The Venue: Hammerstein Ballroom, New York
Key Execs: Judy McGrath, chairman-CEO, MTV Networks; Cyma Zarghami, president, Nickelodeon/MTV Networks Kids and Family Group; Jim Perry, exec VP-ad sales, Nickelodeon/MTV Networks Kids and Family Group; Jim Tricarico, senior VP-ad sales, Nickelodeon/MTV Networks Kids and Family Group
The Food: In keeping with last year's theme of Nick going from orange to green, a healthy selection of fresh fruit, flaxseed pie bars and yogurt with crushed granola
The Swag: Guests went home swagless! If Nickelodeon, the most profitable network in cable TV, isn't giving out goodies this year, who is? Looks like swag might be the first casualty of the upfront recession.
The Celebs: Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who is producing a new Nick at Nite show, "Glenn Martin, D.D.S."; "Slumdog Millionaire" star Dev Patel, who will play the villain in Nick and Paramount's live-action "Avatar: The Last Airbender," directed by M. Night Shyamalan in summer 2010; Keke Palmer, star of Nick's highest-rated new series, "True Jackson VP"; and Wyclef Jean and Colbie Caillat, who performed live and will cover The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" for Nick's summer movie "Imagine That"
The Ratings Game: Nickelodeon is still the No. 1 cable network for children 2 to 11, as it has been for 14 consecutive years, and has begun 2009 with a lead as high as 40% in total viewers over its closest rival, Disney Channel, and 105% over its closest ad-supported competitor, Cartoon Network. Sibling cable networks Nicktoons, Noggin (soon to be Nick Jr.) and the N (soon to be Teen Nick) also continue to achieve double-digit ratings growth in total viewers so far this year.
Last Year's Take: Nickelodeon grossed a total of $939 million in 2008 across all its web brands and Nick at Nite, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Buyer's Verdict: Chris Boothe, president-chief activation officer for Publicis' Starcom USA, praised the network's approach to event programming and continued dedication to reaching kids and families of all demographics. "Nickelodeon knows that kids respond well to special-event programming. Their strategy to offer at least one tent-pole event each month has paid off with the success of their original movies, programming marathons and events like the Kids Choice Awards. Expansion of these stunts onto their other properties like Nick.com, Turbo Nick and Nick magazine allows them to reach kids wherever they are, whenever they want content."
The Scene: It's a testament to Nickelodeon's kids'-market dominance that Michael Eisner is lining up to pitch his former arch nemeses on a new series.
The ex-Disney CEO appeared at the Nickelodeon upfront in New York's Hammerstein Ballroom today to present "Glenn Martin, D.D.S.," a half-hour animated comedy his Tornante Animation is producing for Nick at Nite, styled in the vein of National Lampoon's "Vacation" movie franchise. Mr. Eisner was nursing a broken foot, which he joked was the result of "fighting with Sumner Redstone over a parking space at Bank of America. He won, of course."
Yet Mr. Eisner was just one boldface name to provide a testimonial on Nickelodeon's proven brand strength. Walmart was also on hand to tout its retail partnership for the 10th anniversary of "SpongeBob SquarePants," which has its own front-of-store display in Walmart stores across the country.
Entire shelves of SpongeBob merchandise are labeled "0.00," a price anyone can manage in a recession. "It enables us to help our customers save money and live better," said Dottie Mattison, Walmart's senior VP-general merchandising manager. Even Dev Patel, star of the Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire," was on hand to announce his role as an evil king in next summer's live-action adaptation of Nick's hit animated series "Avatar."
All of that helps explain why Viacom CEO Phillippe Dauman was bullish on Nickelodeon's performance in what will likely be the most challenging TV upfront yet. "This is a tough market, and in a tough market it's important to go with quality and consistency," he told the audience of marketers and media buyers. "No network has had more success more consistently than Nickelodeon. But as great a brand as Nick is today, Nick has unlimited room to grow."
Indeed, Nick has been relatively immune to many of the challenges plaguing the adult marketplace thus far. Jim Perry, the network's exec VP-sales, told Ad Age that Nickelodeon has seen cancellations from last year's upfront on par with previous years, in the low- to mid-single-digit range, far lower than the 10% to 15% of cancellations Nick's counterparts in the adult market are experiencing, thanks to limited exposure to the automotive and financial categories.
Still, Mr. Perry is cautiously optimistic about Nick's upfront performance. "It's a different market than we've seen in the past," he said. "The main thing I'm seeing is advertisers are being a lot more careful in their planning and will be in their spending compared to the year before. What we're hearing, especially after a show like today, is people want to put their money in the safest, more reliable places. It's a flight to quality."
Also benefitting Nickelodeon is a market-leading online presence, with the Nick Kids and Family group of sites up 13% to 28.7 million unique users in January 2009, according to ComScore. That increased audience growth on non-TV platforms has prompted Mr. Perry's team to ready "property packages," with a consistent audience metric to buy across all of Nick Kids and Family's TV, online, wireless and video-on-demand properties. "Whether it's kids, teens, tweens parents and adults, we look forward to being able to cover all the different marketplaces this year," he said.
With Mr. Eisner batting for Nickelodeon's team, Disney has been busy rebranding its former Toon Disney network as Disney XD, which relaunched in February to strong prime-time ratings for its new live-action series "Aaron Stone."
The early performance is an indicator that Disney could finally steal a significant share of the ad-supported kids market from Nick and its boy-targeted network Nicktoons. Toon Disney finished 2008 a distant fourth in ad-supported cable kids' networks in ad dollars, with $84 million, just over a third of No. 2 Cartoon Network's take of $234 million, according to TNS.