Friday, January 20, 2023

East Meets West on Nickelodeon International’s Content Strategy

Paramount's Chris Rose and Viacom18’s Anu Sikka discuss how their new series The Twisted Timeline of Sammy & Raj was designed with representation and relatability in mind.

Nickelodeon International and India’s Viacom18 are honing the fine art of cross-cultural appeal in kids TV with their new series, The Twisted Timeline of Sammy & Raj

This 40 x 11-minute show centers around two young Indian-American cousins (and best friends⁠) living in the US with their families. The story is driven by their discovery of a time travel app that gives them the ability to pause, rewind and hit fast-forward on reality. This narrative device serves a special purpose, says Chris Rose, VP of international production and development for Paramount’s Global Kids & Family Group. “When you add in the opportunity to tinker with time, you have a fun premise that is easily accessible globally,” Rose tells Kidscreen.

Sammy & Raj kicked off its international rollout with a debut in the UK last week, and the series is set to touch down in other international territories (including Italy, Brazil and Germany) in February and March.

The project also provided the creative team a playground for exploring differences between Eastern and Western sensibilities, says Rose. And by blending them together, the studio was able to make a show that has strong potential to work internationally. 

Narratives in India are more often driven by human and adult characters, compared to the prevalence of animal and kid protagonists in Western content, Rose adds. Slapstick is also more popular in the East, versus a more dialogue-driven humor in the West—both approaches were mixed together on Sammy & Raj to create a laugh track with global appeal.

“Identifying a project that ticks all of these boxes on both sides was something we hadn’t been able to do before,” Rose says.

When Viacom18 first pitched the concept in 2019, Rose recalls the Nickelodeon team immediately seeing the potential in a series that mixed Indian heritage (which global audiences haven’t seen much of before), with technology (which kids are very familiar with). It was greenlit that same year and sent into production in 2020. 

The animation work was done in India, but voice actors recorded their lines in the US. Writers from both countries—and the UK—were recruited for the project. And Nickelodeon also hired Indian filmmaker Sriram Rajan to serve as a cultural consultant and ensure the accuracy of traditions and dynamics portrayed in the series.

This was key because one of the show’s central components is inspired by Indian culture. Sammy & Raj focuses on the experience of growing up in an extended family with parents/relatives who are first-generation immigrants. Though the multi-generational household is not exclusive to Indians, it’s considered “a driving force in Indian culture,” says Anu Sikka, head of creative, content and research at Viacom18’s kids TV network.

“The idea was to give audiences a taste of Indian culture, by showcasing festivals like Diwali and Holi, and also sprinkling in common Indian values like joint families,” she says. “Maintaining the right balance between showcasing uniquely Indian aesthetics and values to an international audience of kids and families, while capturing universal storylines that appeal to all audiences, was the biggest challenge [on this series.]”

Sikka is bullish on the potential of India’s growing animation industry, which has recently caught the eye of the government as an opportunity for cultural industry growth. In December 2022, India’s AVGC (Animation, Visual Effects, Gaming and Comic) task force outlined its recommendations for a “Create In India” campaign to encourage more tax incentives and co-production in the sector.

Sammy & Raj marks the first time Paramount’s Global Kids & Family Group and Viacom18 have partnered on a series, and it’s the first-ever co-production for Viacom18. “It [also] marks the first international Nickelodeon series centered around Indian-American protagonists,” notes Jules Borkent, managing director and EVP of the Kids & Family International division at Paramount Global. “The series explores universal themes of family, friendship, growing up and teamwork that we believe will entertain kids across all of Nickelodeon’s international territories.”

For her part, Sikka thinks that Sammy & Raj, with its combination of incentives, talent and successful teamwork, could be the first of many such collaborations. “The appetite for such co-productions will increase amongst both broadcasters and studios,” she predicts.

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Originally published: January 20, 2022.

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