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The Nickelodeon media brand has been synonymous with children’s television since its launch in 1979. Just as impressive, the network group’s longtime president Cyma Zarghami has been synonymous with Nickelodeon and the kids’ television space for all but six years of the network’s existence.
Zarghami, who grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, didn’t see herself as the leader of a multibillion-dollar, worldwide kids-targeted franchise that has two cable networks — Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. — named by parent Viacom as among the “flagship” brands to receive the majority of its resources.
“I would say my career was fluid and organic,” Zarghami said. “I went to the University of Vermont thinking I was going to be an educator — I knew I wanted to work with kids — then I got to New York and accidently got a job at Nickelodeon.”
The job, as scheduling clerk for the kids’ service in 1985, got her in the door at what was still considered a startup finding its way in a fairly nascent cable industry. “It’s not that often that people really get the opportunity to be part of a startup, but Nickelodeon was back then really a startup,” she said. “Cable was a brand-new phenomenon and it was really interesting, and you know watching MTV was for my generation the coolest thing ever, and that this company was attached to MTV made it seem like a super cool place to be.”
In reality, it was Zarghami who exemplified “the cool” factor within Nickelodeon, climbing up the ranks — as she says, she earned “an MBA in a bunch of different departments along the way” — before assuming the role of president in 2006, overseeing operations for the parent Nickelodeon brand, as well as Nick-branded services Nick at Nite, Nick Jr., TeenNick and then Nicktoons.
“Cyma is a creative executive with an ability to identify and develop talent and franchises that kids love,” Viacom CEO Bob Bakish said. “She has parlayed that into a Nickelodeon brand and library of intellectual property that continues to dominate kids television in the U.S. while feeding a truly global Nickelodeon business.”
Zarghami has influenced a generation of kids, having guided the development of such iconic programming as SpongeBob SquarePants, iCarly, Blues Clues and Paw Patrol.
She has also overseen the creation of template specials such as the Kids’ Choice Awards and Kids’ Choice Sports Awards, as well as expanded the network’s commitment to pro-social and community service through efforts such as The Big Help, The Worldwide Day of Play and the Halo Awards.
“While you’re in it you don’t think that for many people we were their first kids’ network and that they’re going to remember this for the rest of their lives,” she said. “You just think, they need one, so let’s give them what they want. In hindsight, we have a lot of incredible things to be proud of and to reminisce about, but while it was happening, it was, let’s just keep moving.”
The list of proud accomplishments includes a commitment to diversity. From preschool shows featuring diverse characters including Nella the Princess Knight and Dora the Explorer to such live action series as Kenan & Kel and more recently The Haunted Hathaways, Nickelodeon under Zarghami has sought to represent its diverse audience on the screen.
“We have to be able to reflect in a variety of places what we want the audience to know about us, so it can’t just be something that you check a box on once a year,” she said. “You have commit to hiring people of color; you have to commit to making sure that you hear a lot of voices at the table and then you have to really make conscious decisions to change the way that the work is going to look, and that takes a lot of energy.”
During her years leading Nickelodeon, Zarghami has also nurtured the continued growth and expansion of the brand in television and beyond. In response to the internet’s growing influence in its target audiences’ lives, Zarghami oversaw the launch of the Nick App in 2013. The app has given Nickelodeon a major digital presence by offering exclusive on-demand content.
Zarghami’s insistence on building a digital presence has helped the network weather the migration of viewers — particularly young viewers — from traditional television to streaming services by keeping the Nickelodeon brand relevant on all platforms. Since its launch, the Nick App has had 35 million downloads.
“Under Cyma’s leadership, Nick has also become about much more than television, with a broad impact across consumer products, experiences, theatrical and digital,” Bakish said. “All of this is a result of her relentless focus on understanding what kids want, including what makes kids today different and distinct from the generation before them. But it’s also the result of her pure passion and drive, combined with her ability to lead an incredibly strong team.”
It’s that ability to adapt and survive in an ever-changing environment that Zarghami says has exemplified her career at Nickelodeon.
“You have to be willing and committed to not necessarily do things the same way year in and year out,” she said. “Kids change every couple of years and we have to change every couple of years if we’re going to stay relevant. Evolving means changing.”
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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.