Longtime Nickelodeon executive Jules Borkent was named executive VP for kids and family at ViacomCBS Networks International (VCNI) at the start of last year. The move keeps him as the brand lead for Nickelodeon International—including content strategy, acquisitions, original development and co-productions—while also opening up opportunities for the kids’ outlet to work with sister assets like CBS All Access (soon to be rebranded as Paramount+). Borkent talks to TV Kids about serving audiences during lockdown, launch strategies and new IP highlights.
TV KIDS: Tell us about the impact of the Viacom-CBS merger on your remit.
BORKENT: As CBS does not have a kids’ and family unit, there has not been an immediate impact as far as Nickelodeon is concerned. Where the opportunity is for Nickelodeon now is to work across the CBS portfolio. Looking at CBS’s extensive IP, we’ve announced a CG-animated series, Star Trek: Prodigy, which is being produced for Nickelodeon, and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, which will premiere on CBS All Access in the U.S. We’ll continue to explore further ways to partner with CBS on our kids’ content portfolios in the future. Other than that, the merger creates more opportunities to work across the different divisions, including production, consumer products and syndication.
TV KIDS: How did you approach serving viewers during lockdown? I imagine it differed across markets as shutdowns hit in countries at different times.
BORKENT: Absolutely. It all happened very quickly. Given that we work well in advance, a lot of our content was already produced. Launches went ahead as planned—we didn’t see an immediate impact on rollouts. Live action came to a sudden halt, though, and as most of it is produced out of the U.S., that did have an impact on new episode delivery. Internationally, we had one new production up and running in the U.K., the scripted series Goldie’s Oldies, and the fourth season of Hunter Street that was being filmed in Holland, so those had to go on hold for a couple of months. I am very happy to say that we were able to start production again on both these two shows. So while there has been a delay, we’ve managed to catch up.
As far as animation is concerned, we had 11 shows in production when the pandemic hit and we managed to keep all of them going, without missing the delivery dates. Working remotely became the standard for our animation teams around the world during this time. Also, as certain markets were opening earlier than others, we were working with animation companies around the world that were able to commence work on our productions sooner as they came out of lockdown and were ready to work again. So generally, while it’s impacted everybody, we have been able to keep our output to our audience pretty much intact.
We also produced some new shows that were shot during lockdown. One produced in the U.S. is called Group Chat, a nighttime talk show done from our talent’s homes, hosted by Annie LeBlanc and Jayden Bartels, the stars of our new sitcom Side Hustle. We also produced Nickelodeon’s Unfiltered, which is a new game show where celebrities hide behind 3D animated characters and the panel has to guess who the mystery guest is. We also restarted production on The Astronauts, which is shot in Canada and produced in partnership with Imagine Entertainment, and we’ll now hopefully be able to go back in production on our L.A.-based live-action shows as well.
TV KIDS: Were there trends that emerged during lockdown viewing that you think will continue, post the pandemic?
BORKENT: As expected, family viewing increased during lockdown. For us, being focused on international, we saw the rise of global platforms during this crisis and the popularity of international content has been quite phenomenal. We saw a lot of engagement with content from different markets as kids were just exposed to a lot more. They were, of course, coming in for their favorite shows—PAW Patrol, SpongeBob SquarePants, etc.—but what we noticed was a powerful trend towards borderless storytelling, an expansion of subject and style that has enabled kids to embrace diversity on-screen and behind the camera. That was a big takeaway for us, and that will absolutely continue. We’re focused on having as diverse a voice as possible, and the appetite for international content has been shown during this time.
TV KIDS: How have your launch strategies evolved as more viewing has transitioned to on-demand?
BORKENT: Everyone says this: We want to be everywhere kids are. That means we have to be incredibly focused on ensuring that new content is seen by as broad an audience as possible. While we still have a lot of viewing happening on our linear services, as everywhere, the engagement on other platforms is growing and continues to grow. We have quite a sophisticated rollout plan for all our content, whether that is through short-form on YouTube, long-form on our apps or VOD services, or our linear channels. It’s becoming a bigger puzzle to solve every year and my team is constantly working on ensuring our content is made available to our audience wherever they are and however they consume the content. We’ve announced the launch of our SVOD service internationally and that will be an additional opportunity for us to focus on. We are continuing to work closely with our free-to-air partners around the world to ensure our content reaches as wide an audience as possible.
TV KIDS: How are you and your teams around the world finding and nurturing new talent?
BORKENT: We have strong teams all over the world; they are constantly out in the market looking for new talent to work with. We have new projects coming out of India, Israel, Singapore, South Korea. We announced The Twisted Timeline of Sammy & Raj, our first original co-production with Nickelodeon India, which will launch internationally in 2021. We also have a very successful shorts program through which we have discovered new voices and talent. One of the shows that came out of this program was It’s Pony, which has been incredibly successful and was renewed for a second series. I am also very excited about our new original series Deer Squad, a co-production with iQiyi that we produced in China but wrote out of the U.K. and it has successfully launched in China, with the international rollout following. Our international slate is constantly growing.
TV KIDS: What are you looking for as we head into MIPJunior and MIPCOM?
BORKENT: We aim to deliver shows with great characters, great storylines and relatable content that kids can enjoy and relate to wherever they are. Diversity is key; it has always been for Nickelodeon and we continue to do that. We’re looking at animation to fill the pipeline, whether that’s through co-production models or prebuy acquisitions, and we announced the acquisition of the new series of The Smurfs. Live action has also always been and continues to be a very big focus point. And we are also interested in new formats. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we noticed the engagement with talent through some of the shows we produced during lockdown, and we’re always on the lookout for new ideas and formats to keep our audience entertained.