Nick’s Ascheim: Viewers Love to Be Programmers

Nov. 10, 2006 marked SpongeBob SquarePants’ best day ever — and Nickelodeon’s, too. The all-day SpongeBob SquarePantsmarathon garnered the highest ratings in the network’s history. Tom Ascheim, executive vice president and general manager of Nickelodeon Digital Television, recently talked with Multichannel News contributor Tim Kridel about the strategy behind the marathon, as well as his view on emerging technologies. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: Some networks and multichannel operators say that Hispanic children are an underserved demographic when it comes to kids programming. But one of Nick’s most popular shows is Dora the Explorer.

Tom Ascheim: Dora clearly is a Latina girl. She’s become a superhero to the Latina community. But I think she’s also been embraced by the broader American community, too.

Obviously the demography of America is changing, and kids are at the forefront of that. They’re the most rapidly diversifying demographic, according to the Census. So it’s vital that our airtime reflect the reality that they’re confronted with. Otherwise, we look anachronistic.

MCN: What is Nick’s outlook on cell phones and other portable devices? Are they becoming a more important way to deliver content to kids?

TA: [Cell phone] usage begins to kick in around 12. Some have it earlier, some have it later. But that seems to be when there’s a critical mass. I don’t think it’s a mainstream device for us, but it’s certainly one that the older part of our audience is playing with.

We were in a public school in Massachusetts talking to kids about devices and technologies. These were fourth and fifth graders. None of them had an iPod, although they all wanted one. None of them had heard of YouTube. That was very interesting. Sometimes I think that things that are very familiar to us are less familiar to our audience than we’d think it would be.

MCN: How do wireless and broadband affect the audience for the linear network and video on demand?

TA: The thing we’ve seen is that TV viewing by kids is at an all-time high, despite the fact that there are more and more digital devices available.

The other main device that’s important to us is the computer. Our online traffic has doubled in the past year. The two main screens that we program to are the computer and television. So I don’t think that we’re being handicapped by digital.

MCN: Broadband also creates more opportunities for cross-promotion and audience interaction, right?

TA: We recently did a stunt called 'SpongeBob’s Best Day Ever,’ which was 24 hours of SpongeBob Squarepants. In weeks prior, people had the opportunity to vote for their favorite episode. In the 24 hours, we counted down from least favorite to most favorite.

It generated huge traffic online. We had over 5 million votes. It also happened to be best day ever in Nick’s rating history. [So in terms of trends,] there’s a sense that viewers can control their destiny. They love that they’re programming the day.

MCN: What would you like to see in terms of technology to make TV more interactive?

TA: More interactivity on TV would be terrific. We did a trial recently with [The N’s] Degrassi: The Next Generation and Time Warner: Kids got to use their remote and set-top [box] as a voting device. It worked enormously well.

More of that would be great for us and for the industry. We’re trying to be wherever the technology allows us to be. Sometimes we have to wait a bit.