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"Kids in Asia have taken very well to the bright orange world of Nickelodeon" : Richard Cunningham Nickelodeon Asia's senior V-P & MD

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Kids channel Nickelodeon has announced a campaign to build awareness of environmental issues amongst children, putting into action a pledge it made to supporting kid's rights through the "Say yes for children" public affairs campaign that it adopted last year. The campaign launches in local markets around the world over the next few weeks.

While responding to to queries sent by indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Pinto, Nickelodeon Asia's senior VP and MD Richard Cunningham dwelt on the initiative as well as how Nick is performing in Asia. Cunningham, the 15-year veteran of Nickelodeon's sister channel MTV oversees the day-to-day operations of Nick’s four 24-hour channels in Asia covering markets like Japan, India, Southeast Asia and the Philippines.

Cunningham's responsibilities involve, overseeing the channel’s programming, production, advertising sales, marketing, finance, network development and communications.

Excerpts:

When and why did Nickelodeon get involved with the Say Yes campaign?

Nickelodeon Asia began talks with UNICEF on the Say Yes campaign as early as 2000. We saw a synergy between UNICEF's goals and our 'Kids' First' philosophy. Kids are the reason why we are in this business. We are always looking for initiatives revolving around children's rights, empowering kids to be responsible for their lives and the world around them. This philosophy played a very important part in our involvement as a global partner in this worthy initiative.

Is this meant to complement MTV's HIV/AIDS social initiative?

Not to any large degree. We are trying to keep the two initiatives separate for two different target groups. Nickelodeon's target audience being kids; we have a pro-social initiative that is easily understood and implemented by kids aged 2 to 14 years.

Are you planning on-ground environmental activities in Asian countries to augment the initiative?

Definitely. We are looking at various activities involving environment issues. We have a series of ongoing Public Service Announcements (PSAs) airing on Nickelodeon right now that focus on the Wild Thornberrys as our spokes'toons', where they give tips and information capsules on protecting the environment.

We are still in discussions on the best and most effective on ground activities we can plan for the next year for Asia.

Apart from the upcoming movie The Rugrats Go Wild is the message of protecting the environment going to form a part of any episodes on Nickelodeon?

Of course! Every episode of Nickelodeon's hit animated series, The Wild Thornberrys brings viewers to a different country, continent and environment. It also introduces kids to the myriad of wildlife on the planet. This is because the heroine, Eliza has the ability to communicate with animals. So every episode gives kids an inside look into the lives of the animals she meets, including endangered species, rainforests and other surroundings.

Each episode is meticulously researched and the results can be seen in the lush animation and gripping storylines. We try to educate in a subtle and entertaining way, without hammering kids over the heads with messages. And it certainly shows in the way kids are taking to the Thornberrys! In fact, The Wild Thornberrys Movie was very well received when it was screened in cinemas in parts of Asia earlier this year.

"At Nickelodeon, we feel that giving kids a voice and a chance to be empowered to do something good for their community and world is a very important aspect of our philosophy. "

What else does Nickelodeons Public Affairs commitment for this year involve?

We have The Big Help, which will launch for the second year in Asia in October, on selected Nick channels. This pro-social grassroots campaign empowers kids to do something for their community through six action words - Give, Care, Share, Do, Visit and Fix.

The Big Help was introduced in Asia last year to overwhelming response. And this year, we are going one step further by focusing on one of those key words - Give - with the help of UNICEF and our sponsor, Hasbro Toys. We are working closely with local charities to become the beneficiaries of this campaign. This will be rolled out in October in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Is it a challenge for you to balance social commitments with economic concerns?

It's not really a major challenge. At Nickelodeon, we feel that giving kids a voice and a chance to be empowered to do something good for their community and world is a very important aspect of our philosophy.

As such, we dedicate a fair amount of our resources - from manpower, to programming hours and marketing budgets - to our pro-social commitments.

What outdoor activities does Nickelodeon plan for kids in Asia in order to extend the brand beyond television? Are they similar to the 'Lets Just Play' campaign that was unveiled recently in the US?

With more than 15.5 million homes across India under our belt, Nickelodeon India recently introduced a dual audio feed to our cable operators four hours every day. We have also produced Say Please, a music request programme specially for kids in India.

On ground activities plays an equally important part in our efforts to reach out to kids beyond television. As such, you will be seeing an increase in on ground events, activities and initiatives - localised and targeted - at our kid audience in the coming year. We will definitely keep you informed of these as they get confirmed.

On the business side how do you break up the Asian market?

Nickelodeon Asia comprises of five dedicated feeds - one for India and its subcontinents; another for Japan, one Australia, one for the Philippines and finally, one for Southeast Asia and New Zealand. With these feeds, we are able to cater our programmes, marketing efforts and on air promotions for each individual territory even better.

"On ground activities plays an equally important part in our efforts to reach out to kids beyond television. As such, you will be seeing an increase in on ground events"

What major lessons has Nickelodeon learnt from operating in Asia?

Kids in Asia have taken very well to the bright orange world of Nickelodeon. They love the fact that Nickelodeon provides them with a place that has more than just cartoons. They have a wide variety of different genres to choose from - from animation to live action, game shows, music requests, pre-school to even reality shows. We want to keep this winning formula as we continue our expansion into other parts of Asia.

We have found out from research, letters and interviews, that parents feel safe leaving their kids with Nickelodeon, as it is not violent. Parents in Asia tend to focus very much on education, and as such, shows like The Wild Thornberrys, Rugrats, Blues Clues and Dora The Explorer give them a feeling that Nick is not just entertaining, but also educational for their kids.

We have also found out that kids like to see themselves on television; so we try to include as many Asian/local faces on the channel. We are also increasing local content, so as to further connect with the kids in Asia.

As a viewer in what manner is the Asian kid different from his US counterpart?

Kids all over the world are the same. They demand high quality entertainment that connects with their world and lives.

For a show to connect with kids what must it contain? What lessons can content developers learn from Rugrats?

Kids - not just in Asia- but every where in the world - will always be drawn to shows that can connect with them. Whether it's through realistic situations like in our live action series or fantasy - like Fairly OddParents and Jimmy Neutron to everyday problems that kids face. Pelswick is a show that has a 14-year old handicapped boy as a hero.

Shows need to be able to appeal to the kids' viewpoint to connect. Nickelodeon is one of the world's largest and most popular producers of original shows for kids. Our programming philosophy sums up why our shows have been a hit with kids for such a long time.

Nickelodeon's kid-first philosophy is reflected in our programmes, which are:

· high-quality and non-violent

· from a kids point of view

· gender-neutral, with equal boy/girl appeal

· humourous

· diverse

· involve real kid experiences

· feature strong characters and good stories .

Everything Nickelodeon does puts kids at the centre of the universe - whether it is our television shows, our merchandise or our films. The company strives to provide challenging, respectful,entertaining and empowering products for kids.

Could you elaborate on the programme strategies that have been developed for four-year-olds and 14-year-olds that come from different worlds. Is there a deliberate gradation involved?

We presently have a few blocks targeted specific needs of different kids. Nick JR for pre-school kids age two to six and their parents; TEENick for the older tweens - age 9 to 14; and SLAM for the more active kids seeking action and adventure shows. Kids aged two to six obviously like shows that are different from kids in their early teen years. So by having dedicated blocks, we can ensure that the needs of the various groups are taken care of.

Has the amount of local content you'll make for Asia exclusively gone up and in what manner?

Indeed. Over the past few years, we have increased our local content - not just through dubbing, but also in our on air promotion spots to shows - we try to feature as many local faces as possible. Shows like Gruff's Groove Box and Say Please are highly interactive in that we invite kids to write in with their song requests, jokes and letters.

In addition, we have also developed original Nick Asia productions like the game show, Don't Bluffwhich features families from all over Asia and the animated series Tomato Twins which is created in Singapore. In 2004, we hope to produce more local shows, feature local hosts and original Asian produced animation as well.

What alliances have been forged with regional Asian channels for dubbed Nickelodeon programmes which appear as programming blocks?

We do not just focus on dubbing. We want to develop a channel that also has regional Asia productions - like the aforementioned Don't Bluff, Tomato Twins. then you have TEENick which is a three hour weekly programme that features a Filipino host.

Online - have additional features like broadband been introduced?

A Nickelodeon Asia website is in development.

Is a Kids awards show something that Nickelodeon would look at for the Asian region?

A kids awards show is definitely something we are looking into doing sometime in the future. Already, there is the ever popular Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, now in its 15th year in the US. It is broadcast on Nick Asia every year around the summer and rates very well.

This year, we introduced local votings in several of our markets. This ploy has received an overwhelming response and thousands of kids sent us their votes for their favourite stars and shows through email, SMS (text messaging) and snail mail. So a local Kids awards show is something that may happen soon.

Ratings wise how is the channel faring in Asia vis-a-vis Disney and Cartoon Network?

Our ratings are growing exponentially throughout the region.

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