Entertainment Industry

Category: children's television

Worries linger about Nickelodeon's ratings slump

Nickelodeon's audience levels have fallen nearly 30% this season
Wall Street analysts peppered Viacom management Thursday with questions about the mysterious ratings slump at the company's premier children's television network Nickelodeon.

Nickelodeon's audience levels have fallen nearly 30% this season, prompting much speculation about the reasons behind the troubling drop. The issue is far from child's play. Nickelodeon is one of the most valuable channels in television as well as within the Viacom universe. 

Some analysts have theorized that the weak ratings could be attributed to shifts in viewing behavior. More children are watching Nickelodeon shows on demand through Netflix and Amazon.com digital streaming services, rather than watching the channel. 

Earlier this week, Time Warner Inc. Chief Executive Jeffrey Bewkes added his support to that theory, noting that his company's Cartoon Network, which competes with Nickelodeon, doesn't have that issue. In fact, Cartoon Network's ratings were up 14%.

 "We think part of the reason is that we don't have our programs sitting on an SVOD [subscription video-on-demand service] where parents can park their kids," Bewkes told analysts during Time Warner's earnings call Wednesday. "Obviously, that's taking some viewing away from some of the other animated channels."

Viacom executives pooh-poohed the theory.

"Netflix is present in less than a quarter of television households, and since we get the streaming data on our content, I can tell you that the time spent on Nickelodeon content on Netflix is approximately 2% of the time spent on our Nickelodeon channel," Viacom Chief Executive Philippe Dauman told analysts Thursday during his company's second-quarter earnings call.

"It would have a minimal impact here," Dauman said.

Instead, Viacom traces much of the ratings nosedive to a September change in the composition of the audience panel that Nielsen uses to derive its ratings. New participants in the Nielsen panel apparently watch less Nickelodeon than those they replaced.

Still, analysts are concerned.

"Nickelodeon has fallen to levels that you've never seen before," said one prominent analyst, Michael Nathanson of Nomura Securities, observed during Viacom's call. 

Nickelodeon's problems failed to dent investors' enthusiasm for Viacom's stock. The company's widely traded B-shares closed Thursday at $49.02 a share, up $1.59 a share.  Viacom reported a profit increase of 56% over the year-earlier period.  Revenue was up 2% to $3.33 billion.  

"We're going to focus on ways in which we can affect the Nickelodeon brand positively," Dauman told analysts before the opening bell. "Our pipeline is extremely strong. We're developing more new [episodes] of our popular series and more exciting new series. And of course, we're particularly excited about the revival of the [Teenage Ninja] Turtles franchise."

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 -- Meg James

Photo:  A scene from an older episode of "SpongeBob SquarePants." Credit:  Nickelodeon 

The Morning Fix: Oscar working on timing. Hasbro and Discovery not toying around. `Superman' has its director.

After the coffee. Before yet another flight to New York.

The Skinny: Discovery's and Hasbro's new kids channel doesn't premiere until Sunday, but the critics are already pouncing. Can't Google everyone with Google TV. "Superman" has its next director. The FCC wants more dirt from Comcast and NBC Universal as part of its review

Oscars on the move. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences wants to move the annual Oscar Awards telecasts from its current home of the end of February or early March to January or early February. The motivation is to make the Oscars one of the first awards shows instead of the last so there is less chance of awards-show fatigue impacting the telecast's ratings. The challenge is finding a new home that won't get run over by football. Huh? That's right, football. See, the NFL wants to expand its regular season to 18 games (that's a debate for another day) and if (when) that happens, it will mean the Super Bowl and probably some of the playoffs will get pushed well into February. That means the Oscar folks (and host network ABC) have to find a home where they won't bump up against all that football hype on rival networks and still get ahead of other shows. The scoop from the Los Angeles Times.

Not toying around. On Sunday, Discovery and Hasbro will launch "The Hub," a new cable channel aimed primarily at kids age 6-11. Not only will it face tough competition from entrenched channels such as Viacom's Nickelodeon and Disney's Disney Channel and Disney XD, it will also be scrutinized by media watchdogs. That's because there are concerns that Hasbro will try to make the network into nothing but ads for its toys. The channel's boss, respected kids TV executive Margaret Loesch, says that won't be the case and that only about 20% of Hub shows are based on Hasbro products. But will that be enough to silence the critics? More on The Hub from the Los Angeles Times.

Google this! Google, the search engine that wants to become the connector between the Internet and the television, unveiled its content partners, but the list was more notable for who wasn't on it. While several cable networks, including CNBC, HBO and Turner Broadcasting are on board, the big broadcast networks are steering clear of Google -- for now anyway. To get Google TV, at least in its early incarnation, you'll need either a Sony high-definition TV set, a Blu-ray player or a special set-top box. In other words, it may take a little while for this thing to take off. More on Google's small-screen dreams from the New York Times.

Peace accord. Mexican broadcaster Grupo Televisa is shelling out $130 million for a 5% stake in Univision and an additional $1.07 billion in convertible debt that translates into 30% of Univision's shares, according to the Wall Street Journal. Besides giving Univision a much needed infusion, it ends years of acrimony between the two media giants.

And the backlash begins. Although many critics are worshiping "The Social Network" and already talking about how many Oscar nominations it should get, gripes about the portrayal of women in the movie are starting to surface. Missing from the movie, says Rebecca Davis O'Brien in the Daily Beast, are women who aren't "doting groupies, vengeful sluts, or dumpy, feminist killjoys." 

He's baaack! Former NBC Enertainment chief Ben Silverman is back to doing what he does best -- making new versions of successful shows. He's near a deal to make a sitcom for ABC based on an old Latin American comedy called "I Hate This Place." Not sure what's more ironic, that ABC -- whose old entertainment chief Steve McPherson loathed Silverman -- will be home for the show or that Deadline Hollywood, which relished in Silverman's downfall at NBC, was where the story was leaked.

Super Director. Zack Snyder, whose credits include "300" and "Watchmen," has been tapped to direct the latest version of "Superman" for Warner Bros. and Legend Pictures. Chris Nolan will produce. Deadline Hollywood on the choice and what Snyder's thoughts are about taking on the franchise.

Where's mine? The Wrap makes the shocking discovery that even in a field as challenged as journalism, there are some people pulling down huge salaries. Next you'll tell me there are hockey players making big bucks too. The hook for the story is that Michael Ausiello, an Entertainment Weekly writer best known for his television casting scoops, is launching his own website, backed by the owners of Deadline Hollywood. Hey, if someone wants to pay top dollar for content, you'll get no complaints from me.

Inside the Los Angeles Times: Thomas Tull, the chairman of Legendary Pictures, is buying out his original investors and has new partners in Fortress Investment Group and Fidelity. The Federal Communications Commission wants more inside information from Comcast and NBC Universal as part of its review of their pending merger. 

-- Joe Flint

Follow me on Twitter and I'll tweet you something special. Twitter.com/JBFlint

The Morning Fix: Big bucks for 'Big Bang'! Weinstein Co. makes splash at Toronto. Reality bites on broadcast.

After the coffee. Before wondering why Fashion Week snubbed me.

Reality bites. The Wall Street Journal uses the overhaul of Fox's "American Idol" to check in on the state of the reality TV biz. Heading into the fall season, the WSJ notes that the five broadcast networks have scheduled 14 hours of reality shows, the lowest number since 2005. Of course, in fairness, a lot of reality shows usually come on in mid-season to replace new comedies and dramas that didn't work. Also, although broadcast may be backing away from reality shows, the story doesn't note how huge they've become on cable. TLC, MTV, Bravo and dozens of other channels are basically reality-show factories these days. As for "American Idol," we're all still waiting for Fox and the producers to announce Steven Tyler, the Aerosmith singer, and performer Jennifer Lopez as the new judges. Actually, does anyone care anymore?

Big paycheck for "Big Bang Theory." Deadline Hollywood has the details on the new contracts for the stars of the CBS hit "The Big Bang Theory." Most interesting was how Warner Bros. TV, which makes the show, managed to get breakout star Jim Parsons to take the same deal as his co-stars. Initially, the Emmy winner had been holding out for a bigger deal, but Warner Bros. played hardball. The raises come in the wake of Warner Bros. selling repeats of the program to TBS. In other words, this is the reward for the last few years as much as it is a raise going forward.

They're back! The Weinstein Co., apparently trying to move on from founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein's unsuccessful effort to buy back Miramax from Walt Disney Co., has been making a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival. According to Variety, the Weinstein Co. picked up North American rights for a British coming-of-age comedy called "Submarine," its second purchase after springing for "Dirty Girl." Lionsgate has also been busy as it and specialty subside Roadside bought U.S. rights to Robert Redford's "The Conspirator," which is from new Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts

Brother, can you spare a dime? Veteran movie banker Clark Hallren, who left JPMorgan last year to create Clear Scope Partners, has a grim financing forecast for the movie industry. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hallren, who worked on the initial IPO for DreamWorks Animation, said "it's a good time not to be a banker." Why? Well, Hallren notes that foreign banks are not doing as many deals and the risks in the movie business have skyrocketed.

You say show, I say advertisement. An advocacy group is going after Nickelodeon, charging that one of its new shows is nothing more than an advertisement dressed up as a kids cartoon. The show, "Zevo-3," premieres on Nicktoons next month (actually the day after Hub, a new rival kids channel from Discovery and Hasbro, launches) and is based on characters that were created for a marketing campaign by the shoe company Skechers. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has sent a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission asking the agency to stop Nickelodeon from proceeding with the show. The FCC does have rules regarding advertising and kids programming, but Nickelodeon parent Viacom counters that although the characters of the show may have been inspired by the ads, it is not violating any government regulations. More on the skirmish from the New York Times.

Missing the point. The Hollywood Reporter has a story Thursday declaring that "fat is making a comeback in Hollywood" and suggesting that we can all "forget about" the super-skinny actresses that fill just about every show on broadcast and cable. What the story doesn't note is that most of these shows are reality shows about losing weight and that their overall message is that there is something wrong with the people on the show. Although obesity is a real issue, many of these shows are just exploiting people in the hopes of ratings. In other words, Hollywood is not suddenly embracing people who you can actually still see when they turn sideways.

Inside the Los Angeles Times: Sirius XM Chief Executive Mel Karmazin said he is confident that Howard Stern will sign a new deal with the satellite radio broadcaster. MGM got its seventh (that's right, seventh) forbearance on its debt payments. Lucas Cruikshank is building an empire with his Fred Figglehorn character.

-- Joe Flint

Follow me on Twitter because I said so: Twitter.com/JBFlint

The Morning Fix: Disney's insider trading mess! SOAPnet out of suds. New boss at Hollywood Reporter

After the coffee. Before trying to get Lee DeWyze's awful version of "Beautiful Day" out of my head. 

Is this the plot for "Wall Street 3"? An assistant to a top Disney executive and her boyfriend hatched up a crazy plan to sell inside information about the company to hedge funds, according to the Justice Department. Bonnie Jean Hoxie was hoping to trade access she gained working for Zenia Mucha, the head of corporate communications for Disney, for ... a Stella McCartney handbag from Neiman Marcus. OK, she and her boyfriend wanted money too. This well-thought-out plot blew up in their faces with an FBI arrest. More on Hoxie and her boyfriend and their not-too-bright idea from the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal.

Turn off the soap, kids are home. In other Disney news, the company is pulling the plug on its 10-year-old cable network SOAPnet and in its place will launch Disney Junior, yet another channel aimed at preschoolers. First lesson on the channel? Trying to trade inside information you get from working for powerful people is bad. Seriously, the channel enters a crowded marketplace, trying to compete with Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. and PBS Sprout. On the other hand, Disney has a way of just ramming these things down everyone's throat. Details on Disney Junior from the New York Times.

Business will be booming. Over the next couple of weeks, the broadcast networks will start selling ad time for the fall TV season. Many are anticipating a stronger market than in previous years. However, before you get all excited, keep in mind that although more money might be spent now for the fall season in what is known as the upfront market, that does not mean that overall spending on broadcast TV will go up. Anyway, the Wall Street Journal offers its preview of the mating dance between buyers and sellers. By the way, mating dance has become the most overused term to describe the upfront, and I will admit I'm guilty of it too. Can we come up with something new, like the annual polka between buyers and sellers? Ad Age, meanwhile, tells us that an improved economy means classier advertisers on this year's Super Bowl. Good, because I thought last year's 900-number chat-line spots were way over the top.

King's reign is over. The gradual decline of Larry King is picking up momentum. The CNN talk-show host has seen his ratings dip for years, and some might say that he is not exactly the most engaged interviewer these days. Also, while his rivals on Fox and MSNBC try to interview political news-makers, King often focuses on celebrities and crime stories. Those are, of course, easier to do and require less homework. Anyway, sooner or later CNN has to make a change at 9 p.m., but the network won't even discuss the idea. The New York Times looks at King's and CNN's woes.

Fuggedaboutit. HBO has taken issue with CBS hyping the link that two executive producers of its new drama "Blue Blood" have to the pay cable channel's classic mob drama, "The Sopranos." It's not that the producers didn't spend many years on the show and even won some Emmys, it's that they may not have the best relationship anymore with David Chase, who created "The Sopranos." CBS is backing off the promos, according to Vulture.

The Wrap doesn't like white people. OK, maybe that's an overstatement, but the entertainment website, whose biggest backer is Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz (does it get any whiter?), goes to that old race chestnut and takes issue with both the stars of the summer movie season and recent winners of "American Idol."

Inside the Los Angeles Times: The Hollywood Reporter has tapped former Us Weekly editor Janice Min as its new chief. Turner Broadcasting sales chief David Levy thinks Conan O'Brien and the NCAA will translate to big ad dollars. Hard to disagree. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) wants some tough conditions on the Comcast--NBC Universal deal.

-- Joe Flint

Just click here and let the magic begin: twitter.com/JBFlint

Power Rangers morph back into Haim Saban's hands, will air on Nickelodeon [updated]

PowerRangersOne of the most popular -- and reviled -- icons of 1990s children's television is back in the hands of the man who launched it.

Media mogul Haim Saban has bought back the rights to "Power Rangers," the hit television show that fueled his dominance of children's television in the 1990s, from Walt Disney Co., which took control of the property in 2001.

Saban has also signed a deal with Nickelodeon, Disney's primary rival in the kids' TV business, to air 20 new episodes of "Power Rangers" that he will produce, along with a catalog of more than 700 episodes.

The deal is worth about $100 million, according to a person familiar with the situation. Saban declined to comment on the price.

Originally known as "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers," the low-budget series debuted in 1993 and consisted primarily of recycled footage from Japan of monsters battling teenage superheroes whose voices were dubbed by American voice-over actors. Saban said new episodes, which will start airing in 2011, will be produced in a similar manner.

"Power Rangers" was one of the most popular shows on the cable channel Fox Family, a joint venture between Saban and News Corp. that was acquired by Walt Disney Co. in 2001 for $3.2 billion. The acquisition included rights to the show, which later transferred to smaller cable channel Jettix, now known as Disney XD, as its popularity faded and now airs on ABC stations at different times.

"I think this property has significant legs going forward if it's in an environment where it is nurtured and supported as opposed to being part of a huge portfolio," Saban said. "I think 'Power Rangers' can flourish and be more impactful than it has been for the past five years."

[Update, 4:35 p.m.: "The Power Rangers don’t fit with the Disney brand or with our long-term programming strategy," a company spokesman said in a statement.]

For Nickelodeon, the "Power Rangers" deal is part of a push to air more programming that appeals to young boys. The Viacom Inc.-owned network recently made a similar deal to relaunch the popular 1980s cartoon "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

"This fits in nicely as we are doing more things specifically for boys, and we are excited to add proven properties to our original slate," said Nickelodeon President Cyma Zarghami.

Zarghami added that although "Power Rangers" was somewhat controversial in the 1990s for its violence, she didn't think the show's campy martial arts would bother many parents today.

The acquisition is being done under the auspices of Saban Brands, a new company backed by $500 million of the media mogul's money with the goal of acquiring entertainment and consumer brands.

Saban said the company is in negotiations to buy three other brands. He declined to identify them but said that, unlike "Power Rangers," they are not aimed at children.

-- Ben Fritz

Times staff writers Joe Flint and Dawn C. Chmielewski contributed to this report.

Photo: The Power Rangers. Credit: Saban Brands

Anyone can be an expert on kids' TV — just say you're one

Want to become an expert on children's television? Just come up with a clever name for your group and put out a news release. Oh, and don't forget to Twitter.

That seems to be the strategy of TrueChild, a just-launched Washington advocacy group fighting to "combat stereotypes in children's culture and education." It announced its arrival on the scene with a splashy headline about the "limiting" and "dangerous" messages in many children's TV shows and invited all to participate in a Twitter chat.

We're all for that. There's nothing wrong with wanting to improve programming for kids.

Kjr6zcncJONASBut of all the shows that TrueChild could have singled out as bad for kids, is Disney's campy "Jonas" really the biggest offender? TrueChild gave it an F and cited it as offering a negative message because the program "revolves around three very skinny boys in a rock band and the girls that fawn over them." "Jonas," the group says, does not offer positive messages for girls or boys. Hmmm, seems to us that the positive message is to become a successful musician and girls will adore you. Doesn't anyone remember "The Monkees?"

This advocacy group's level of expertise on the topic seems a little questionable. As far as we can tell from a review of the group's website, no one on its staff or its board of directors has any direct experience or background in education or children's television. The president, Elizabeth Birch, is, according to her bio, a former director of litigation at Apple and hosts a blog on Huffington Post. The director of operations, Danny Baker, is "an award-winning graduate of Ithaca College." They don't say what awards he has won or how his love of gourmet food and passion for reading Wikipedia make him qualified to operate an advocacy group, but it's good to know he has "four young cousins he adores."

TrueChild's board isn't much better. Co-Chairwoman Cynthia Neff worked in human resources at IBM and enjoys "visiting all the wineries" in Virginia. Co-Chairman Kevin Jones received an MBA and a JD and then spent 25 years "trying to figure out what and where he wanted his life to be." Oh, and he likes palm trees.

We're not picking on this group. Okay, we are a little. But if you want to be taken seriously -- and you have funding from The Ford Foundation and George Soros' Open Society -- it doesn't seem too much to ask that on-point biographies relating to the group's founders be included. If you are going to say you can "give children back their childhoods," do it without typos and poorly worded sentences such as this one in Treasurer Melissa Theodore's biography: "She is not a parent, but helped to raise her older niece and nephew." Really? She helped raise a niece and nephew who were older than she? 

We can't help but wonder what another award winning Ithaca College alum, Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger, would say about all of this.

— Joe Flint

Photo: The Jonas Brothers. Credit: Katy Winn / Associated Press

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