Nick at Nite targets families with new lineup

The Baltimore Sun

Nickelodeon, the premier cable channel for children, is so old that many of its original viewers have children of their own. The 29-year-old network is now trying to produce programs that the first generation of "Nickelodeon parents" can watch with their children.

Nick at Nite, the network's prime time and overnight block of programs for adults, has gradually replaced nostalgic shows like I Love Lucy with programs like The George Lopez Show, which ended its original run a year ago.

In a television environment where hits are hard to develop, the current-classic programming is working: Nick at Nite, which runs from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. most nights (it starts at 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays), has rebounded from ratings declines. In the past year, the time period has gained about 400,000 viewers, making Nick at Nite the fifth-most-popular channel in prime time in the second quarter, up from ninth place during the comparable period last year.

In the next year, the network will start to look even more contemporary. Yesterday the network, a unit of Viacom, announced an acquisition from the production company of Michael D. Eisner, the former chief executive of the Walt Disney Co., that will represent a push into original programming. The show, Glenn Martin D.D.S., an animated program about a dentist who takes his family on a cross-country adventure, is one of several new ones developed by the network.

"It's a chance to connect to the second generation of Nick viewers," said Cyma Zarghami, the president of the MTV Networks' Nickelodeon Kids and Family group. A round of network research this year estimated that 39 percent of parents watched Nickelodeon when they were growing up.

Nick at Nite's move toward original programming mirrors that of many cable channels that have introduced flagship shows - mainly dramas - in recent years. Originals are more expensive than reruns, but they also make the networks more distinct and appealing to advertisers. And, in an era of DVD box sets and Internet television streams, classics might not stand out as much as they once did.

"Nickelodeon is a huge cash generator for Viacom," said Derek Baine, who analyzes cable networks for the media research firm SNL Kagan. He estimates that Nickelodeon is the most profitable channel on cable, with more than $1.3 billion in cash flow.

But ratings sagged in recent years when sitcoms like Murphy Brown - shows that may have appealed to adults, but not their children - populated the schedule. The network turned to other 1990s hits like Family Matters and Roseanne that, as Zarghami put it, "have families at the center."

The most recent acquisition, The George Lopez Show, quickly became Nick at Nite's highest-rated program. It had its debut on cable last October, just five months after it departed ABC's schedule.

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