DEC. 21, 2023
By Nicole Bitette
Ashley Kaplan has figured out how to make football fun for kids. Spoiler alert: It’s Slime.
Kaplan, EVP of Unscripted and Digital Franchise Studios for Nickelodeon, joined the brand in 2019 as the SVP of Digital Studios. She started with digital video, then oversaw unscripted content for the brand. She now leads the charge for Nickelodeon’s Nick-ified NFL games, in collaboration with CBS Sports and the NFL.
There are two upcoming big moments for Kaplan and Nick’s telecasts of the NFL: The Nickmas game on Dec. 25 at 1 p.m. ET and the first-ever alternate telecast of a Super Bowl on Feb. 11, 2024. Paramount’s multiplatform coverage of the Super Bowl LVIII will feature CBS Sports’ presentation on the CBS Television Network, Paramount+ and NFL+, in addition to the Nick-ified telecast exclusively on Nickelodeon.
“We've figured out a way to bring the Nickelodeon vibe of messiness and silliness and our characters to football without changing the game,” says Kaplan. “For the last three years, we've brought our characters to the NFL world. For the Super Bowl LVIII, we're going to bring football into our world.”
Kaplan spoke to the Paramount Newsroom recently about her reality TV and video background, how Nickelodeon and CBS Sports have partnered with the NFL to create Nick-ified games.
NB: How did the relationship come together with the NFL? What were some of the struggles and highlights?
Ashley Kaplan: We produced that Wild Card game in 2021 in partnership with Shawn Robbins and the team at CBS Sports, and it was a huge hit. The alternate telecast garnered more than 2M viewers, making it the most-watched program on Nick in nearly four years. Everyone was talking about the Slime cannons. The following year, the Wild Card game between the 49ers and Cowboys across CBS, Paramount+ and Nickelodeon was the most-watched NFL Wild Card game on any network in seven years. I mean, even traditional sports media was talking about the Nick game. From a Nick perspective, it was awesome. I think the NFL is incredibly forward-thinking when it comes to trying new things and making sure that they're always adapting to the environment. Out of that came the series, NFL Slimetime, and a commitment to do more alternate telecasts. Here we are three years later and we're Nick-ifying the Super Bowl, which is crazy.
NB: What has made Nickelodeon’s approach to the NFL successful?
AK: We've figured out a way to bring the Nickelodeon vibe of messiness and silliness and our characters to football without changing the game. Parents are not inclined to change the channel because it's still very much a football game, but it's more enjoyable for kids to watch. We do a lot to explain the game of football too, which I think is essential for our kid audience. I think there’s also a sense of innocence to the Nick-ified games, with our announcers breaking it down in real-time in a digestible way. Everyone likes Slime, too. That's really what has made our telecasts work. It threads the perfect needle between sports fans and kids.
The first NFL telecast generated more than 2B impressions on social media day-of, and Nickelodeon was the No. 1 trending topic in the U.S. on Twitter that afternoon. #NickWildCard and SpongeBob also trended in the Top 10 in the U.S. on Twitter. The telecast also brought home two Emmy awards: Outstanding Playoff Coverage and Outstanding Live Graphic Design.
NB: What are the challenges in bringing football to Nickelodeon?
AK: The challenge is always in how we make it feel cool and different without ruining the actual experience of watching a football game. I’m always asking ‘how can we improve upon what we've done? How can we do something different while maintaining the integrity of the football game?’
"We've figured out a way to bring the Nickelodeon vibe of messiness and silliness and our characters to football without changing the game.”"
NB: Tell me a little about the upcoming Nickmas game?
AK: The Christmas Day game between the Las Vegas Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs will bring more of the Nick treatment to kids and families. We have CBS Sports analyst and CBS Mornings host Nate Burleson announcing along with Noah Eagle in an AR booth. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Raphael (voiced by Brady Noon) and Donatello (voiced by Micah Abbey), will be making appearances throughout the game, adding their own fun spin, along with NFL Slimetime’s Dylan Schefter. We will have a halftime show that will feature a look at a new Nick series, Rock Paper Scissors. We’re really excited to show off our virtual production in the game and build up excitement for the first alternate telecast of the Super Bowl on Nick in February.
NB: What can fans expect from the upcoming Nickelodeon Super Bowl telecast?
AK: For the last three years, we've brought our characters to the world of football, and for the Super Bowl we're going to bring football down into our world. The alternate telecast of the Super Bowl on Nickelodeon will be broadcast from Bikini Bottom, but again, it's live action. The game is still going to have the actual football players, but everything around them will be this hybrid Roger Rabbit-esque animation mixed with live action. It's going to be super cool. We are developing new technology which has never been seen before. It is absolutely groundbreaking for live television.
NB: Tell me a little bit about your career background. What was your first professional role and how has it led to your current role?
AK: I started as an assistant for Doug Ross, the president of Evolution, a reality television production company. From there, I got promoted into development and started to develop unscripted television. It was right around the time they began to use the word “vlog.” It was the beginning of video on the internet, and I was very interested in that. That set the course for my career, which has always straddled a line between digital and traditional. After Evolution, I took a role at Current TV, which was a startup founded by former Vice President Al Gore.
I was working with different young people working with their content and putting it on TV as short-form, which led me to Logo at then-Viacom. Logo was great because it felt like a small startup inside of a much larger organization. I was a producer in the multiplatform team, shooting and editing videos.
NB: Can you talk about your day-to-day role at Nickelodeon and what you’re focused on in video and digital?
AK: During Covid, my team and I were given the opportunity to create a Town Hall piece of content. The people on this team can do a bit of everything: they can write a script, they can produce, they can shoot, they can edit. We're all sort of little Swiss army knives.
We might've been the first people in the entertainment business to put out a piece of content that was remotely produced. We turned it around in two weeks or something. It was crazy. We produced a couple new series in the middle of lockdown in 2020, including Group Chat and Unfiltered.
At that point, Brian [Robbins] made the decision that the team could also handle the unscripted television business as well, which also leaned into my experience in reality and unscripted.
NB: What’s the most challenging part of your job, and how do you approach it?
AK: If you aren't changing, especially in media entertainment, then you're dying. The hardest part of my job is trying to affect change here and getting people to accept it, hear it, listen to it, be open to it, and not be afraid of it.
NB: Can you say more about how you affect change?
AK: Having Brian [Robbins] as a boss is incredibly important in that I think he's very open to change. He's always open to doing things differently if it's a good idea. I've been lucky to have a bit of cover from above in that respect. I just try to be helpful to as many different people in departments as possible. That's always been something that I think about. I ask my team 'what do we do and how can our skills be applied? How can we support other parts of the business?’ For example, we work very closely with Pam Kaufman and her consumer products team. We know how important multiplatform content is to increase the visibility of our franchises and create more opportunities for fan expression.
NB: How would you describe your leadership style?
AK: I lead from behind. I like to set a long-term goal or vision and then make sure I have the right people in the positions and allow them to do what they do best. I've been micromanaged in my career and it’s something that can't scale. You're not effective at the highest levels and I don't want to limit myself. I take pride in the culture of my department, not just here, but everywhere I've been. I've had an incredibly low turnover rate everywhere I've been.
Q: What was your highlight of 2023 & what are you looking forward to in 2024?
AK: The highlight was definitely having a kid – there is nothing bigger. And I’m cheating here, but the Super Bowl is what I’m looking forward to the most.
Q: What are you currently obsessed with?
AK: With an infant, I’m obsessed with getting any ounce of sleep that I can.
Q: If you weren’t in this career/field, what would you do for a living and why?
AK: I’d probably cook. I always enjoyed it and did a lot of cooking when I was younger.
Q: Favorite Nick series?
AK: You Can’t Do That On Television, which really founded Slime, so I’ve come full circle.