the same thing with Paw Patrol next month. It’s the No. 1 preschool show on linear, a big driver on Paramount+ and now we’ll have a theatrical feature in August that should light up both linear and streaming on a global basis.
And you’re going to do the same with this new Blue’s Clues feature. How many of these films are designed to be theatrical vs. made for streaming?
We’re really excited about our movie strategy. The theatrical landscape has changed dramatically and what that looks like a year or three years from now isn’t clear. But the feature-length movie will exist forever and whether audiences will consume those in theaters or theaters and streaming at the same time or only streaming, I’m less concerned with than making sure our content is ubiquitous. Audiences want more of the things they love and that’s how you build brand loyalty. We’re really excited about Seth Rogen’s new Turtles film, which will be theatrical. It’s a new retelling of Turtles and that will reignite that franchise and that movie comes in August 2023. Paw Patrol is a theatrical release this summer and there’s several more theatrical films in the works. In addition, we’re probably going to make at least six to 10 films for Paramount+ next year. It’ll be a mix of young adult projects from the Awesomeness label that’s responsible for To All the Boys on Netflix and PEN15 on Hulu. And then some films will come from the kids and family side from Nickelodeon. We have our first project that we’re making for Paramount+ — Fantasy Football, which is a partnership between Nick and LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill and Genius Entertainment.
Fairly OddParents is switching to live-action. Is that a model you’d like to employ for other Nick animated hits?
We are doing a live-action Loud House Christmas movie that will come to Nickelodeon linear this Christmas. But yes, the Fairly OddParents show is a hybrid so that the fairies are animated and all the humans are live actors. You can’t do it a hundred times but that’s it for right now.
Netflix and Disney have made great strides in the kids and family arena. How has the marketplace and deal-making changed as other streamers have moved aggressively into the genre?
It’s not easy. There is only a certain amount of A-list talent, whether that’s in animation or live-action, in the kids space and it’s a seller’s market. It’s not a buyer’s market. Ramsey Naito [president of Nickelodeon Animation] is really loved in the business. We’ve been fortunate that people want to come back home to Nick and work there. And to be honest, Nick had lost its way for a while. Ramsey and I have worked hard along with all the other executives to rebuild the culture and earn the trust back of the creative community. We hired 500 people during the pandemic so I’d say that’s a pretty good sign. And that was just at the animation studio.
Top creators like Chris Nee left Disney for lucrative pacts at Netflix, and both companies have been aggressive in the overall deals space. Is that an area that Nickelodeon plans on entering as an effort to keep top talent exclusive?
For sure. Our deal with the Avatar creators proves that. It’s a very lucrative, long-term pact with a lot of commitments to do a lot of great things together. That’s one example of how we’re competing with the Netflix’s the world. It’s not just about money anymore. Creators want to know that there’s a commitment to quality and culture. All of the hits and franchises that have come out of Nickelodeon in the past 20 years speaks for itself. Netflix and Amazon have yet to launch a franchise like a SpongeBob or Rugrats or a Dora or a Blue’s Clues or a Paw Patrol. It’s one thing to have your content consumed, but our franchises live in so many different ways. They are huge consumer products businesses. They show up on the shelf in a big way. There’s also live entertainment and tours and music and audio and books.
How are you thinking about diversity and inclusion when it comes to programming for such a prescient age group?
Half the audience is diverse. If you’re not serving the whole audience that just doesn’t make great business sense. And it’s the right thing to do, internally and externally. We’re very focused on it, on the live-action side, whether it’s our relationship with Tyler Perry who makes the show Young Dylan for us, or our new show that’s going to launch in September called That Girl Lay Lay starring a young girl who’s a rapper and social media star named Lay Lay and that’s being produced by Will Packer. It’s important to us that diversity is everywhere. And even on the animation side, whether that’s the The Casagrandes or other shows that we have and the casting that we have throughout all of our shows. Representation is really important now more than ever. I have three biracial children in my house so it’s extremely important to me that they see themselves in everything we make.
You’ve known and worked with Dan Schneider since Head of the Class. He recently told the New York Times that he has a desire to come back and has programming that he’s working on. Is there room for him at ViacomCBS?
I don’t think right now we’re looking to work with Dan. I don’t know what his plans are, quite frankly, but whatever they are, I wish him luck. I wasn’t here when he was dismissed and he and Nick went separate ways so it’s hard for me to comment on that relationship and I’d hate to speculate on rumors. I have no ill will but we are not contemplating working together right now.
Schneider created the original iCarly. Was he compensated for the revival?
I don’t know the specifics; I wasn’t here when he did his separation agreement. He definitely didn’t have anything to do with the new iCarly, so I don’t believe he was compensated, no.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity. Read on for more details about Fantasy Football; Hush, Hush; Fairly OddParents; and the Blue’s Clues movie.
Fantasy Football revolves around 15-year-old Carmen Coleman (Marsai Martin, Black-ish), who discovers she can control her professional football player dad’s prowess on the field through her video game. Zoe Marshall (Charmed) is writing, based on an original screenplay by Richard T. Jones & Jeremy Loethen and Tim Ogletree. Produced by Nickelodeon and Awesomeness Films Studio’s Syrinthia Studer.
Hush, Hush is based on the novels by Becca Fitzpatrick and follows 16-year-old high school student Nora Grey, who befriends new student, Patch, and finds herself drawn to his brooding charm against her better judgment. As Nora starts seeking answers about who Patch really is, she unwittingly gets caught in the crosshairs of an ancient battle between fallen angels and the immortal — a struggle that comes to threaten her life and reveals a shocking secret about her own identity. Monet Clayton (Every Note Played) is writing the script. Produced by Nickelodeon and Awesomeness Films Studio’s Syrinthia Studer, BCDF Pictures and Entertainment 360.
The Fairly OddParents is based on the Emmy-winning animated series and will combine live-action and animation. The 13-episode first season will pick up years after the original series ended and follow Timmy Turner’s cousin, Vivian “Viv” Turner (Audrey Grace Marshall, The Flight Attendant), and her new stepbrother, Roy Ragland (Tyler Wladis, Single Parents), as they navigate life in Dimmsdale with the help of their fairy godparents, Wanda and Cosmo. Susanne Blakeslee and Daran Norris return to the franchise to voice the iconic Wanda and Cosmo. Laura Bell Bundy (Perfect Harmony) plays Roy’s mom, Rachel; Ryan-James Hatanaka (Nancy Drew) is Viv’s dad, Ty; and Imogen Cohen plays their friend, Zina Zacarias. Production on the series is under way in Los Angeles with a debut slated for later this year on Paramount+.
Blue’s Clues & You will follow Josh and Blue as they head to New York City to audition for a Broadway musical. Matt Stawski (Side Effects) will direct the movie, which is being written by franchise veteran Angela Santomero and Liz Maccie (Siren). Production will begin this summer.