Michael Goldman talks to Nickelodeon International's Lisa Judson about how the cable network that redefined animation for the 90s is expanding around the world.
To become a global animation powerhouse, a company needs to be part of a global entity. Nickelodeon International certainly fits that definition, falling under the umbrella of parent media giant, Viacom, Inc. And, although it may be argued that Nickelodeon is not yet a global animation powerhouse, it most certainly is a children's entertainment powerhouse generally, with animation serving as the foundation of the company's growing international presence
"Nickelodeon animation is central to our global effort," explains Lisa Judson, Senior Vice President and Creative Director for Nickelodeon International. "Kids everywhere love animation, if you give them the right kind of programming. What makes our animation special and important to building our brand is we take a different approach, and have since we went into the animation business in August of `91. We saw what other people were creating for kids and most of it was action-based, violent, toy-based stuff. Instead, we decided to go for evergreen stories and characters that really connect with kids. Shows like Rugrats and Doug are very Nickelodeon, because they come with a kid's point of view."
The Name of the Game"Building our brand." Indeed, that's the name of the game for most entertainment companies creating original intellectual properties these days, no matter what form or genre. In the case of animation, "brand building"--creating identifiable franchises, shows and characters with long legs and exploitable potential across most forms of media--is of crucial importance for those holding, or building, significant libraries. And the international marketplace is, in turn, central to the success of any such policy. Disney, Warner Bros. and Turner have always led the way in pursuing this strategy, and now Viacom, via its growing Nickelodeon empire, is doing likewise.
The challenge for the Nickelodeon people is how to build their brand while staying within the confines of their self-professed programming policy: to create product with a "kids point of view" and "connect kids with kids." Judson emphasized that policy repeatedly during a recent interview, making it quite clear she and other company executives feel creating kid-friendly, nonviolent cartoons and selling them around the world in no way conflicts with the mission of luring profits.
"From a business perspective, we have found that every time we do something that is good for kids, it is also good for business," says Judson. "In the US, we have found the results of that attitude have been very positive, and we figured out we can extend it into the global marketplace. That kind of thinking on a global basis is a fairly new idea."
If Nickelodeon's rate of expansion into the international marketplace is any indication, that policy appears to be working thus far. The company first began selling shows internationally in the early 90s, launched its first foreign cable channel--Nick UK--in 1993, and followed that up with specialty channels in Germany in July of last year and Australia this past October. The company is now finalizing plans to launch a new cable web aimed at Latin America (based in Miami) at the end of this year. In addition, Nickelodeon is exploring starting a channel for Asia, and currently offers programming channel blocks in Brazil, Israel and other parts of the Middle East, Malaysia and Thailand. Shows are also sold on an individual basis to about 70 countries around the world.
All Nick channels, of course, feature a mix of live-action and animated programming, and many of the company's best-selling shows around the world are live action. Still, it is clear that Nickelodeon's growing animation division--Nicktoons--is central to its global strategy.
The company has its own animation studio in Los Angeles, which currently makes two shows--Rocko's Modern Life and Hey Arnold! Its other cartoon programs--Doug, Rugrats, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters and Angry Beavers are or were produced by outside animation houses, most notably Klasky Csupo, as was (initially) the now out-of-production cult hit, The Ren & Stimpy Show. As of early August, Nickelodeon had produced 315 original episodes of animated shows since getting into the cartoon business in 1991.
The Rugrats PhenomenonRugrats is the show that best illustrates Nickelodeon's attempts to brand-build. Quite simply, the show has become an international hit. It is among the most popular children's shows in both the UK and Germany, and the company has sold the show in practically every territory where it does business. Company officials say a recent study commissioned by Nickelodeon in Germany found that a whopping 64% of all children surveyed were familiar with the Nickelodeon name and programming, only seven months after launching in that country.
Further, the show has spawned a growing demand all around the world for Rugrats merchandise, the holy grail of successful brand marketing. In the UK, in particular, Rugrats stuff is hot. The company launched a Rugrats comic there in April, which has sold 150,000 copies since it hit the stands, and launched a hardcover Rugrats annual comic in August. Rugrats home videos, according to Nickelodeon numbers, have also been among the top 10 selling children's videos in England since debuting in March. Food and novelty item licensing agreements are also under way in the UK and elsewhere. Further extensive merchandise and promotional events are planned throughout the world next year to further the franchise.
"Rugrats is turning into a phenomenon, and it is probably our most important show in terms of building our company internationally," says Judson. "It's also a good example of the kind of show we feel can sell and still be part of our kids-first philosophy: it is creative-driven and story-driven, and takes risks. That kind of philosophy has helped it touch a nerve with kids around the world."
And that, in turn, spawned the Rugrats merchandising campaign, rather than the other way around. Indeed, all Nickelodeon cartoons are original, rather than deriving from existing properties, and do not start life primarily as efforts to sell toys or comic books.
Which is not to say the Nick empire isn't set up to exploit its creations in every significant way possible. The company has a movie unit in partnership with sister company Paramount, which launched its first title, the live-action Harriet the Spy in July, and has an animated Rugrats feature now in the planning stages. The Nickelodeon infrastructure also includes a consumer products division, a video and audio tape division, a worldwide online service, an interactive division to launch CD-ROM and computer game titles, a monthly magazine, a book publishing division and a live tour division.
Making Global Inroads
Thus, with the corporate power of Viacom backing up its various initiatives, and a host of quality, nonviolent programming to sell, Nickelodeon looks very much like a company set up for making major global inroads. Things are going so well, in fact, that Nick decided to sell its two newest Nicktoons--Angry Beavers and Hey Arnold!--to foreign markets even before the two had debuted in the US, an extremely rare maneuver.
Judson says expansion into Asia has at its center the virtually untapped Chinese market. "We are currently building relationships there [in China]," she says, adding that to make the Nickelodeon brand truly international, the company has to tailor its programming for specific markets. That's something which can sometimes take years of research and planning.
"When we launched our first international service--Nick UK--it was our first venture outside the US. It was an important experience on a lot of levels, because we learned a lot about how we need to view the international marketplace," Judson says.
"The way we are approaching the global marketplace is to take our basic philosophy, and then do research in individual countries. We study cultures and what kids enjoy in those societies, and we try to have a deep understanding of the audience. Then, we try to tailor the programming to meet the needs of that marketplace. It's not about simply taking a successful formula which has worked in the US and then repeating it in exactly the same way."
Thus, Nickelodeon has created certain live-action shows, interstitials and wraparounds that are tailored for specific countries. It has not, thus far, created cartoon shows this way, but Judson says that remains a possibility. Its most successful animation overseas so far has been Bert the Fish, who "hosted" programming segments for Nick UK viewers last season. More such efforts are planned, according to company officials.
Nickelodeon also spends a great deal of time and money overseeing the dubbing process for its shows in various territories because, in Judson's words, "doing the dubbing process the right way is crucial to maintaining the integrity of our shows."
Another strategy has been to go into joint ventures with local broadcasters and producers to co-produce programming throughout the world. In the UK, Nickelodeon's channel was launched in partnership with British Sky Broadcasting; in Germany, it is majority owned by Viacom in partnership with Ravensburger Film and TV, and in Australia with XYZ Entertainment. Individual shows are co-produced with local partners, as well, and Latin and Asian companies are being wooed on a regular basis.
As far as the future is concerned, Judson feels it is wide open.
"We hire local people everywhere we go, we have our own studio in the UK, and are very open to co-productions," she says. "Nothing is out of the question. There are lots of things on the table for us. There are areas where we are looking to work together in a kind of multichannel or cross channel environment to co-produce programs or acquire shows that are good for our channels.
"We can do just about anything, as long as it is presented from a kid's point of view."
Michael Goldman is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. He is the author of Mortal Kombat: The Movie, Behind the Scenes and routinely writes about animation, children's entertainment and special effects for several publications. He is currently Associate Editor of Special Reports at Variety in Hollywood.