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‘Penguins’ doing swimmingly

One of the most popular characters in “The Penguins of Madagascar” is Julien, a lemur who has somehow deluded himself into believing he is a king, against much evidence to the contrary.

As Hollywood has long known, there can be a jackpot in animals behaving badly. In just a few weeks, the animated “Penguins of Madagascar” has claimed a royal perch at Viacom’s Nickelodeon, the cable network famous for “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “iCarly.”

Spun off from the popular “Madagascar” feature movies, the TV show premiered last month and was the most-watched in Nickelodeon’s history, with 6.1 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. The fact that the premiere aired right after the Kids’ Choice Awards didn’t hurt. But the ratings have held up well since then, with 4.9 million viewers for Saturday’s episode, the first in its regular morning time slot. Season to date, “Penguins of Madagascar” is already the No. 3 show on basic cable among children 2 to 11, tied with “SpongeBob” and Nickelodeon’s “Mighty B!”

“We knew it was going to be a hit; we didn’t know it was going to be quite this big a hit,” said Brown Johnson, Nickelodeon’s president of animation.

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“Penguins of Madagascar” is the latest in a line of penguin-themed entertainment, including the documentary “March of the Penguins,” and the animated films “Happy Feet” and “Surf’s Up.”

Indeed, “Penguins of Madagascar” is shaping up as another powerful weapon in Nickelodeon’s ongoing battle with Disney Channel, home of the formidable “Hannah Montana,” for the hearts and minds of America’s children. At the moment, who’s winning depends on how you look at it. Last week, for example, Nickelodeon was the most-watched cable network among total viewers, averaging 2.3 million for the entire day. But Disney was No. 1 in prime time among children 2 to 11.

The key in this case was Nickelodeon’s ability to leverage a corporate relationship with DreamWorks Animation, which produced the “Madagascar” movies. The studio has a movie distribution deal with Paramount Pictures, another arm of the Viacom empire, which helped facilitate the Nickelodeon pact, according to a network spokeswoman. “Penguins” could thus be thought of as one of the rare instances in which corporate “synergy” has performed as advertised.

“We got a lot of buzz from the money DreamWorks spent advertising the ‘Madagascar’ movies,” Johnson said.

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But she added that she thought audiences were responding to the quality of the series in its own right, and she singled out the writing, which expands what were essentially supporting characters in the films. Another key, as with “SpongeBob,” is that the series is plenty silly but still has enough sophisticated humor for parents to want to watch with their children.

Each episode is written and storyboarded in the U.S. but then packed off to India and South Korea for animation work. The entire process takes about 20 months per episode, Johnson said.

It’s a gamble that seems to have paid off so far. Underscoring their confidence in the series, executives have ordered 52 episodes, of which 13 have aired, Johnson said. Nickelodeon is also developing a TV series based on DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda,” although that has not progressed beyond the pilot stage.

As for “Penguins,” its franchise could last for a while. DreamWorks is planning another “Madagascar” movie in 2012. But Nickelodeon, meanwhile, isn’t taking anything for granted. “There’s never a formula for a hit television series,” Johnson said.

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scott.collins@latimes.com


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