Exclusive Interview: Cyma Zarghami


PREMIUM: Cyma Zarghami, the president of Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group, talks about working with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Haim Saban, touring the House of Lords with Waheed Alli, building partnerships and writing the next chapter in Nickelodeon’s worldwide growth.

Under Cyma Zarghami, the president of Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group, the children’s channel has become a leading destination for young viewers around the world. With original animation, live-action and a wealth of activities, games and information on its websites, nickjr.com and nick.com, Nickelodeon has established a strong connection to kids in the U.S. and around the world in its first 30 years. Zarghami talks about writing the next chapter, one that includes new genres and partnerships.

WS: Nickelodeon is 30 years old now. What have you learned about which genres fit the brand and what types of partnerships are you looking for?
ZARGHAMI: Nickelodeon is 30 and it was about five years ago, when we were celebrating our 25th birthday, that we decided we needed to begin to write the next chapter of Nickelodeon’s history, which meant where to go next and how do we keep it growing. We’ve always felt that Nickelodeon can keep getting bigger and better. We’ve done everything by ourselves for so many years and we’ve had great success doing a lot by ourselves, but we really did think that now the time is right to get into new genres, some new markets and work with different people [from whom] we could learn some of the things that we don’t intuitively know ourselves as creative people. And it is sometimes better to partner than it is to invent from the ground up.

Our journey really began with DreamWorks Animation when Jeffrey Katzenberg came to us and said what if we took some characters from his very popular movies and turned them into TV series. So we went into the development process [on the series The Penguins of Madagascar] and realized that, Oh, there are 18 months of marketing we don’t have to do to get a show ramped up because the characters are already well known and beloved by our audience. And that is always the first thing we worry about, How do we connect with our audience and does [a certain project] help us connect with the audience in a better way? And those penguins were really well developed characters when the movie [Madagascar] came out, so the process was a lot of fun and we came out with a great show and we’re going to be doing another one with Kung Fu Panda soon. We’ve seen the early episodes and they look really good.

WS: You have also partnered with Sony Music.
ZARGHAMI: We wanted to get into music because music has always been an important part of kids’ lives, certainly tweens’ lives. So we thought we need a great partner to work with on music. We know how to put music into a show; we don’t necessarily know how to make the music to put in the show. We talked to a bunch of different people and we found in Sony a great partner who brought us great talent. They went on the talent search for Big Time Rush with us. We molded the project together and it came out really well. The music is fantastic. It’s charming, it’s funny, it’s spot on in terms of kids’ sensibility and the music is really high quality and might possibly go beyond just the kids’ audience and that’s really our hope. I love the music myself!

The second project with Sony is Victorious, starring Victoria Justice. She is what you call—not to be cliché—a triple threat. She can sing, she can act and she can dance. She has presence. She really is a spectacular person and hers is the other project that has music in the center. Victorious was introduced to the international market at Cannes.

WS: I imagine that will connect quite well with children worldwide.
ZARGHAMI: It should. What we find is that if something works really off the charts in the U.S. it travels pretty well.
WS: To a large extent, kids are kids, no matter where they are, right?
ZARGHAMI: Yes, the real comedy or the great characters or the great stories connect everybody. That’s mostly true in animation, now we are finding it to be true with some live action.
WS: Are you also finding projects that originated outside the U.S. and are fitting the Nickelodeon brand?
ZARGHAMI: Yes, House of Anubis is one that is coming this way. We did it in Holland first, and it was a runaway success story. And then they re-created it for the German market and it was also a runaway success story. We thought we would go to Liverpool to make it with a Belgian company for the U.K and for the U.S. and for any other market that wants to take it from there, so we are excited.
WS: And have the Power Rangers coming back.
ZARGHAMI: The Power Rangers and the legendary Haim Saban. The Power Rangers was one of those programs that really resonated with the boy audience for many, many, many years. And it feels like at 30 years old, Nickelodeon is in a perfect position to take some of [those evergreen] properties that it could embrace and put under its umbrella. We’re doing the Power Rangers with Haim Saban and we bought the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and we will be recreating that series from scratch.
So the shows that resonated might resonate again and the exciting thing about being 30 is that the first Nickelodeon audience are now parents of the [current] Nickelodeon audience. And there are a lot of things that will be nostalgic in the best possible way for those parents that we can re-create for their kids. And we can connect with families in ways we never expected to.
WS: You will also have The Tales of Peter Rabbit based on Beatrix Potter’s characters.
ZARGHAMI: I met Waheed Alli [chairman of Chorion]. He invited me to the House of Lords for tea. I thought I was going to a restaurant called The House of Lords! Isn’t that clever! [Laughter] Then I went through security and I saw the throne and he gave us a fantastic tour. He really is a spectacular guy because he just wants the properties that he wants. He has a real quality meter about him. He worked on Olivia, which is gorgeous. He did Max & Ruby, which continues to be a big hit with the preschool audience and he has been trying to get Beatrix Potter for a long time. When he and Frederick Warne & Co.came together on it, he said, “I want to do The Tales of Peter Rabbit with Nickelodeon." So it is a three-way partnership and I think our team will do a great job with it. It should be an exciting property that might resonate with future generations.
WS: Nickelodeon has always been known for connecting with children wherever they are. Does this strategy continue in today’s multiplatform world?
ZARGHAMI: Multiplatform is really important and children are everywhere that you can imagine. Great content is at the heart of this. If you don’t have great content, it doesn’t matter what you do on the platforms, children aren’t going to connect with it. SpongeBob games are going to work anywhere that you put them. And the interactivity in iCarly is based on the fact that the characters are making their own web show and kids really connect with that idea. So just asking kids to put their own content up on line isn’t exciting. Putting it up online to be on iCarly is really exciting.
We try to make sure that the content they love is finding its way onto all of the platforms, rather that try to figure out what to do with the platforms.
We just did Fred: The Movie, it was an interesting experiment because there have only been about two times now where something from the Internet has truly crossed over to another platform, and Justin Bieber is one of them and Fred might be the other. He had so many followers online and Brian Robbins made the movie and brought it to us when it was finished. That was just a matter of, is it the right time and can the combination of Fred, the beloved Internet guy, and Nickelodeon together really make an impression. And it turned out to be great. Some 7.5 million people watched the movie, which was fantastic. And I believe it’s going to be released theatrically in the U.K. because Pixie Lott, the girl who plays his love interest Judy, is a pop phenomenon there. So the opportunity to launch it theatrically with Pixie Lott as part of the marketing is going to be exciting.
WS: Nickelodeon has always considered pro-social initiatives to be very important. What are the most recent ones?
ZARGHAMI: We actually just re-invigorated what The Big Help means to us. The Big Help was the first of our big pro-social initiatives and it has a history and a lot of equity. We’ve now turned The Big Help into the umbrella for four pillars: education, health and wellness, community service and the environment. Quarter-by-quarter, with our talent, we are taking on those pillars one at a time. In September, we did the Worldwide Day of Play again, and we did it globally. There were a lot of countries involved. We turned off Nickelodeon for three hours to let kids know how important it was to get outside and play. We had a lot of talent come and participate. We were live from New York City this year and we had a lot of fun.
We did Beyond the Backpack, which is a fantastic initiative about school readiness. Marian Wright Edelman from The Children’s Defense Fund, as well as the PTA [Parent Teacher Association] are both huge supporters of the initiative. We are really trying to give parents the tools to get their kids ready to go to school, because if they aren’t ready to get there, they are going to fail. Marian Wright Edelman believes that illiteracy is one of the biggest crises of our [times]. She was actually quoted as saying that now that Dora is on the case, she feels much better!
WS: You have been with Nickelodeon a long time
ZARGHAMI: A long, long time!
WS: You still love what you do. What has kept you in the children’s arena for such a long time?
ZARGHAMI: We re-invent ourselves every couple of years, and these past five years, I have to say, have been more fun ever before, because we really did decide to bring it all together under one big umbrella. We changed the logo. We changed the creative look. We looked under every rock to make sure that everything made sense. We talked to the audience more than we ever talked to them before, and we are having an unbelievably successful run at the moment. So that obviously makes it a lot of fun. Working with my partners makes it fun. I’m really enjoying Haim Saban and Sony Records and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Yeah, we’re having a lot of fun! I believe Nickelodeon can keep getting bigger. It’s part of who I am; it’s hard to imagine going anywhere else now. And my kids would kill me!