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Ascheim Transforms Nick Digital

Singing in Times Square in your underwear isn't listed in the job description for many TV execs—especially if they run a kids network. But on one frigid day, it was a must-do for Nickelodeon Digital Television General Manager Tom Ascheim.

In a ritual of self-humiliation designed to rev up the troops at an MTV Networks annual sales retreat, Ascheim appeared in a spoof tape impersonating The Naked Cowboy, a Manhattan fixture who panhandles outside Viacom's headquarters wearing only white briefs, a cowboy hat and boots. During his brief exhibition, Ascheim dealt with surprised Asian tourists and angry beggars. But it proved a good bonding experience with MTV staffers. “I got credit for courage.”

Ascheim gets credit for even more. He helped build Nickelodeon Digital into a key growth source for the dominant kids- TV programmer. Since 1999, he has been responsible for running the day-to-day operations of Noggin, an educational, commercial-free network initially aimed at preschoolers. The breakthrough came in 2002, when the channel adopted a split personality: Noggin stuck with preschoolers; The N targeted older kids, ages 9-14. (Today, Noggin/The N is available in 43 million cable and DBS homes, wide enough distribution to serve as a strong programming platform.) By 2004, Ascheim was named EVP/GM of all of Nick's digital cable and VOD operations. That includes Nickelodeon GAS (Games and Sports) and Nicktoons.

Unlike most cable programming execs, Ascheim didn't come up through programming or marketing but entered via the business side. He spent a good chunk of his career in business development, working on startups for various MTV Networks; his expertise is in financial planning, not finessing prime time schedules.

But Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel, doesn't care. He says there are three types of programming execs: “People who make it themselves, people who know when great stuff is made and those who have no taste at all.” Ascheim's forte is behind door No. 2.

His first job in TV was a far cry from Nickelodeon. Fresh out of Yale in 1985, he snagged a position with Geoffrey Drummond, a Manhattan producer who oversaw various programs—including cooking shows—for public television and home video. Ascheim's edge? He knew how to use the office PC. While he remembers the job as “dreamy,” it taught him an important TV lesson: “I didn't want to be a producer.” Developing and selling TV proved too frustrating. He wrote a staggering 75 treatments, none of which were made. So he turned in a new direction.

In 1989, Ascheim got a low-level gig in business development at MTV Networks, a unit composed of four people. MTV and Nickelodeon were well-developed but eager to branch out. Although Ascheim had no particular business training, he drafted proposals for record deals, videogames, international expansion and product licensing. “All of a sudden, I was the business expert. I was writing the strategic plans,” he says. “MTV is a place that's good at sink-or-swim.”

Four years later, just as the Internet was taking off, Viacom named him VP, product development strategy, for its new-media group, working primarily on entertainment CD-ROMs. Ascheim was a true believer in interactive media, but Viacom shut down his unit in 1996, leaving him briefly adrift. “I thought, 'I could go be an investment banker.'” But Nickelodeon had other ideas, placing him in a smaller, less ambitious software unit.

In 1998, digital compression dramatically increased the number of cable channels available. Programmers rushed to fill the space, and Ascheim was assigned to develop an educational channel in partnership with Sesame Street Workshop. Early on, Nickelodeon President Herb Scannell walked into Ascheim's office and said, “This will be good for you.” Ascheim got the message and, eight months later, was tapped to head a new channel called Noggin.

Given Sesame's long history as a producer for PBS, Noggin started out commercial-free and focused on educating kids. For preschoolers, it worked. But the evening hours aimed at older kids didn't click.

The problem crystallized during a focus group with tweens. A group was asked to draw a picture of how they perceived Noggin. One 9-year-old boy sketched a kid in a dunce cap sitting in the corner picking his nose.

“That was vivid enough for us to rethink our strategy,” Ascheim says. It also led to the creation of The N. The network's current big show, Degrassi: The Next Generation, is a revival of a long-running Canadian series that candidly addresses tough teen issues.

Now that Noggin/The N has ample distribution, Ascheim's group is starting to sell ads. The N and Nicktoons are pitching commercials, though Noggin will remain ad-free. “I don't know what I want to do when I grow up,” Ascheim says. “I'm shocked I'm still here. Every time I got bored, somebody made a job for me.”