University of Vermont

You Can Do That on Television

Alumna Cyma Zarghami's slow and steady rise to the top at Nickelodeon

Cyma Zarghami with slimed host Jack Black
Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami poses close -- but not too close -- with slimed host Jack Black at the 2008 Kids' Choice Awards. (Photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images for Nickelodeon)

When alumna Cyma Zarghami started at Nickelodeon in 1985, the network was a tiny operation. "All of us could fit into a conference room to celebrate a birthday," she remembers. If some were skeptical about the profitability of a children's network -- a new venture in the industry at the time -- all worries have been put at ease. Today, Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom, is its parent company's most profitable enterprise, generating 40 percent of its annual revenue.

But when Zarghami came on board of the fledgling operation -- in a bottom-of-the-rung data entry position -- she couldn't have anticipated that some two decades later, the company would top Disney and other competitors in the now well established entertainment niche -- or that she'd be the president at the helm.

Zarghami came to UVM in 1980 to study education. Although she ultimately decided teaching wasn't a good fit for her and switched to a major in English, she says she was drawn to Nickelodeon in large part because of the audience it was serving. Nickelodeon, whose early shows included Pinwheel and You Can't Do That on Television, was meeting a need for kids that other networks were not.

"I'm in this for the audience, not necessarily to be in the entertainment business," Zarghami says. "It's because it's for kids that makes it so much fun."

Zarghami's was a steady rise through the ranks of the company. "For a long time, I was the thing that wouldn't leave," she says. "I just kept working hard and stuck around, and they gave me bits and pieces of more responsibility."  Her work on scheduling, marketing, then overseeing the network all inform her role today as president of Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids & Family Group, which also includes oversight of the merchandise, international, digital and recreation arms of the company.

"The great thing is it was a slow build," Zarghami says. "So I learned everything one piece at a time, and I think that's a rare opportunity these days because everything moves so quickly."

All those years of experience have taken Zarghami -- and Nickelodeon -- to a pivotal moment in the company's history. The first generation of kids to grow up on Nick programming are now becoming parents themselves. While mom and dad watched Today's Special and Double Dare (a gameshow Zarghami says she and colleagues practiced in the hallways before creating the pilot), their kids are engrossed in Dora the Explorer and Yo Gabba Gabba.

"That is a really unique moment in time for any brand," Zarghami says. It was a moment that called for reinvention. They knew, she says, "if we don't capture this generation of kids and their parents together, we will miss a whole generation, and we'll find ourselves in a bad place a few years from now."

Leading a reinvention

The evolution of brand's identity was the focus of Zarghami's Nov. 4 talk at UVM. As the inaugural speaker of the School of Business Administration's Dean's Leadership Speaker Series, Zarghami told those assembled -- comprising mostly students in a packed Davis Center ballroom -- about Nickelodeon's recent effort to rebrand the company's many endeavors in hopes of shoring up their identity and speaking to this new audience.

The process, begun shortly after Zarghami took the reins as president in 2006, took stock of all the irons in Nickelodeon's fire. She says of that moment in time, "We had bought Addicting Games, and nobody knew we owned it. We had a channel for preschoolers called Noggin, and nobody knew we owned it. We had launched a channel for teens called The N, and nobody knew we owned it."

Consolidating these entities under a single umbrella of the Nickelodeon brand was the end result of two and a half years of work. Noggin became Nick, Jr., The N became Teen Nick, and dozens of logos for its other divisions were reworked to reflect this newfound unity within the company. Nickelodeon's logo -- the famous paint splatter -- also got a fresh look utilizing a streamlined, but playful font that still capitalizes on their signature orange. "We took the Nickelodeon logo and reinvented it so it could actually be the mother brand for everything we do around the globe."

Five years after Zarghami initiated this reinvention, Nickelodeon is still on top, enjoying its 17th year as the leading network for kids.

As business dean Sanjay Sharma introduced Zarghami at the event, he hinted at another factor that has made Nick so successful. "SpongeBob SquarePants is often associated with a slightly younger demographic," he said, "but I have to admit that the writing is so smart that if I see SpongeBob on the television screen, I'm hooked. I'm compelled to watch. It cuts across age barriers and demographic barriers."

As the students' laughter quieted, Zarghami took the podium and mused, "If he watches SpongeBob, we're doing something right."