No, Albie's not crazy
The former head of Nickelodeon chucks a dream job to find ways to entertain kids on the Internet.
(Fortune) -- Albie Hecht once had one of the best jobs in television. As president of Viacom's Nickelodeon, he launched hit kids shows like Dora The Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants. He went onto start the monolithic media company's edgier Spike TV channel.
Then Hecht stunned colleagues. He quit his job at Viacom (Charts) in 2005 and founded Worldwide Biggies, a seat-of-the-pants operation devoted to creating the next kids entertainment phenomenon - not on television, but the Internet. "I'm throwing away a great career," Hecht, 54, said half in jest. "A lot of people think I'm totally mad."
Not everybody worries about Hecht's sanity. In August, Worldwide Biggies raised $9 million in startup funding from an investing group led by NBC Universal (Charts, Fortune 500) and Platform Equity. Soon after, Hecht and his staff of 20 people opened a studio in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen that may offer a blueprint for what a production facility should be in the digital age.
Hecht hasn't entirely abandoned television yet. His company produces Nickelodeon's hit Naked Brothers series and the Spike Video Game Awards. But he is convinced that the future of kids and teen entertainment lies on their computer screens. "That's where audiences are discovering stuff now," he explained. "In ten years, we want to be known as the Warner Bros. of the Web."
Worldwide Biggies is up against some much bigger competitors - not the least of which is Nickelodeon, whose leaders would like nothing more than to dominate kids programming on the web as they have on television. But Hecht says his tiny company will prosper because it is more nimble and creative.
Consider, for instance, how Hecht rolled out one of Worldwide Biggies' most promising animated characters: Bigby, a elementary school student who lives to eat chicken parmigiana and save the planet from dragons and pirates only he can see but exist all the same. The CEO of Worldwide Biggies didn't do the traditional old-media screening at this summer's San Diego ComicCon, the nation's largest pop culture gathering. Instead, he sold Bigby figurines at the event with USB ports enabling buyers to preview one of the character's webisodes on their computers.
Hecht hopes to sell the webisodes to the kids entertainment divisions of Yahoo (Charts, Fortune 500) or AOL. His company is hard at work on a Bigby game. Worldwide Biggies is also trying to create multiple revenue streams with MoCap, a (slightly) more grown-up comedy series about the wacky doings of a motion capture actor whose movements are used in digitally animated movies. "We don't want to be a one-crop farmer," he said.
Hecht thinks that Worldwide Biggies is filling a void on the Internet. There's plenty of video content on the Net, but much of it is user-generated and not exactly Emmy-worthy. Hecht's company is producing webisodes that look like actual television shows. But he's doing it on a shoestring budget because Worldwide Biggies films or animates everything in house and his employees willingly play multiple roles.
Bryan Keith, for instance, refers to himself as "predator" because he produces, edits and directs webisodes. Karl Mim, vice president for production, provides the voice of Bigby. Kara Klenk answers phones as Hecht's assistant and was recently the voice of pop star Shakira, whom Bigby rescued from a fire-breathing dragon in a webisode. (Some things you just have to see for yourself...)
Hecht himself makes frequent cameos. "The more stuff like this we do in house, the more creative cabal we have going," he said.
Worldwide Biggies isn't betting it all on MoCap and Bigby. It's other projects include Worldwide Fido, which Hecht describes as "YouTube for dogs," and Star vs. Star, a destination where users compete to pick the most buzzed-about tabloid celebrities. It's a joint venture with TMZ.com (which, like Fortune.com and AOL, is owned by Time Warner (Charts, Fortune 500)).
He sits down at a computer and shows off Star vs. Star to a visitor. It won't win any awards for creativity. The site is crawling with pictures of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. There's something else very much in evidence, too. "Oh, those guys at TMZ. They're always putting ads on our site," Hecht joked.