Michael Eisner is taking a road trip back to TV family land with a gung-ho dentist and some new pals at Nickelodeon.
Through his private investment firm, Tornante Co., Eisner plans to announce today that he has sold his first animated series, "Glenn Martin DDS," to the Viacom Inc.-owned cable channel. The program, about a dentist who takes his family on a road trip across the country, is expected to debut next summer.
Nickelodeon has ordered 20 episodes and hopes that the series can morph into a buzz-worthy anchor for the channel's "Nick at Nite" prime-time block.
The channel's executives are looking to build on their recent ratings success for "Nick at Nite," which features reruns of former ABC sitcoms such as "George Lopez" and "Home Improvement." Nickelodeon has a particular segment of viewers in its sights: Now in their mid-to-late 20s, they were weaned on Nickelodeon with such shows as "Rugrats" and "Ren & Stimpy" and are now rearing kids of their own.
"There is a generation of viewers who are coming of age that grew up with Nickelodeon," said Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon. "The programming that is working for us has contemporary families and heart at its core."
Eisner has hired a team of 10 writers in Los Angeles and is financing the production of the stop-motion animated series, which will be shot in Toronto. It centers on an Everyman who decides he needs a break from being a dentist.
He packs his wife, two children and dog into his toothbrush-topped van for a cross-country adventure.
As Eisner tells it, the plot is an amalgamation of themes explored in the hit 2006 road-trip film "Little Miss Sunshine" and the 1980s "Vacation" movies starring Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold. (Disney's movie "College Road Trip," starring Raven-Symone and Martin Lawrence, grossed $45.6 million domestically earlier this year).
"We will try to tap that family attitude in a way that is very heartfelt and funny," Eisner said. Asked why he selected a dentist, he said, "I asked myself what job would be one that I would be happy to give up."
Eisner reluctantly left his job as Walt Disney Co.'s chief executive in 2005 and formed Tornante later that year. The Beverly Hills-based firm's investments include Topps Co., maker of baseball cards and Bazooka bubble gum, children's video producer Team Baby Entertainment, and Veoh Networks, which offers TV shows for viewing online. He launched Tornante Animation to produce "Glenn Martin DDS" and other animated shows.
Eisner said he initially wanted to make a show that revolved around a dog like the one owned by his former colleague Tom Staggs, chief financial officer of Disney, "a giant Swiss army dog with a tail that stands straight up," Eisner said. (According to Disney, the dog is a Swiss mountain dog.) But that idea evolved into the dentist with his family.
Why did Eisner shop his show to Nickelodeon rather than one of the big broadcast networks or even his old haunts at Disney? Eisner said he appreciated cable channels' strategy to make bets on a small number of shows and "nurture and stay with them," he said. "And Nickelodeon liked it, they bought it. It felt comfortable to me, period."
Now cast in the role of seller, rather than being a leading buyer as head of one of the world's biggest entertainment companies, Eisner said the transition hadn't been that difficult. "I'm used to selling. I don't mind waiting outside people's offices as long as you get to talk to smart people."
"For the record," Nickelodeon's Zarghami said, "I didn't make [Eisner] wait."