Nickelodeon's new cartoon was hatched not through traditional television channels but in a Studio City efficiency apartment nicknamed the "Doodle Chamber." The 41/2 -minute cartoon about two feisty, accident-prone ducks was intended to be a one-off, a little film crafted to entertain fellow animators at a short-film festival held at a New York bar.
But in the hurly-burly world of children's television, network executives are desperate to find that next big hit. When animator Gary Di Raffaele, who goes by the name Gary Doodles, got an inquiry from a Nickelodeon executive about his duck cartoon, which he had posted on YouTube: "I thought it was spam," Di Raffaele said. "I couldn't believe someone from Nickelodeon would contact me."
Within a couple of months, Nickelodeon hired Di Raffaele and co-creator Steve Borst to expand "Breadwinners" into a full-fledged television series, which premieres Feb. 17 and then moves to hallowed cartoon ground: Saturday mornings. Nickelodeon hopes that SwaySway and Buhdeuce, two oddball ducks who deliver loaves of bread in a rocket-powered van, will bring home the bacon to help the network further recover from a frightening ratings collapse.
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In 2012, Nickelodeon's ratings plunged 30%, allowing archenemy Disney Channel to grab the ratings crown. It was a tectonic shift in the pecking order of children's TV: Nickelodeon for 17 years had been the No. 1 network among kids ages 2 to 11 by fielding a mix of animated and live-action shows that would appeal to different groups: boys, girls, preschoolers and the grade-school crowd.
Disney Channel has been the go-to channel among older children, particularly tween girls, with its wholesome scripted shows such as "Jessie." Time Warner's Cartoon Network — with its irreverent animation, such as "Adventure Time," starring an old dog named Jake with magical powers — has been a boy magnet and a perennial third.
Nickelodeon needed to claw back. It ramped up program spending to discover new hits and boost the number of original episodes coming through the pipeline. It launched several winners, including a remake of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," which spawned a lucrative toy line. Last year, the network scored with a sitcom about two girl buddies, "Sam & Cat"; the cartoon "Sanjay and Craig" about a 12-year-old boy and his talking snake; and a show for preschoolers about a pack of CG-animated pups called "Paw Patrol."
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The network has been under enormous pressure to find a successor to the sponge. In its 15th year, "SpongeBob SquarePants" still is a ratings and moneymaking machine (in recent years, the show has generated more than $220 million a year in advertising alone, according to Kantar Media), but fresh episodes have become less frequent as the "SpongeBob" executive producers, Stephen Hillenburg and Paul Tibbitt, focus their efforts on a second "SpongeBob" feature film, scheduled for release next year.
Moreover, it's tougher these days for TV networks to grab the attention of children, who increasingly are glued to electronic tablets and their parents' cellphones for amusement. Nickelodeon research found that children spend a quarter of their daily media consumption on computers and video game consoles. A study by consulting firm NPD Group estimated that more than three-quarters of all homes with children have at least one smart device.
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"Now, 2- and 3-year-olds are tap-tap-tapping on a tablet or their mom's smartphone," said Wynne Tyree, president of Smarty Pants, a firm in Jonesborough, Tenn., that specializes in youth trends. "Consumer behavior is changing, and the younger the children, the more that behavior is changing."
To hold on to kids, who can switch their viewing choices with a swipe of a finger, some TV producers have accelerated the pace of episodes to pack in more action. They have borrowed elements from video game culture, added an assortment of butt jokes and pop-culture references geared toward the parents who might be watching too. Characters are more rambunctious.
"The humor is getting more sophisticated," Russell Hicks, president of content development and production, Nickelodeon Group, said. "What's most remarkable about this current generation is the amount of media they have consumed by the time they are 6 and 7 years old. They have more channels dedicated to them, access to tons of online content and everything that we have created for them. Because they've seen so much, and they want stories that are told in a fresh and new way."