Up from the trenches

Zarghami rose from the ranks to rule Nickelodeon Nation

Working in television so excited Cyma Zarghami that she fell asleep during her first day on the job. She was a newly hired clerk at Nickelodeon in 1985. Sitting on the windowsill, watching a worker plug titles and numbers into a Wang computer, Zarghami nodded off.

Today, she's steering the quintessential kids network through its fifth year as the top-rated cable network in total day. Nickelodeon will gross more advertising revenue this year than USA Network, yet spend about half as much on programming, according to Paul Kagan and Associates.

All this and slime, too.

At first glance, Zarghami is more Nickelodeon Nation than Viacom billion-dollar-business division. Her office on the 42nd floor of the Viacom building in Times Square is filled with furniture that doesn't match. The lavender walls are lined with animation cells from Rugrats, Wild Thornberries and Doug. Moreover, her contributions range from being a schedule gofer to sparking a Brady Bunch renaissance with a Nick at Nite marathon and introducing Nick's first original Saturday morning series, Spongebob Squarepants.

"She has programmed [Nickelodeon] to be the No. 1 network for kids and the No. 1 network for total day, under a huge competitive onslaught," says Tom Freston, chairman of MTV Networks and a Spongebob fan. "Disney, Cartoon, FOX Family, FOX Kids-those were all gaining huge distribution.and Cyma was still able to increase ratings. By that standard, she's the best programmer in the business."

Trained as a teacher at the University of Vermont in the early 1980s, Zarghami left one credit shy of a degree to spend the summer in Europe. (She recouped the credit and the degree when she was invited back to deliver the commencement address in May.) After Europe, she took a job at an obscure network targeting kids, of all things.

"When I first started, MTV was all the rage," she says. "People would ask where I worked, and I'd say I worked at a network owned by MTV so they'd think I was happening."

Zarghami cut her teeth tracking the daily schedule down to the second, a task that wasn't exactly her forte. She admits to being "Peter Principled" into long-term scheduling.

"There were about 20 people here back then," she recalls, "so if you wanted to start a department and you showed a little enthusiasm, you could."

Zarghami went from monthly scheduling to annual planning, then to programming and acquisitions, and finally to a job that combined all three. She hails from the days when Nick was commercial-free and perceived as the broccoli of kids' television: good for them, repulsive to them. She was there when Geraldine Laybourne, former Nick executive and now the founder of Oxygen, scrapped the broccoli and brought in slime, covering kids with goo in low-stakes game shows. Laybourne, a mentor of Zarghami's, also recognized that kids wanted to see TV characters like themselves, not a bunch of perfect Stepford kids who made them feel inadequate.

Making sure Nick continues to reflect the real lives of real kids is Zarghami's raison d'etre. Nick, for example, is the No. 1 network with Latino kids. She just added three Latino-led programs. There are characters who live with grandparents or with single parents. There are outcasts, and there is angst, but there are no heavy moral messages.

"We have a distinct position that none of our competitors can own," Zarghami says. "Cartoon is limited by their [all-animation] genre. Disney is rooted in mythology. FOX Family is just confused and handicapped by The 700 Club. The WB has only Pokémon, and you can live and die by a phenomenon." Besides, she adds, with a grin, "I know all the programmers at all those networks," seeing as how they're Nick alumni, "and I know what they know."

Zarghami has no plans to become a former Nick executive, even though her only remaining move is to become president, a job currently, happily filled by Herb Scannell.

"I can wait," she says.