Why Nickelodeon Did Away With Its Usual Upfront Kickoff Event This Year

Network opted for 'intimate' meetings where new chief Brian Robbins could share his vision

Last year's splashy upfront event featured celebs like John Cena, but Nickelodeon is opting for smaller meetings going forward. Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

One year ago today, Nickelodeon held its upfront presentation, which has long served as the unofficial kickoff to the annual upfront season. But this year, the network isn’t holding its usual big upfront event. Instead, it’s following in the footsteps of its Viacom sibling networks—and many others through the industry—and swapping spectacle for smaller agency meetings.

The changes come as Nickelodeon enters the upfront with a new leader for the first time in 13 years: Brian Robbins, who came on in October following the June exit of longtime Nickelodeon Group president Cyma Zarghami.

Instead of its traditional upfront event—last year’s presentation included appearances by John Cena, JoJo Siwa, Nick Cannon and the cast of the SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical—Robbins and Sean Moran, Viacom’s head of marketing and partner solutions, opted for a new approach this year.

Nickelodeon kicked off its upfront business at last month’s Toy Fair in New York, announcing its new programming slate at a presentation for toy clients. Over the next two weeks, it held two additional meetings in the Viacom building for agencies and holding companies, during which Robbins shared his new vision for the network and Moran made his upfront pitch. Robbins will then represent Nickelodeon alongside the other Viacom programming chiefs next month at the company’s upfront agency dinners, which Moran has been holding since 2017.

During those client and agency meetings, attendees “got a real sense for where we’re going, for the enormity of Brian’s vision and how we’re trying to make the complexity of reaching kids and family something that Nickelodeon can provide as a one-stop shop,” said Moran.

This year’s upfront changeup speaks to the team’s new mentality, “which is making sure that people see us as a solutions provider,” said Moran. “We’re making it more tailored and intimate to them so that we really think about their needs going forward.”

Viacom, which held five lavish upfront presentations as recently as 2016 for its various networks, scrapped most of those events two years ago in favor of smaller agency dinners. BET held an event in 2017 before it also made the switch, leaving Nickelodeon as the company’s last upfront event in 2018.

“At Nickelodeon, we can bring people to the most connected influencer, and that influencer is going to have the ability to connect clients online as well as on-air.”
—Sean Moran, Viacom’s head of marketing and partner solutions

As Moran trimmed those presentations under his watch, he held onto the Nickelodeon event, in part because of the efforts to push the network’s brands and IP into other platforms, like Broadway. So last year’s Nickelodeon upfront was held at New York’s Palace Theatre, the home of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Had that opportunity not been available last year, “you would have seen me make this change a little sooner,” said Moran.

During last year’s upfront, Zarghami, then president of Nickelodeon Group, talked about the year’s theme of “reinvention.” She didn’t realize at the time how extensive that reinvention would be: three months later, Zarghami was out, exiting the company after three decades. In October, Nickelodeon tapped Robbins to replace her.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, which Zarghami said was central to the company’s “reinvention” plans, is also no more, as it closed in September without recouping its $18 million cost.

So it’s no surprise that Nickelodeon wanted to turn the page for its first upfront under Robbins, who began his career as an actor before becoming a producer and director of several ’90s Nickelodeon shows and later founding AwesomenessTV.

“We really wanted that intimate setting where folks could get a true sense of Brian Robbins’ vision and who he was as a person. We didn’t think that could come across the same way in a big theatrical performance where he just does an intro or an outro,” said Moran.

Revivals and spinoffs

Nickelodeon declined to make Robbins available to discuss his new vision and his upfront message to advertisers, but in those meetings last month, he pushed the network’s new content slate. This includes a revival of sketch comedy series All That, which was co-created by Robbins back in 1994 and ran for 10 seasons, to be executive produced by Kenan Thompson, who starred in the original.

The network is also rebooting the game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, which originally ran on Fox and will now be hosted and executive produced by John Cena. Its Blue’s Clues revival, which was announced at last year’s upfront and is called Blue’s Clues & You!, will premiere in November.

Other new shows include a music competition series to find America’s most musical family, a Lego City animated series and a Paddington animated series with Ben Whishaw voicing the titular bear, as he did in the two recent live-action Paddington movies.

Also, as SpongeBob SquarePants celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Nickelodeon is developing spinoffs based on the show’s characters that could end up as new series, specials and movies.

“He sees it as our Marvel,” said Moran about Robbins’ SpongeBob plans, “to be able to have so many successful franchises come off what has been the most successful franchise for kids programming ever.”

During those upfront meetings, Moran touted Nickelodeon’s ability to deliver not only kids audiences, but co-viewing via families with shows like Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

“The highest co-viewing level of any genre is kids programming,” said Moran, noting that last year, 44 percent of kids’ TV viewing occurred with an adult, which he said was the highest number in 10 years. For Hispanic families, the co-viewing number is “closer to 50 percent.”

And those adults “aren’t just in the room, but they are paying attention,” said Moran. Viacom conducted a study with TVision that found that “adults are 61 percent more attentive when watching TV as a family. They pay 77 percent more attention to commercials and are more likely to recall the products advertised.”

This year’s co-viewing push is one way Moran is trying to reposition the network as the entire kids TV category has struggled with steep linear ratings drops.

“We’re surrounding the viewer no matter where they are, so certainly Brian is very excited to be pushing into other platforms and working with talent in new ways that are surrounding that platform,” said Moran. He also noted that Nickelodeon’s share of kids TV is at 46 percent of kids 2–11, up four points from a year ago, and is continuing to grow. “Our clients can’t lose sight of that,” even with the migration to other platforms, said Moran.

During this upfront, Moran is also pushing Nickelodeon’s relationships with influencers, spanning everyone from DJ Khaled, who is hosting the Kids Choice Awards on March 23, to 8-year-old YouTube superstar Ryan, of Ryan ToysReview, who will star in the new series Ryan’s Mystery Playdate.

“At Nickelodeon, we can bring people to the most connected influencer, and that influencer is going to have the ability to connect clients online as well as on-air,” said Moran. “And where Brian’s taking even the linear formats, making sure we have the No. 1 franchises [like SpongeBob and Lego], really brings an energy and a reach to a place where I think we’re going to be affecting business results for clients in a way we’ve never been able to before.”

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.