Nickelodeon pins hopes on 'Avatar'

People who want an early read on what could emerge as the next big entertainment business trend should keep an eye on what their kids do Friday night at 8:30 ET.

Viacom's via betting that millions will check out the third-season premiere of Nickelodeon's quirky, anime-influenced series Avatar: The Last Airbender. It's the first fantasy action series targeted to boys at a network known for lighter fare such as SpongeBob Square Pants.

"If we do this right, it could become our Harry Potter," says Nickelodeon President Cyma Zarghami. "We have the opportunity to create a different kind of loyal audience that will follow Avatar here, there and everywhere."

Viacom's Paramount Pictures joined the effort this year: It signed M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) to write, produce and direct a trilogy of live-action films based on the TV series about Aang, a boy with extraordinary powers who must join his friends to save the world from the hostile Fire Nation.

The first film is due in 2009.

"Once we start the movie marketing, that's when we kick into high gear," Zarghami says. "We've already done some 'making-of' and interviews with Night that we're putting on the home video releases (for the TV show). We're laying the foundation for what's coming."

The company sees Avatar as a way to appeal to young people's growing interest in fantasy. That's already manifested on the Internet, where fans devote hours to discussions about the show.

"The success of shows is the emotional connection that viewers have with the property, and it's a new world — this is one way people make an emotional connection," says Marjorie Cohn, who oversees development and original programming for Nickelodeon.

Executives also like its old-fashioned ratings: an average of 2.9 million people last year, up 21% from season one. The finale's 4.4 million in December made it the top-rated show for the hour on basic cable.

Meanwhile, lots of fans snap up merchandise, including video games, trading cards, toys and DVDs. Nickelodeon expects consumers to spend about $121 million this year on the franchise, rising to $254 million in 2009.

That doesn't include TV ads: Nickelodeon can't break revenue out by show, because sponsors generally pay to reach a target audience across several programs.

Video game maker THQ thqi sold more than a million copies last year of its first release, Avatar: The Last Airbender. That made it the year's fifth-best-selling kids game licensed from entertainment properties. THQ plans to boost by 25% its ad budget for the second release, Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Burning Earth, due Oct. 16.

"This is a franchise on the rise," says Scott Klein, senior global brand manager. "We'd love to be putting out games all the way through the feature film release."

Now, the network is developing branded rides at Paramount and Universal theme parks and a roller coaster ride at Minneapolis' Mall of America, which will have the first Nickelodeon theme park next year.

"The movies will kick the business into high gear," Zarghami says. "That will send people back to the network for more in the animated series. The movies will be released on home video and go into another movie. And hopefully, when I'm replaced 10 years from now, somebody will be making Avatar 10."

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