Queen of the Kid Kingdom

Stay near the Green Mountains of Vermont or head to the skyscrapers of New York City: Cyma Zarghami faced that choice in 1984 and opted for relocation, settling down with cable network Nickelodeon.

Today — with Zarghami as its executive vice president and general manager — Nick has become the top media destination for kids.

But 19 years ago, she faced transition trauma. Nick — then an educational programmer with notable shows like Pinwheel
and America Goes Banazas
— was in the middle rung of basic channels by circulation, and Zarghami was working for Business Digest
magazine in Burlington, Vt.

"My ambition was to stay in Vermont, where I went to college and majored in English," she recalled. "But New York was appealing and I ended up moving to the only place I've really ever worked. You think I'm crazy?"

Friends might have thought so upon learning about her early days at Nick, toiling as a programming assistant-slash-clerk.

"The job was half assisting the programming director and half gofer work, as in pushing papers or coffee," she said. "My gig was mostly running lots of paper up and down between two floors."

Expanded duties

Nickelodeon's audience rapidly grew, thanks to a mid-1980s turn toward such entertainment fare as You Can't Do That on Television
and Double Dare, which helped launch an era of kidvid signature shows for both the channel and the overall industry.

Zarghami's work ethic impressed her superiors. She was given a role in scheduling shows on both Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite.

Over time, her duties expanded from scheduling and acquiring programs to developing them from the start. Under such leaders as Geraldine Laybourne and Anne Sweeney, Zarghami was instrumental in bringing animation hit after hit to the network, beginning with the trio of Doug, Rugrats
and The Ren & Stimpy Show.

Other feathers in her development cap: the Saturday-night SNICK block; groundbreaking public-affairs work like Linda Ellerbee's Nick News; and such game shows as Figure It Out
and Nick Arcade.

Platform proliferation

Since Zarghami became general manager in 1996 (she added the title of executive VP a few years later), Nick has successfully branched out. Its media platforms now include digital cable networks (Noggin/The N, Nickelodeon Games and Sports and Nicktoons); films (The Rugrats Movie;
Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius); magazines (Nickelodeon, Nick Jr.); and broadcast television (through the Nick-branded Saturday morning block on Viacom Inc. co-owned CBS).

On Nick itself, series continue to flourish, with Blue's Clues, SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, The Brothers Garcia, Jimmy Neutron
and The Fairly OddParents
capturing the attention of kids and adults alike.

The acclaim and audience reaction generated by Nick shows that portray society's diversity, such as Little Bill, Pelswick
and Tania, have been especially gratifying.

"I'm as close to doing something good as I will get and still be a capitalist," Zarghami said.

Credit environment and drive for that. "More than half of your happiness on the job is about the people you work for and work with. If there's good chemistry — and there's chemistry here I'm not sure I'll find anyplace else — that makes a difference," she said. "And when you find what you want to do in life, and not everybody does, that's another factor behind lasting at one place so long."

Given that Nick programs don't go on the air without extensive research and feedback with children, the challenge for Zarghami and her crew extends to promotion.

"We know kids will like the shows, because we've developed and redeveloped so much that there's no mistake there," she said. "It's now about making sure kids know the shows are there, through our promos or magazine or online. We all have to march to the same tune, and it's all about the homework we do beforehand."

For 2003, Nickelodeon will focus on driving more original fare into its Nick Jr. preschool programming daypart and refining its Nicktoons digital channel.

First-run animation won't show up on Nicktoons for some time. But the presentation of shows from Nick's animation library will have an experimental feel, positioning the channel as "a strong player in the digital landscape," Zarghami said.

Kid demand will also dictate when Nick moves into video-on-demand or interactive TV, she said.

Audience and intuition

Placing the interest of the audience first is the biggest lesson she's learned in nearly two decades at Nick and MTV Networks.

"There's no fooling kids. They know a good thing. Something can't just look good or be funny by being stupid," she said. "There has to be more. That trait keeps us honest."

Intuition is the most important thing women looking for work in the cable industry can bring to the table, Zarghami maintained. She would also like to see women be open to new opportunities — as she once was.

"Trust your instincts and trust your guts," she said. "In a predominantly male business world, women's instincts are often right on. If there had been more women in the Internet scene over the last five or six years, maybe it would have turned out differently."