Nickelodeon hopes to score a new touchdown with a favorite animated character who has a head shaped like a football.
The Viacom-owned kids’ outlet is developing a new TV movie based on “Hey Arnold!,” the animated series that ran between 1996 and 2004 and focused on a fourth-grader with an oblong noggin who lived with his grandparents in a boarding house. The TV movie will feature a storyline that picks up where the original series ended and resolves unanswered plotlines — including the whereabouts of Arnold’s parents, long missing from the program. Executives at the network declined to offer a specific date for when the new content might be ready or air.
With the revival of “Arnold,” Nickelodeon is formalizing a quest to build part of its future by tilling its past. The network has named Chris Viscardi, co-creator of the classic Nickelodeon series, “The Adventures of Pete & Pete, as its senior vice president of content development for franchise properties — a new role. While Viscardi will oversee creative strategies for key content like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Dora The Explorer,” he will also mine the network’s vast library of original series to develop new shows for modern audiences.
Yes, that does mean that Nickelodeon could potentially revive old series like “Ren & Stimpy,” “Rocko’s Modern Life” or “The Wild Thornberrys,” though the network’s executives declined to discuss specific projects other than “Hey Arnold!”
“Kids who grew up on these characters are now of the age that they are having kids and families themselves,” says Russell Hicks, president, content development and production, for Nickelodeon Group, in an interview. “Our library has come to fruition and it’s time for it to start coming back to life.”
Hicks and Viscardi say they aren’t trying to bring older millennials back to the network, though they recognize developing new versions of Nick classics might create some family viewing opportunities. The tweaked shows are being readied “for the current audience that we have,” says Hicks. “You have to remember people who are going to watch really don’t have a recollection of ‘Hey Arnold,'” he adds. “You have to make it relevant to them but also nod to the audience that is going to be interested.”
Viscardi has some of those chops. He was a writer on 20th Century Fox’s 2007 reboot of “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” but also has a hand in modern Nick fare, like “Sanjay and Craig,” on which he is an executive producer and writer with longtime creative partner Will McRobb.
Executives said they were not cutting back on new projects as they seek opportunities to reboot classics. Nickelodeon has more than 13 new animated projects in production and “over 40 things in development,” says Hicks. “There is a robust pipeline of new fresh product,” he says.
Nickelodeon’s emphasis on wringing new value out of its library comes as the network and its counterpart Nick Jr. have gained in the ratings during the most recent quarter. Investors have in the recent past expressed concern about Viacom’s Nickelodeon empire as new technologies catering to kids — including subscription-video-on-demand outlets like Netlifx and Amazon — have wooed away some of TV’s youngest viewers. But in recent weeks, according to data from Bernstein Research analyst Todd Juenger, an emphasis on new original programming has helped some of the Nick networks gain ratings share at the expense of rivals.
The spirit of the older shows will be kept intact in their new incarnations, says Viscardi. He praises the “very irreverent, and surreal and wonderful” qualities found in many of the most popular Nick efforts. Some series embraced more of a “punk rock” attitude,” while others were “sweeter.” Viscardi says he is not considering just animation He is also open to reviving some of Nickelodeon’s classic live-action series, which over the years included everything from “You Can’t Do That On Television” to “Clarissa Explains It All.” Mitchell Kreigman, the creator of “Clarissa,” recently published a new book, “Things I Can’t Explain, chronicling the heroine’s life as a young adult in the big city.
The network is likely to give first look to properties Nickelodeon already controls, but Hicks and Viscardi say they remain open to considering content that ran on the network that is owned by someone else. “Doug,” an animated series about a pre-teen kid and his friends that aired on Nickelodeon in the 1990s, for example, is controlled by Walt Disney. But Viscardi says executives see the series “as part of Nickelodeon history.”
Not everything is going to get a new day in the sun. “We are very selective about the series, what we go back to, and think about how we can take them and make them special,” says Viscardi. “It’s really important to us to be really consistent with the storytelling that was there long ago on the series but also work to reimagine it , even just a little bit, and make it appealing and thrilling for today’s audience.” In a different case, Nickelodeon is just letting the old stuff out for another airing. The company recently launched “The Splat!” a primetime and overnight block of classic programming, on its Teen Nick cable network.
TV shows are not the only content being considered. Nickelodeon is up for trying anything, ranging from digital shorts to projects with Viacom’s Paramount Pictures, said Hicks.
The executives say their focus was guided to Nick’s library of content by chatter about the old shows social media — and some happenstance. Craig Bartlett, the creator of “Hey Arnold!,” was pitching a different idea and started talking to Nick executives about the ways the characters from the old series continued to gain mentions in online forums, citing fan art and fan fiction to short films on YouTube. Barrett will be writer and executive producer on the new “Arnold” move, and Nickelodeon is reaching out to other creators of older shows, said Viscardi, hoping to work with them or perhaps partner them with younger creatives who grew up on their programs.
“We are in discussions with them now and will probably have more to say in the next few months,” says Viscardi. “There’s a good likelihood we’ll be doing more than just ‘Arnold’ in terms of doing specials.”