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Monday, January 19, 2015

Nickelodeon Remixes Their Sitcom Formula To Adapt To Children's Media Consumption

The New York Times has unveiled a article in which Russell Hicks, the President of Content Development and Production at Nickelodeon, talks about Nickelodeon's latest new shows, and how Nickelodeon are trying to reflect more of the sophistication which found in shows aimed at adults in the networks new shows, including "Bella and the Bulldogs" and "100 Things to Do Before High School":
Nickelodeon Remixes Its Sitcom Formula to Adapt to Children's Media Consumption

New series, like “100 Things to Do Before High School,” are trying to reflect more of the sophistication of shows aimed at adults. Credit Robert Voets/Nickelodeon

LOS ANGELES — Buffoonish parents. Voice-of-reason best friend. Laugh track. Extra-bright lighting. Nifty girl's bedroom with window seat.

For years, Nickelodeon arranged and rearranged those children's sitcom building blocks to spectacular effect. By the time young viewers tired of watching slightly different versions of the same simple show, they were moving on to MTV. Their younger siblings cycled into Nickelodeon. The old formula was new to them.

But children — as ratings declines have taught Nickelodeon and its cable competitors — don't devour entertainment as mindlessly as they used to. "By the time kids are 8, they have now consumed so much media that they are demanding something different," said Russell Hicks, Nickelodeon's programming chief.

So Mr. Hicks is throwing out some of the cookie cutters and trying to make series for children that reflect more of the sophistication of shows aimed at adults. "We want to explore all of the things that kids' TV doesn't normally do," Mr. Hicks said. "This generation of kids does not want the last generation's leftovers."

Brec Bassinger, with Dorien Wilson, was cast in “Bella and the Bulldogs” because she was not groomed for Hollywood. Credit Robert Voets/Nickelodeon

Children’s sitcoms, for instance, are typically taped entirely in the fake bubble of a soundstage. It is expensive and more technically complicated to shoot on location (and executives would rather funnel money to cartoons, which perform better in reruns abroad). But “Bella and the Bulldogs,” a new Nickelodeon comedy about a high school girl who plays football, brings its cast outside to scrimmage under the actual sun.

"Bella," which made its debut on Saturday, is also experimenting with story lines that aren’t always wrapped up in 22 minutes — breaking with another children's television convention. And for the lead role, producers cast a 15-year-old Texan, Brec Bassinger, who had not been groomed for Hollywood.

"We wanted a real, grounded, not secretly 23, not a celebrity-in-training kind of teenage actress," said Gabriel Garza, one of the show's co-creators.

Another new series, "100 Things to Do Before High School," about completing a middle-school bucket list, tries to riff on pop culture in a layered way. Its first episode slyly lampooned "Glee," and it is shot on film, giving it visual distinctiveness.

Mr. Hicks is also working on a sitcom about two brothers that will be taped in the pseudo-documentary, single-camera style of NBC's "Parks and Recreation."

"There's this deeply held notion in the industry that kids only understand multicam shows," Mr. Hicks said. "That's silly. Have you heard of this new thing called YouTube? Believe me, they understand single camera."

To the average adult viewer without children, these changes may not even be noticeable. But to regular watchers of Nickelodeon and other children's channels, some of the adjustments — outdoor filming, for instance — may very well pop off the screen.

"Sam & Cat" offers one sign that Mr. Hicks is moving in the right direction. That teenage sitcom, which began in 2013, was notable for its rapid-fire comedic pratfalls, an effort to bring a YouTube sensibility to traditional television. The show was an immediate hit, but Nickelodeon was forced to cancel it after one season; the two lead actresses (both in their 20s) were burned out on children's shows and wanted to pursue adult music careers.

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With billions of dollars on the line, even the most subtle programming changes carry risks. Nickelodeon generates annual ad sales and affiliate fees of $2.24 billion a year, according to the research firm SNL Kagan. Merchandising sales are estimated to total roughly $5.5 billion.

But standing pat was not an option. Nickelodeon's programming shift reflects a shake-up after a much-publicized 2011 ratings implosion. To recover from viewer declines of up to 30 percent, the channel parted ways with longtime content executives and promoted others, including Mr. Hicks. It also sharply increased spending on original programming, relying less on endless "SpongeBob SquarePants" reruns.

Ratings recovered in 2013, in part because of new animated hits, like "Sanjay & Craig," about a boy and his pet snake. But last year viewership began to erode anew. The number of children ages 2 to 11 watching the channel fell 14 percent in 2013 compared with the year before, according to Nielsen.

And this time Nickelodeon is not alone: Disney Channel is in even worse shape, suffering a 21 percent year-on-year decline. (Unlike Nickelodeon, however, Disney Channel does not rely on ad sales.)

One explanation for the decline involves viewer measurement. Firms that keep count have struggled to keep pace with the changing ways in which children consume television programming — TV sets, iPad apps, websites, video-on-demand services. But Mr. Hicks, citing focus group research, believes there also may be generational reasons.

"The media world for kids has expanded, and that means we have to change, too," he said, sitting in his office on the Paramount Pictures lot here. (Nickelodeon, like Paramount, is owned by Viacom.) Referring to new scripts, he added, "The days of 'that's worked for us before, we'll buy it again' are over."

"Bella and the Bulldogs" reflects how Mr. Hicks, 57, is trying to bring fresh writing to his network. The creators, Mr. Garza and Jonathan Butler, have never had their own series before and both were discovered through an in-house writers' development program that Nickelodeon will more than double in size this year.

Mr. Garza is Hispanic and Mr. Butler is black, adding some much-needed diversity to the producing ranks of children's television. Mr. Garza, 30, grew up in Texas and suburban Los Angeles. Mr. Butler, 40, is a former plumber from Buffalo who moved to California in 2007 to pursue his Hollywood dream.

"We don't want our show to be the same as every other show," Mr. Butler said. "We all know how a copy of a copy turns out."

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