Brian Robbins once wanted to disrupt Nickelodeon. Now he’s running it

By Nicole LaPorte

October 01, 2018

Viacom has named Brian Robbins as head of Nickelodeon, the once-pioneering kids’ TV cable network, which has been struggling in the ratings lately as it’s faced challenges from both Netflix and YouTube and their seemingly endless supply of children’s programming. Robbins will be moving over from Paramount Players, a division of Paramount Pictures that specializes in creating content related to Viacom’s major brands, including Nickelodeon, BET, and MTV.

The move, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, shows how Viacom sees Nickelodeon’s future in increasingly digital terms.

Robbins was one of the earliest internet content creators in Hollywood, jumping on the YouTube bandwagon as it began to take off nearly a decade ago. Most notably, Robbins created AwesomenessTV, a digital studio and network that has over 158 million subscribers and receives about 300 million monthly views. Earlier this year, Viacom purchased Awesomeness, which was previously majority owned by Comcast/NBC.

Robbins is one of the few Hollywood execs with real credibility in both digital and traditional entertainment. He started off as a teen actor in Head of the Class and then went on to be a producer of teen movies and TV shows like Varsity Blues and One Tree Hill. He also created Varsity Pictures, which created several shows for Nickelodeon. But he switched gears in 2009 after going on vacation with his two young sons and watching them ignore the hotel’s huge flat-screen TV and instead plugging into their laptops to watch YouTube. “I was like, ‘Do they not know about the TV?’” Robbins told Fast Company in a 2013 feature story about digital Hollywood. He said that the moment “crystallized things for me.”

Despite its ratings declines, Nickelodeon is still a programming powerhouse for Viacom and generated $2.1 billion in revenue and cash flow of more than $1 billion in 2017, according to the WSJ. Seminal shows like Spongebob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer are still popular with kids. The trick for Robbins will be to come up with new shows and leverage them across Viacom’s many platforms, while also accelerating Viacom’s push into digital.

This work has already begun: Last spring at the Upfronts, Nickelodeon announced an upcoming YouTube show and a new augmented-reality app, but the company has been slower than rivals like Disney when it comes to creating content for small screens.