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Nickelodeon veteran Russell Hicks exits as Viacom executive drain continues

Nickelodeon veteran Russell Hicks exits as Viacom executive drain continues
Russell Hicks in 2013. (Christina House/ For The Times)

Viacom's executive exodus continued this week with the sudden exit of Nickelodeon veteran Russell Hicks from his role as president of content development and production.

Hicks, who had been with the company for 18 years and was primarily based in Burbank, announced his departure Wednesday. His exit comes soon after his return from a four-month medical leave.

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There are no plans for a replacement, a Nickelodeon spokesperson said.

Hicks was said to have clashed with Cyma Zarghami, president of Viacom Kids and Family Group, who has taken an increasingly hands-on role in the cable outlet's channels.

Hick's departure comes as Nickelodeon has started to claw its way back up in the ratings in a challenging TV market. It's tougher these days for TV networks to grab the attention of children, who increasingly are glued to electronic tablets and cellphones for amusement. Nickelodeon also has faced rising competition for younger audiences from streaming services including Netflix and Amazon.

"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," Hicks told The Times in 2014. "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, they want stories that are told in a fresh and new way."

Nickelodeon has faced mounting pressure to find a successor to popular aging franchise – and moneymaking machine -- "SpongeBob SquarePants."

Nickelodeon last year reclaimed the crown as the No. 1 network with kids ages 2 to 11 with the help of the shows "Alvinnn!!! and the Chipmunks," "The Loud House" and "SpongeBob SquarePants," which rank as the top three shows in the young-children demographic.

In his role, which he assumed in 2012, Hicks oversaw the live-action, animation-development and production teams for all of Nickelodeon's content platforms and across the outlet's channels, which include Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, Nick Jr., TeenNick and Nicktoons. Prior to that, he served as chief creative officer.

"Since moving to the West Coast in 2012, Russell expertly shepherded our terrific development and creative teams to some of our greatest creative successes," Zarghami wrote in an internal memo obtained by The Times.

Hicks is the latest in a string of high-ranking executives who have left parent company Viacom in the last three years as it faces internal pressure to boost performance. Viacom has been roiled by questions surrounding who will lead the company, which is controlled by its ailing, 93-year-old chairman, Sumner Redstone.

Nickelodeon has lost Marjorie Cohn, who went to Dreamworks Animation, as president of content development, and Brown Johnson, the animation chief credited for building "Dora the Explorer" into a juggernaut.  MTV has seen the exits of Stephen Friedman as network president, Susanne Daniels, as programming chief and Van Toffler as president of MTV Networks Music & Logo Group. Comedy Central saw the departure of Michele Ganeless as president. At VH1, Tom Calderone stepped down as president of the network, along with programming boss Susan Levison. Larry Jones resigned as president of TV Land.

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For the record

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4:30 p.m., June 8: An earlier version of this post  mistakenly said Kent Alterman left Comedy Central. It was Michele Ganeless who stepped down as president of the network; Alterman replaced her.

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During his tenure at Nickelodeon, Hicks launched an animation shorts program to mine new talent and projects, and he opened a sketch lab in Los Angeles to cultivate new talent in the live-action space.

Before joining Nickelodeon, Hicks was vice president of marketing at Cartoon Network/Turner Brands.

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