The COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed down the Nickelodeon animation machine as it continues to grind out both new series and reboots of classic network shows under the auspices of network animation president Ramsey Naito.
Nickelodeon Animation has more than 50 series and movie projects in development, including movie projects for Blue’s Clues, Baby Shark and The Loud House as well as new TV featuring classic franchises as The Smurfs, Avatar, SpongeBob SquarePants, Paw Patrol and Star Trek, along with a series based on the best-selling Big Nate children’s books. That’s on top of rebooting such iconic animated shows such as Rugrats, which is currently airing on ViacomCBS streaming service Paramount Plus.
Naito, who oversees Nickelodeon’s animation content across all formats and platforms from linear television to streaming and theatrical movies, paints the division’s future strategy for B+C/Multichannel News senior content producer, programming R. Thomas Umstead. The interview was edited for space and clarity.
Growing up, did you have aspirations of working in animation? I never thought I’d work in animation. I loved animation but, the closest thing to animators that I knew were illustrators or graphic designers. It wasn’t until I went to CalArts [California Institute of the Arts] for grad school that I was introduced to the world of animation.
What’s your favorite non-animated TV show? The Sopranos.
What are your all-time favorite animated characters? Chip ‘n’ Dale.
What is your favorite podcast? The Sarah Silverman Podcast, hands down.
What streaming services do you subscribe to? Paramount Plus.
What is your favorite vacation bucket destination? Punta del Este, Uruguay.
Is animation as popular today than it’s ever been, given all of the different platforms and distribution outlets that we have? I think animation today is more popular than ever. There are so many ways to access animation, and because of that I think that people have been able to tap into and watch all styles of animation. Kids today can go on their phone and watch Looney Tunes, SpongeBob or anime from Japan. I also think that animation really persevered during the pandemic.
How much did the pandemic impact Nickelodeon’s animation production, and how were you able to navigate through it? No question that it impacted us, but literally within one week [after the shutdown] we pivoted to a work-from-home workflow. Everyone was set up at home to continue doing their jobs, from designing, storyboarding, writing, editing — you name it. We were able to sustain our entire studio production pipeline from home. As a result, we became really in demand. This past year we’ve hired over 500 artists at the studio because of all the shows we’ve green-lit, all the season renewals and all the movies. We were really able to continue our production strategy and grow our content pipeline.
It seems Nickelodeon is going back to its animation roots for new original programming with reboots of Rugrats and Blue’s Clues. How much of Nickelodeon’s animation past will factor into its animation future? I started my career working on Nickelodeon shows as a [production assistant] 20 years ago — I was at the studio when Steve Hillenburg made SpongeBob — so coming back in this capacity I’ve seen Nickelodeon [animation] grow with titles like SpongeBob, Avatar and now Star Trek that speak to multiple generations of viewers, including grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts. So by reinvigorating these titles we’re able to speak to families. Parents can invite their kids to watch and experience a show or a franchise that they love. There’s real power there. At the same time we are still invested in our animated originals. It’s a big part of our DNA, and we have a new generation of creators that have new ideas that are adding to this wonderfully rich library that Nickelodeon already has.
What role does animation play in the overall legacy of Nickelodeon? It may be the heart and soul of the brand. We are a kids’ network, and animation is beloved by kids and family. Every now and then, you get something like SpongeBob that just speaks to all audiences, but animation is hugely important to the brand within our library and within the lines of business that it creates for the company, including consumer products. In short, animation is probably the heart and soul of Nickelodeon.
R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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